To the Researchmobile! : Identity theft

So, here I was, planning to do another installment in the Personal Libraries series. And then last Friday happened.

To be precise, I got a call from our head of HR, saying she’d gotten an unemployment request from me, and thought I should know about that. Someone had gotten hold of my social security number and name and used it to file a fraudulent claim.

So, for today’s post, here’s a guide to what I did to check that I was doing all the necessary things.

Quick! Research Needed! (gold exclamation point on a dark background)

Background is useful

One thing that makes for really excellent research is having something of a background in the topic.

Obviously, we’re not going to be experts in all the things, all the time – no one can do that. But we can help ourselves out by taking in a steady stream of information that makes it easy to get ourselves up to speed on specifics quickly if we have to.

For me, this means reading or skimming a couple of general purpose sources of news and information. I subscribe to online editions of two newspapers and support one of my local NPR stations (and they send a summary of current major stories daily), plus I read several general purpose sites that cover a wide range of topics (Metafilter, in my case), plus a couple of general financial and lifehack sites.

I specifically wasn’t trying to build expert knowledge in what to do if I got hit with identity theft (because the specifics on what to do change periodically, as services and government resources change), but all of this meant I was well aware it happens sometimes, that it’s not always easy to figure out where the breech happened, and that there are in fact steps in what to do about it.

That meant that when I got that call from HR, I didn’t have a tidy list of what to do. But I knew they were out there, that ‘identity theft’ was the term I wanted to work with, and that I’d just need a little time to do those searches and check my information.

Oh, and a bit of background:

If you’re outside the US and trying to figure out what this means: in the United States, the social security number is the closest thing we have to a personal identification number.

It’s technically only supposed to be asked for in a limited number of situations (like taxes, or some kinds of financial accounts) but it’s often asked for in a bunch of other places – everything from college applications to rental applications to medical records.

This makes it rather easy to abuse, unfortunately.

(For those curious about the history of the number designations, here’s a page from the Social Security Administration.)

Habits are also useful

Fortunately, I already have a routine for keeping an eye on financial accounts (more on that in a few steps).

So I knew right where everything was for the different accounts, and could check quickly to see that there were no unexpected charges, and that no one had opened up accounts in my name recently.

First steps

The first step here is to take a deep breath. Panicking isn’t going to make this go better, and it won’t solve the problem (no matter how tempting it is.)

I was at work when I got that call. I did a little quick searching that made it clear that yes, I was going to want to make half a dozen phone calls, and a couple of them probably needed to be during business hours, which helped.

I’d been out sick for two days on Wednesday and Thursday, and had already been considering going home early, so I arranged to do that (because making the calls from home would be a lot easier.) Fortunately, I’d already done the things that I really needed to be in the office to do.

The drive home was fast (no traffic!) but it gave me about fifteen minutes to process through things and sort out what I wanted to do in my head, so it would be easier to take steps in a useful order when I got home.

Initial searches

I started by doing a search on “identity theft social security number” because that was the thing I knew had been compromised – and it’s a slightly different kind of issue than someone who potentially has your credit card info.

I browsed through the results, looking for highly reliable sources – for example, there’s this PDF guide direct from the Social Security Administration. I also found less official guides like this one, that still had a useful set of tasks and suggestions.

I focused on recent pages, written in the last year, since advice changes as people try new scams, and technology has new options. I also looked at my state attorney general’s site for information.

(If you search in Google, you can use the “Tools” option and select “Past year” instead of “Any time” in the option that will pop up below the main search tabs.)

I didn’t take the advice from any one source (even the Social Security folks!) Instead, I looked at about 20 sources and combined them into a list of things to do. (That’s also why I’m not giving you a ton of links here: the best resources will change over time.)

Here comes the spreadsheet

You knew there was going to be one, right, if you’ve been reading this blog.

I set up a spreadsheet with multiple sheets in it.

The first sheet has conversations I’ve had or steps I’ve taken (like online reports). It has columns for date, time, who I talked to, what the general topic was, how (phone, online, etc.), and then notes for the conversation and any follow up I need to do or pay attention to.

The second sheet has links of things I still need to do.

The third sheet has specific contact information for people I may need to get in touch with again, so I don’t have to hunt up the numbers or web addresses.

What did I do?

