Sunday, April 11, 2010

Better safe than sorry in the times of the Internet. (Or, how vulnerable r u, m8?)

Read very, very carefully the scary ─ I say scary because it has an eerie “it could happen to you and me” feel ─ Chapter 8 (pages 51 to 58) of David Baldacci’s Hour Game (Pan Books, London, 2005), America. Especially if you want to learn how easily and effortlessly a criminal can steal your personal details. In the course of these eight pages, a hooded killer in a “virtually untraceable” blue VW ─ who happens to be the real-life Zodiac killer copy cat ─ is able to acquire, within a highly productive twenty-minute span, the following information on three potential victims he spots in the shopping district.

1. He sees an old couple tottering out of a super market and notes the license plate number of their relatively new Mercedes station wagon. (After an Internet search, he would have their home address.) He already knows from the condition of the car and the logo of a country club on the man’s cap that they are not living off mere Social Security. The fact of them doing their own grocery shopping tells him they have no live-in help or grown children living nearby.

2. Next he notices an attractive thirty-something woman stepping out of a pharmacy carrying a large shopping bag. She withdraws cash at the nearby ATM and thoughtlessly throws away into the trash bin the receipt which he later retrieves. From this veritable treasury of personal information, he knows right off her name (D. Hinson) and would later get her home address from the phone book and her workplace details from the business listings. From the vanity license plate on her bright red Chrysler Sebring convertible (‘DEH JD’; JD = Juris Doctor, i.e., Doctorate of Jurisprudence), the current-year American Bar Association bumper sticker, the absence of a wedding ring, her healthy tan and a gold anklet on her left leg, he deduces she is a still-single, well-heeled practicing lawyer probably just back from a vacation.

3. Finally, there is the scatter-brained careless soccer mom her T-shirt bellows her status to the whole world!) of three kids (the baby strapped and totally unguarded in the back seat plus plenty of telltale clues about the other two strewn in the messy interior of the van). While doing her shopping, she has left her car unlocked, her keys in the ignition (he takes a putty imprint of what look like her house keys) as well as her cell phone in the holder (he takes shots of all the pages of her phone book with his mini digicam). By then, he knows enough about Jean and Harold Robinson and the names and phone numbers of those who matter to them. He also has in his possession the impression of her house keys.

So where do we go from here? Here are some simple safety precautions suggested by common sense. In the 21st century, the “If you got it, flaunt it” advice from good old Salvador Dali dispensed in a 1967 TV ad for Braniff Airlines has become as extinct as the airlines itself. (Braniff went kaput in 1982, remember?) And, totally unacceptable as well. There’s a time and place for everything one does. Wear your country club hat when you’re going there, not when you’re buying your groceries. Vanity license plates may be good for your vanity but not necessarily for your health and safety. Do not ─ repeat NOT ─ throw away your ATM receipts. There’s no such thing as being too careful with your car keys, your house keys, your cell phone and your baby when you go shopping. Be very caution of what you post on Facebook, Twitter and the like, too. Please, please do not tempt fate. Mack the Knife may be sneaking round the corner.