As 31 December 2014 gives way into 1 January 2015

As 2014 slowly fades into the sunset and 2015 rises at dawn, I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! In Spanish, Feliz Navidad y Feliz Año Nuevo! In Slovenian, Vesel božič i Srečno novo leto! And in German, Frohe Weihnachten und Glückliches neues Jahr!

I hope everyone had a happy and safe Christmas and New Year.  Whether you went to First Night in downtown St. Petersburg and watched the fireworks as midnight rolled around or stayed at home and watched the ball drop in Times Square in New York City at the stroke of midnight, we will say goodbye to 2014 and hello to 2015.

Getting to some website notes, I finally got the Christmas lights page up for 2014 after all the website coding and testing prior to putting the pages and pictures live.  Now that I am using CoffeeCup HTML Editor as my web design software, it takes a lot of getting used to:  Making sure the HTML is correct to the letter and making sure all the references are in their right places.  But I think CoffeeCup HTML Editor is much more robust and it gives you more control over what you want to show out there on the web.

The good news?  I am going to leave the Christmas 2014 page up for a good part of 2015 so that everyone can come by and check it out.  In 2014 I feature not only two light displays in St. Petersburg but I also feature Christmas themed train excursions at four different railroad museums in two states!

Now on to 2015.

Today as I am writing this entry I came across an ABC Action News Taking Action For You article by Jackie Callaway which should have you concerned, especially in this day and age of data breaches involving Target and The Home Depot:  Retailers asking for and scanning your ID when you have to return an item.  That in itself is very scary and you should be concerned if you care about your privacy, especially in a retail environment.

As I wrote in a blog entry back in December 2011 here are some important pointers on what you need to do when it comes to retail returns:

1.   Save your receipts!  This will eliminate plenty of inconvenience when you go to exchange or return an item. If you do not have your original receipt with you, more than likely you will be offered store credit so that you can purchase another item.  Check your store’s return policy; it can be found online on the retailer’s web site or posted in store at the customer service desk.  In addition, be aware of any restocking fees that may be imposed.

2.  If a retailer demands ID and scans the ID somewhere, this is a time when red flags should go up.  More and more retailers are demanding ID as a part of the return process in order to deter fraudulent returns; if you hand the store clerk your ID you are unwittingly handing over your personal information to a third party called The Retail Equation out of Irvine, CA.  This should definitely have you concerned.

As we hear of more and more data breach incidents with retailers – despite retailer policies on protecting the privacy of its customers – any retailer requiring and capturing ID as part of the returns process amounts to nothing more than a retailer dabbling into your personal affairs as well as a recipe for identity theft.

That being said, what should you do if a retailer demands ID from you as part of the returns process and the retailer captures your ID data?

The answer is very simple:  If you have an alternate form of ID other than a driver’s license, use it.  If you have an United States Passport or Passport Card, USE IT.  NEVER HAND OVER YOUR DRIVER LICENSE – ESPECIALLY A FLORIDA DRIVER LICENSE – TO A RETAILER UNLESS IT IS THE ONLY ID YOU HAVE!

For starters, a Florida Driver License is the worst identity document in the nation to have in your possession other than for operating a motor vehicle, which is the law.  Thanks to the Federal REAL ID law enacted in 2010, and the relevant Florida Statutes that were changed in order to comply with REAL ID, your Florida Driver License has on it your physical street address.  That in itself is a goldmine for stalkers and domestic violence perpetrators who somehow can get their hands on your driver license data.  In addition, a retailer has no business finding out where you live.

Before REAL ID, you could have a post office box mailing address on your driver license in order to minimize the risk of your personal information being compromised.  Today, only law enforcement officers are allowed to substitute their post office box mailing addresses in place of a physical street address on a driver license, if any.  Did Congress have any compassion for victims of stalking or domestic violence when REAL ID was passed?

Besides, despite federal laws to the contrary the State of Florida has a habit of selling your name and address information on your driver’s license to third parties.  Which leads me to wonder:  If the State of Florida is selling your personal information to third parties, I imagine retailers with ID required and captured policies – such as Best Buy, for instance – are doing the same thing.