1) Put a fraud alert on my credit account.

This is a 90-day alert, and if you call one of the three agencies in the United States, they will pass the alert on to the other two. The call was entirely automated and very straightforward for being an automated call.

I got a reference number and asked for my rights to come in the mail, rather than hearing them over the phone, so I’ll have a confirmation of what they are. It’s possible to extend these alerts or put a credit freeze on for longer, but it’s easier to do that once I have a completed police report.

2) Put in a police report with my local police department

This produces a temporary report (the instructions say very clearly not to use the confirmation number until they’ve followed up) but a police report opens up some additional options for later (and if there ever is a problem down the road, being able to demonstrate that I reported it is helpful.)

My police department has an online form that you fill in, or I could have called the non-emergency line. This was the second step because I wanted to be able to say I’d made the report to any later calls.

3) Called the Massachusetts Unemployment Fraud line.

I found them by looking at the Unemployment Office site. Since this is the place where the actual identity theft happened, it was high on the list. I spoke to a really pleasant man who was glad to confirm they’d already flagged it as a problem in their system, and that the address they had wasn’t the one I gave them.

The big issue is that if I ever do need to file for unemployment in Massachusetts, as long as that claim is on file, I’ll need to have additional identification and documentation. (This means that police report is important! But also things like a photocopy of my ID, and current mail to demonstrate my address, etc.)

4) My bank

I bank with a small local independent bank who have the best customer service (Thanks, Leader Bank!)

I got a real person right away, no phone tree, and he was great about checking and making notes in my file that if there are any inquiries about my account, to ask for an agreed on passcode, or call me for verification.

5) Credit cards

I didn’t put a freeze on my credit accounts just yet (it will take a little more paperwork and I want to have the police report to reference before I do).

I did turn on alerts on all of them to let me know if there are more than very minimal charges on any of them. I already check my accounts manually twice a week. (I will be bumping that to three times a week.)

6) Reporting to the FTC

Many of my sources (including the SSA) encouraged me to report it to the FTC’s Identity Theft site. They ask you a series of questions about what happened and advise what steps you should take. You can also get a confirmation number saying you filed a report with them, which helps demonstrate that you took action on the problem.

7) Social Security Administration

I was able to lock access to my account online but will need to do a more elaborate process to sort out some of it. Again, some of that will be much easier with the police report.

Things I need to do in the future

Once I have the police report, then I’ll do additional paperwork for a credit freeze and to clear up documentation with the social security offices.

It’ll be important to keep that documentation somewhere easy to access if I need it (i.e. all in one place) so that if I do need it, I can grab it quickly. I’ve been a little unhappy with my current ‘important papers’ filing for a while, so this is a good time to rework that system into something a bit easier to use.

I live by myself, so one of the things I’m thinking about here is if something happens where friends need to help me with filing for disability or other benefits, what I need to document now to make that easier. My ideal is to be able to identify a folder that has a summary of everything.

Along the way, I also read a bunch of advice – for example, I may get scam calls with threats if I don’t make payments, pretending to be from the IRS, etc. The sites I looked at had advice on ignoring those and explained how the IRS actually contacts you.

I’ll also just need to keep an eye out for weird stuff, in case something else crops up. Some of the things I found suggest people try the unemployment scam first and then move on to other things if it works. On the other hand, this might not be the only person who has my information, depending on how they got it, so it could be an issue for credit, leases, etc.

Looking ahead to research : part 2

One of the complicated things about research is that you never quite know how long something is going to take you.

Oh, it’s possible to group projects into ‘probably short’ and ‘very long’, and some spaces in between. But ‘probably short’ can range from 3 minutes to a couple of hours (depending on how many Internet rabbitholes one falls down) and ‘very long’ can be 10 hours or 10 years.

Which makes planning rather tricky.

So, let’s look at some things that affect how long research might take, and then some ways to help plan. Many of them are not only individual to you as a person, but may be specific to particular projects. Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution, here!

Looking ahead to research : seekknowledgefindwisdom.com

Things to think about

Speed of access

One big factor is obviously how quickly you can access what you’re looking for. For example, reading faster obviously helps with some kinds of research, but it’s not a skill everyone has.

Some people have lives that allow them to spend regular time on research – this can save time over a long project because you spend less time remembering where you were, or what you were focusing on.

