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Elliott Greenblott: Take steps to reduce the risks posed by tracking and hacking

Woman with cellphone

Your cellphone may be a tracking device. Criminals with the right software can read signals from your phone and identify your home network, ultimately locating you.

Tracking and hacking! Two powerful methods employed by criminals to make your life miserable.

Tracking uses technology to stalk and harass victims. The technology employs locational tools that follow your movements and can leave your home vulnerable to break-ins.

Tracking may involve hardware that uses radio signals, or software on devices, that can pinpoint your location from Wi-Fi signals on your cellphone and home router. The most popular tracking device is an Apple Air Tag, a small disc that emits a trackable signal.

It’s quite handy when you attach it to your set of keys and is unbeatable for tracking your suitcase when traveling. Given its small size, it can go unnoticeable when dropped in a pocket, purse, briefcase or attached to a car.

The upside is obvious if you habitually misplace things. But, when used by a stalker or criminal, it can track your every movement. When used to divulge your location, your unoccupied home can be set up for robbery in your absence. Air Tags also have been used to steal cars, track and abduct children, and conduct human trafficking.

Detection is easy with an Apple device: MacBook, iPad, or iPhone. Your device can lead you to the tag. For Android users there is a downloadable app but there is a catch. It does not send automatic alerts so you must run periodic scans.

Your cellphone may be a tracking device. Phones are generally set to connect to home Wi-Fi network routers. If not connected to your router, the phone will search for it and the router will search for the phone. Criminals with the right software can read signals from your phone and identify your home network, ultimately locating you.

Some protective steps: changing the router name at least annually, replacing it with a common name (state, county, sports team) and add “_NOMAP” to the name (e.g. Celtics#1_NOMAP) letting mapping software companies know you do not want to be tracked.

Hacking is a completely different matter. Hackers use computer skills to conduct cyberattacks on institutional, corporate or government databases. They steal, then use or sell your personal private information such as credit card information, Social Security number, birthdate, medical records, or general personal information.

Simply put, hacking occurs when someone is able to access a cyber device or network. Everyone has likely heard about the 2017 data breach that occurred at the credit bureau Equifax. A criminal was able to break into the company database containing records for 143 million Americans. In addition to these large-scale attacks, criminals manage to steal personal private information directly by accessing personal devices.

Stopping identity theft is impossible, but you can protect yourself from losses. Begin by contacting the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, to activate credit freezes. Freezes are free and make it nearly impossible for a criminal with your identity information to open accounts, obtain loans, or get credit cards in your name.

Second, obtain and review your free credit reports. All three reports can be ordered online from annualcreditreport.com or by calling 877-322-8228 This government-sponsored service does not try to sell you unwanted services. Be prepared to provide your Social Security number and respond to specific, personal questions about your credit history. Check the reports for errors and if any are discovered, request that they be corrected.

Here are a couple additional personal action tips:

• Register for and use mobile-based payment systems (Apple Pay, Google Pay). The mobile payment systems are safe and bypass the use of physical credit cards. Be sure to activate biometric signatures (retina scan or fingerprint).

• As recommended in the past, where possible set up multifactor authentication. Access to an account or website cannot happen without entering answers to security questions or a special passcode sent as a text message or email message.

Finally, you can find additional advice and assistance from the Federal Trade Commission at wwwftc.gov.

Protection from tracking and hacking takes some effort but the alternative can be a risk you do not want to take.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network. Questions, concerns? Contact egreenblott@aarp.org

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