And another thing to ponder is of course the data breach incidents that have happened with Target and The Home Depot.  All it takes is a skilled hacker to harvest your personal information.  One day we will go online or turn on the TV and the news will have a breaking news alert:  Major data breach incident involving The Retail Equation.

Any retailer that requires ID when you return an item will also try to claim that it is also their policy to help deter identity theft. Any retailer claiming the purpose of requiring ID to help deter identity theft is a false statement. Besides, store clerks have been involved in identity theft cases as the perpetrators!

Again, if you got a passport or passport card, use it as ID.  I know, passport books are expensive but you can get a passport card from the United States State Department for $30.  Besides, a passport card is valid for ten years as opposed to a Florida Driver License which is only valid for eight years depending on your driving record.  Not only you will have an alternative form of ID which meets federal REAL ID requirements for boarding aircraft when flying domestically and entering federal facilities, you can use it for trips to Canada and Mexico when you cross the border by land.  The only time you would have to invest in a passport book is if you are traveling by air internationally including Canada and Mexico.

If you have a post office box as a mailing address, use it to your benefit. If in the event a retailer requires a street address, give your work street address – not the street address where you live. Again, residential street addresses are a goldmine not only for dabbling store clerks but for stalkers and domestic violence perpetrators as mentioned earlier.

Be sure to hang on to your driver’s license, but put that away in a safe place in your wallet or purse. The only time you need to produce your driver’s license is in these situations:

1. While you are operating a motor vehicle.
2. In the event of a traffic stop.
3. In the event of a motor vehicle accident.
Remember, you must carry your registration and proof of motor vehicle insurance as well – it’s the law!
4. When you rent a car – after all, it is illegal for any rental car company such as Alamo or Dollar to rent to anyone without a valid driver’s license.

Once again: If you are asked for ID by a retail store clerk, pull out your passport or passport card if you got one. This solves 99% of all ID required issues when it comes to retailers.

Now here’s my take on retailers requiring ID when you return an item for exchange or refund, especially in light of the retailer data breach incidents:

1. Retailers have a right to control return fraud. Asking the customer for his name and address is the first step and using the information only for the purpose of processing the return and destroying the information collected from the customer after a period of time – such as 60 days – ensures privacy for the customer.

2. If a retailer wants to require ID for a return, that’s their business. At least the information from the ID should not be captured and held in a computer database subject to unauthorized access, as is the case with The Retail Equation.

3. To law enforcement or to a rental car company, a driver’s license is one thing. However, to retailers such as Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Toys R Us or any other retailer known to ask for and capture IDs from customers as well as The Retail Equation, my residential street address – in other words, where I live – is none of your business

Again, as the final seconds of 2014 tick away into the first seconds of 2015, I would like to say Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 2015!

As we begin 2013…

I hope everyone had a happy and safe New Year.  Whether you went to First Night in downtown St. Petersburg and watched the fireworks as midnight rolled around or stayed at home and watched the ball drop in Times Square in New York City at the stroke of midnight, we said goodbye to 2012 and hello to 2013.

Getting to some website notes, I am going to leave up the Christmas 2012 page through Martin Luther King Day, which is Monday, 21 January 2013.  I feel this will give everyone time to come by and check out the Christmas images I have for you, even though the Christmas holidays are over (at least until the next Christmas holiday season starts the Day After Thanksgiving in November).  As you may have read a couple of blog entries back it took me courage to put up a Christmas page – akin to putting up the Christmas tree – despite a great national tragedy that took place in Newtown, Connecticut a little over a week before Christmas.  So, if you haven’t checked out my Christmas 2012 page, feel free to stop by!

Now on to 2013.

You probably know the first thing that’s on your mind, and that’s filing your income taxes.  Whether you are expecting a refund or having to owe IRS, there are steps you can take to protect the privacy of your tax information; after all, Tampa is one of America’s worst places for not only identity theft but for tax refund fraud, according to this ABC Action News (WFTS-TV, the ABC affiliate here in Tampa) article I recently found.