Others have jobs or commutes that let them get through a fair chunk of new information through podcasts or audiobooks, even if they have to spend some focused time on things they can’t listen to at other points.

And of course, some of this may be about other access needs. If you have a slow internet connection, or limited time to be online, some things are going to move a lot more slowly than someone who has a speedy connection or more time.

Getting materials

If you happen to be at an academic institution, you likely have very quick access to a wide range of databases and to interlibrary loan resources that can get you many articles or books very promptly (in many cases, articles will come within 24 hours, and books within a week or so). That’s true in most places even if your job doesn’t have anything to do with research.

For the many of us not there, there may still be options. You may have regional or state services that provide some of the same options. For example, if you live, work, go to school, or own property in Massachusetts, you can likely get access to the electronic resources from the Boston Public Library.

(Some states and regions and places fund their library services – especially on larger geographic levels – better than others. Sorry, I don’t run the world, or I’d make that possible a lot more places. But in a lot of place, you have to dig a little to find out about these options, and I encourage you to ask and dig a little when you get time.)

Some of these options take more time and planning than others. Electronic resources like journals are usually available when you’d like, but ebooks may be limited to one user at a time. Interlibrary loan books usually have fixed loan periods, and you need to send them back promptly.

It can take some practice to figure out how to time when an interlibrary loan arrives with having enough time from other parts of your life to work with the materials before they have to go back.

And of course, you may want to own materials, but need time to get the money in your budget to buy them, or need to wait for a copy of an older text to show up at a vaguely affordable price.

Grouping similar tasks

Some kinds of research tasks go faster if we do them all at once. For example, if you’re looking at the history of words as part of research on a topic, looking them all up at once in a really good dictionary is going to be faster than doing one, going away, doing something else, and then coming back and having to open up the dictionary (whether that’s physically or electronically), and do more searches.

Similarly, you can

What tools can be helpful? (Todo list that lets you tag by amount of time something will take or whether it can be done while you’re doing other things.)

Special situations

Not every research question has a simple solution. Sometimes you need a source that is only available a few places (or is in something like an archives or historical society collection.) Sometimes materials will be in languages you don’t read, or not available where you live.

These can be so frustrating – most people can’t go off to every corner just to read a book or find a source. And we certainly can’t be learning every language we might be curious about.

There are some solutions out there. For example, finding people who know or can access the thing you need. This can include hiring an independent researcher to go look at an item local to them, getting help from people working on similar topics, or finding people who read the language you need and figuring out a suitable arrangement for a translation or notes.

This is the hardest – and least predictable – category to solve, but fortunately, as long as you’re making some progress with your research in other ways, you can get traction here. Every time you talk about an ongoing project, you have a chance to connect with people who can help you further (or who know someone who can help.)

Tools to help

So how do you keep all of this manageable? A really good project management system and notes are a great start. One of the most frustrating parts of research projects is when you know you saw a post, or an online article, or a mention of a book, and if you could just remember what it was, it had something you needed. But now you can’t.

This is a place where tools help. Start by writing down your actual questions. For long-term projects, your questions may be fairly vague at first. If so, focus on what you know about what you want to do with the information when you find it. That will help you plan your time better.

More on that in part three, so you can see a couple of examples, but start with whatever you know right now.

  • Do you have a specific thing you’re trying to answer?
  • What do you want to do with the information when you’ve got it? (Use it somehow? Share it with others? Whatever you know is helpful.)
  • What do you already know about the subject?
  • Do you see any particular limitations you want to start thinking about early? (Needing specific materials, or languages, or sources?)

Then, as you begin to gather information, keep track of it, so that you can look at what you have and what you would like to have in one place. There are tons of different possible systems about this (and I’ll be talking about the details next post and in future posts.)

Next part: Breaking down large projects and getting a grip on how long they might take.

Jenett’s quick guide to evaluating information

I got nudged by a friend to do a ramble about information evaluation. It might have gotten a little away from me.

Basic principles:

  • We all have biases and things we know more about than others.
  • Some people are more up front about this than other people.
  • Ditto goals. We all have them, some people are more up front about them.
  • Be really suspicious of the people who claim they have the absolute truth and are telling you for your own good.

