I just returned from a business trip to Puerto Rico, where the government took precautions and declared a state of emergency to prepare for tropical storm Emily.
Though Emily brushed past the island, weather forecasters are watching to see if it will pose a significant threat to Florida.
Government officials and relief agencies aren’t waiting for a news bulletin to prepare for the worst—even if Emily fades and it’s only an exercise in caution.
Meteorologists expect this to be an above-average hurricane season, according to a report from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
The tornadoes that pummeled the South and Midwest earlier this year taught everyone a hard lesson on the need for pre-disaster records-retention planning.
This spring’s twisters blew personal items—including birth certificates, checkbooks and mail—up to 100 miles away from victims’ homes, according to media reports. With all that personal identifiable information strewn about, it was easy pickings for identity thieves. A few days after the Alabama tornadoes struck, state Attorney General Luther Strange advised storm victims to protect their identities by checking their credit reports regularly and securing their mail.
But the best practice for protecting your identity after a calamitous storm isn’t how you react afterward, but what you do before the skies darken.
The question everyone should ask themselves is: In this age of electronic data storage, why store any paper records at home?
For example, people typically store paper tax records, which are treasure troves for identity thieves. With your tax records in their hands, your identity and the identities of your spouse and children are in peril. Why create that risk when your tax accountant likely retains an electronic version of those records?
Other important records, including bank and credit card statements and insurance policies, probably are available online, too.
If you need to store some paper documents, keep them somewhere more secure than a desk drawer or file cabinet. Use a lockbox, a safe or—the most secure option—a bank safety deposit box.
Of course, even records stored electronically have to be safeguarded. So encrypt computer files and emails containing personal information.
Similarly, protect smartphones as you would a computer by using strong passwords and keeping current with security updates.
Meanwhile, if a storm has scattered your paper records, be on guard for identity thieves posing as representatives of your bank or credit card company. Don’t divulge any information about those accounts to anyone who contacts you about them. No legitimate financial institution representative would ask you for your password.
We prepare for disasters by keeping canned food, bottled water and flashlights on hand. These days, we need to add a better records-retention plan to that supply list.
Matt Cullina, Chief Executive Officer, Identity Theft 911
Matt has 15 years of insurance industry management, claims and product development experience. He spearheaded MetLife Auto & Home Insurance Co.’s personal product development initiatives, managed complex claims litigation and served as a corporate witness for Travelers Insurance and the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co.
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