The one important element of your personal information – besides guarding your Florida Driver’s License – is your Social Security Number.  After all, this important number ties you to practically everything, including your credit report, your employment history, and much, much more.

When you received your Social Security Number, you received a card from the Social Security Administration that shows your full Social Security Number and a space for your signature.  What you need to do when you receive your Social Security card is to sign the card where indicated on the front, then lock that card away in a secure and safe place!

The only time you need to carry that Social Security card is if in the event you begin employment with an employer.  During the new hire process, you are asked to complete an United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Form I-9, Employment Verification.  When you complete the I-9 form, you are asked for several pieces of identification; among them is the original Social Security card in order to prove your eligibility to work in the United States.

So, guard that Social Security Number fiercely with your life!  Don’t give it out to anyone that you do not know!

What other ways can you do to protect your Social Security Number, besides keeping your Social Security card locked up in a safe place?

When you work, every year your employer will give you a tax form called a Form W-2, Employee’s Wage and Tax Statement.  Your employer is required to furnish you your W-2 form no later than 31 January; I did some research into this and the employer meets this requirement when the W-2 is either personally given to you or is made available to you by electronic means, such as a secure area on your employer’s internal network or a secure area from your employer’s payroll provider.

Unfortunately, more and more employers are turning to the use of the United States Postal Service as a means of distributing W-2 forms to their employees, both current and former.  While it may sound convenient to the employer, unfortunately sending W-2’s through the USPS – especially to current employees – is a recipe for not only tax refund fraud but identity theft as well!

If you want proof, look no further than several neighborhoods in Riverview, a community in Hillsborough County located east of Tampa and is also the home of the transmitter towers of many of Tampa’s television stations, which gives Riverview the “Antenna Farm” name.  According to this St. Petersburg Times article, hundreds of pieces of mail were stolen from mailboxes either right before or even on Christmas day just recently.  This incident is one of way too many incidents where mail gets stolen, which you cannot trust the USPS for sensitive mail containing personal information being sent to your physical street address.

To me, I think employers are doing their employees a disservice when it comes to protection of their personal information especially during tax time.  A workable policy would be to at least restrict the mailing of W-2 tax forms to employees that are no longer with the employer, and distribute the W-2 tax forms personally to current employees, having the employee sign a register proving receipt so that it can be proven to the IRS if proof of W-2 distribution is needed.

Even better, make the W-2 tax forms available on a secure part of the employer’s internal network where an employee has to log in and receive his or her W-2 form.  An employer who either distributes W-2’s to their employees personally or makes the W-2’s available through electronic means can also realize a significant cost savings by not having to spend so much money on postage, with the risk that a mailed W-2 to a current employee can fail to reach the employee or it can get lost or stolen in the mail.  (Then there is another cost to the employer:  Replacing the lost, stolen or misdelivered W-2 with a replacement).

Another way to keep your Social Security Number confidential is when you file your taxes.  According to the IRS, you can file your income taxes for free using IRS Free File; you can even file your taxes electronically for free if you meet certain adjusted gross income requirements.  The frequently asked questions page at the IRS Free File site has more information.

One more way to keep your Social Security Number confidential is that you can do throughout the year:  Consider receiving your USPS mail at a post office box near you, especially if you live alone and you work during the day.  A post office box helps minimize the chance of your mail being stolen.  The costs are reasonable; post office boxes come in several sizes and you can pick the size that fits your needs.

And don’t forget to perform a total information awareness on yourself by checking your credit report once a year.  You can do that for free and you can do so online at  Besides, if you have applied for credit or even insurance and adverse action was taken against you due to information on a credit report, the adverse action letter will tell you which credit bureau was involved and you can get a free credit report from that specific credit bureau.

Bottom line:  Keep your Social Security Number to yourself.  Guard that Social Security Number with your life!  And guard that Florida Driver License that contains your residential street address with your life as well!