(They probably don’t and they probably aren’t. Especially if you don’t have a preexisting trusting relationship. Real world stuff has fewer absolutes, for one thing.)

Information: A quick guide to information evaluation (image of a fountain pen and blank lined notebook)

Who is this person (or What is this source?)

Start with the basics. Who’s telling you this thing? What’s their background? If it’s a website without an individual author, what do you know about the site?

You may need to file this in “Need to do some more research” but knowing you need to do that is a great first step. First thing: check out the ‘about’ page, or a bio. Usually this will give you some hints on what they’re about and what they care about most.

If you’re not sure where to start with that, try searching the person’s name (plus maybe a term from the topics they write about, if you need to narrow it down) or search on the name of the site. Sometimes adding in words like ‘review’ or ‘about’ will help.

Even just knowing what kind of source this is can help. Personal website? Newspaper that’s actually well-known and reasonably respected (even if you don’t agree with them)? Pocket of internet culture you weren’t previously aware of? Political group hidden behind astroturfing techniques?

I sort things into “Probably reasonably competent”, “Dubious” and “Need more information”, personally.

Probably reasonably competent sources are those I’ve checked out before, and came up reasonably well sourced. I still need to check the specifics here, but they get some starting benefit of the doubt. Dubious sources are those that have come up short before. Everything else gets filed in ‘need more info’.

What are their goals?

Education? Information? Sell something? Share something gorgeous or fun or amusing? Are they trying to persuade you of something?

What do they get out of you believing them and taking them (or their information) seriously? Are they being up front and honest about that?

Here’s an example: sales sites are not the most fun thing ever, but there is something refreshingly honest about “Buy this thing from me and here’s why.” It’s clear what the people want, and usually pretty clear what’s involved in getting it.

On the other hand, a lot of sources in the political realm are trying to persuade you of things, but it’s not always clear what they’re trying to persuade you of. (Or whether they’re not trying to persuade you at all, but are instead signalling to their core base what they care about.)

This is often where you see a lot of vagaries and unsourced information that plays on emotions rather than treating you like the intelligent, thoughtful, considerate person I want to think you are.

Where did they get their information?

This is where we get to the meat of things. People who are saying trustworthy things should give you a way to check, or more information about how they know that.

When we’re talking to a friend, we put what they tell us in the context of all the other things we know about them. They’re reliable as anything with a ride when it’s important, lousy at getting stuff to the post office.

They have a lot of specific experience in dealing with Mercutian rabbits, and the last fifty things they told you about those rabbits turned out to be right, but they’re not nearly so reliable about Venusian wombats. And they’re normally great about Saturnian leopards, but there’s this one weird quirk, don’t trust their grooming recommendations.

When we’re reading a random website, we don’t have that. We can’t put some of what they’re saying in context without more information.

That’s why their sources matter. Do they tell us where they’re getting their info? If it’s unnamed experts and sources, be dubious. (Though there’s a link below with some more about how to evaluate this with more nuance.)

If they claim specific expertise, can you verify that or does it seem in line with what someone with that expertise would say? (If someone claims to be a lawyer or doctor or librarian and says stuff that is way outside what you’d expect, be dubious without more specifics. Maybe a lot more.)

When is this information from? Is this a topic where currency matters a lot? Some topics change fast, some don’t. Sometimes the info that debunks a current thing has been around for a while (so older info may still be helpful in sorting this out.)

What kind of source is this, and is the information presented in a way consistent with quality information in that kind of source? Reputable newspapers don’t generally go in for explicit personal insults or completely unverified sources. (Unless they’re quoting someone who used one.) Less reputable current events sources might.

Expect better of where you go to learn things. If they’re not giving you meaningful information, go to sources that that will. You can do better than speculation and gossip.

Other key tips

Beware of absolutes, especially in complex situations.

There just aren’t that many absolutes in the world. This is especially true when looking at expert statements: few experts will give 100% certainty. If they do, they will likely also be explaining why. Look for that explanation.

If a media source says something absolute, check into what the experts actually said, and what information they looked at to get there. Chances are pretty good the expert was not nearly so absolute about things.

Be dubious of things that are too good to be true, too weird, or too perfect.

Again, the world just isn’t like that very often. The more we realise that we live in a world that has a lot of shades of colour and nuance and different experiences in it, the sooner we’re going to get better at evaluating information effectively and using it well.

Is this a situation where there are strong emotions?

Sourcing is often not the top priority in these cases. Which is understandable, but just because someone’s having emotions all over the place doesn’t mean you have to use everything they tell you as the basis of your decisions.

Emotions don’t mean someone’s wrong, mind you.

It is, for example, pretty reasonable for someone to be emotional about a topic that has a major impact on their daily life, health, safety, family, or religion, if other people are treating it as a purely intellectual discussion. But a story that’s playing on your emotions to make you feel upset or riled up or righteously victorious, you should be suspicious of that.

If emotions are in play, and you’re not in the middle of the discussion, it’s usually better to pause and take a moment to look at what’s being said.

Who has real experience with this thing? Who doesn’t? How does what people are saying match up with other kinds of information you can find or your experience of people or situations? Who has what at stake? Is this a real person who has specific experiences, or is it a made up storm of emotion that’s trying to get you to react a certain way?

Some additional resources:

Here are a few additional links worth reading

This is only a beginning – there are lots of nuanced issues involved in how we find and evaluate information I haven’t even touched on here (like who decides what gets researched that you can refer to later.)

What I do: taking things in (text, sound, video)

Round about now, it might be useful to note how I take in information, and what I do with it.

I’m laying this out not because I think anyone else should do things the way I do, but because doing so gives a way to talk about some other possible approaches and issues, and figuring out what choices might work for you.

You should know about me…

I have – for reasons related to the chronic health issues – a pretty set routine about my life. This means my day to day is pretty consistent (and that I try to keep it like that.)

I read very fast compared to most people, but find watching videos for active content very tiring (and I also have a very limited amount of time that’s something I can reasonably do.) Audio’s somewhere in the middle: I can only do some things while listening to podcasts, but they include driving and time at work.

(I’m also laying this out because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about different kinds of media and how I use them, for an upcoming post, and explaining it here will make it easier to reference when I get there…)

Where I get things

Reading online

My core online reading includes my Dreamwidth reading list, and The Cauldron (the online pagan forum I’ve been on for approaching two decades in some form, and am currently staff.)

The former takes me about 10-15 minutes to read several times a day, unless someone’s made an extra long thinky post, the latter runs between about 20 minutes a day and an hour or more, depending on what replies I make.

I have a large number of blogs in my Feedly rss reader, and they produce about 120-200 posts a day. A number of these are from very busy sites (Metafilter and Ask.Metafilter) where I read only the ones I find intriguing from the opening, and it also includes a handful of Tumblr blogs where the posts tend to be short.

On an average day, I probably read 30-50 actual posts, and skim a lot of others.

I find Metafilter and Longform.org both fabulous for finding longer in-depth reading material that gets me looking at things from a different perspective, or getting me to read about something I might not have selected.

I dip into Twitter, though I have lists set up so I can keep up with a few close friends on there, and skim other things as I have time.

Finally, on the news front, I have digital subscriptions to two papers and one of my local NPR stations. They all send me at least daily updates on new stories, and I click through the ones that interest me. (Plus various other newsletters, information from organisations I donate to monthly, and the other stuff that happens in email.)

ebooks

I have a long To Be Read pile, read some amount of fanfiction on a regular basis (some of which can be quite long). These days, most of my reading is in electronic form (three long distance moves will convince even the most ardent adorer of books that moving the physical objects is a pain in the neck. And the arms and the back.)

So I mostly only buy print of titles I might want to lend out or reference with people in future (Pagan titles, mostly, or things where the print layout really matters) and everything else is digital. Conveniently, this also means I can walk around with 600+ books in my pocket, and never have to have the “Might I run out of book while out today? I’d better bring another one” mental discussion with myself, like I do with print.

My ebooks go into Marvin, an app that has a very functional list feature. I move items into “to be read” lists by broad genre (fiction, non-fiction, and Pagan) so I can skim different things, and then have a “read next” list for things I want to read sooner than later, a “read” list for things I’ve read, and so on.

I read about 10 books a month, give or take, though I’ve had months where it’s only about 4, and months with 15 or more (especially if I’m travelling.) In months where I’m short on brain, it’s a lot of reading things I already know something about, or rereading old favourites.

I’ve read for at least 10 minutes (and usually more like 30) every night of my life I could read, except for a handful of times. Since I do most of my reading on my phone these days, I also do a lot of bits of reading at other times (waiting for my work computer to boot in the morning, while things are processing, etc.)

Listening

I got the podcast bug fairly hard within the last year or so. I actually have three different kinds of podcast listening I do.

Swimming :
I swim three days a week before work, and I have a waterproof MP3 player and headphones. I put them in when I get ready to swim, and turn it off after I’ve showered and changed and gotten back to my car, which is right around an hour total. Keeps me from getting bored. I mostly go for longer ones here, and usually with multiple hosts, because I find that easier to follow early in the morning.

Work :
Some of my work tasks involve routine sorting of information that gets a little tedious, so I listen to podcasts while I’m doing that.

Since I work in a school (not directly with students, but with a range of people nearby at times), I want to be attentive to content, so I avoid some topics and podcasts. I mostly aim for history podcasts about topics I know something about (but not tons) which works out well for me.

Driving:
My commute is about 25-40 minutes (depending on traffic) and I listen to podcasts there. This is when I’ll listen to other content (there’s a couple of spooky or true crime ones that I won’t listen to at work, or Pagan/esoteric topics, and I avoid explicit political discussion there too.)

Watching

A lot of my video watching is material I am already familiar with – it’s what I have on while I’m home after work (or on the weekends) doing other things online.

Right now, I’m watching Classic Doctor Who from the beginning (BritBox made all the surviving episodes available streaming last year: I’ve seen them all at one point or another, but in many cases, not for decades.)

I usually get through 1-2 hours in a given night, but if I need to really focus on content, then the video is the only thing I’m doing, and time for that is a lot harder to come by.

What that looks like in a day

On the average workday, I get up, read my core online spaces, get dressed, get my things together, and drive to work, while listening to about 30 minutes of a podcast. (Some days I go swimming, first, and listen to about an hour of podcasts while swimming. Either way, I’m out the door within 30 minutes of getting up.)

I go to work. Sometimes I can’t listen to anything (because there are other people – volunteers, interns, visiting researchers – working in my office.) Sometimes I listen to music. Sometimes it’s podcasts. It probably comes out to 3-5 hours of podcasts a week.

During this time, I’ll take breaks while I’m waiting for things to run, check in with the core online spaces, read blog posts, and so on.

I drive home (another 30 minutes of a podcast), get home around 5 and do things like make dinner, be sat on by the cat, eat dinner, and other necessities.

From here, on a good day, I’ve got about 3 hours of time I could do something with (including making and eating dinner) before my concentration goes away. On a bad day, I’ve already run out of focus. That’s due to multiple chronic health issues that can play havoc with concentration, focus, and ability to process new stuff at all efficiently.

This is my time for writing (hi!), reading more blog posts, knitting, making images for the blog, some kinds of other project work, and basically any other small hobby things.

This is also the only slot where I can actually watch video. So for me, video has to be really extra important for me to make the time for it. Written material (blog posts, books) or podcasts, I’ve got multiple places I can do them, and they take me a lot less processing energy.

It’s often a question of “Watch this video thing attentively or write a blog post?” or “Watch this video attentively or help out a friend with a question” or “Watch this video attentively or do this project” Most of the time, the video loses.

About 9pm, I start wrapping up, do one more pass through my core online spaces, and I try to be lying down in bed by 10. I read for 15-30 minutes (This is my one solid book-type reading time, though I read in small chunks at other times during the day. I read about 10 books a month, to give you an idea of my text to audio processing ratio.) Then I fall asleep.

How does that add up?

In total, my average weekday involves:

  • 1-3 hours of audio material
  • 30-60 minutes of reading a book
  • 1-2 hours of background video time
  • A hard to count amount of time in text-based online spaces (reading, commenting, etc.) but probably 3-4 hours most days.
  • Little focused video time (an hour once or twice a week at most, usually)

My weekend time is obviously a bit more flexible – there’s no going to work in there! – but it’s also when I work on larger projects at home, or just relax.

I’m curious

Where do you get your information, and what forms work for you?

I share some of the reading I’ve found particularly interesting in my fortnightly newsletter (and a new one will be out on Wednesday) so if that’s a thing you’re intrigued by, you can sign up over here.