Archive for the ‘Everyday Disaster’ Category

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009
A Letter You Prefer Not to Receive

A Letter You Prefer Not to Receive

My earlier posting summarizing the lessons an attorney learned the hard way about identity fraud elicited strong response from readers, many of whom preferred to share their experiences by means other than direct posting. This attached image shows a scan of a letter one reader received from the Bank of New York Mellon, which is the custodial bank for his retirement savings account. As you can see, I have redacted the personal identifying information to make sure another misuse of private data does not occur. The letter advises that bank’s archive services vendor lost computer tapes containing personal client information when transporting them to an off-site storage facility. If you double-click on this image, you can read the letter for yourself. Obviously, this is a letter you prefer not to receive, but note that the bank acted proactively to offer free credit monitoring services to the clients who may have been affected, although they had no reason to believe that this information had been misused in any way. As the previous blog entry indicated, one unlucky attorney learned how important this service is. Should you find that any of your personal data may have been compromised, request that the vendor provide this service to you at his expense. And of course, should you ever experience a compromise of the security of your client data, offer to do the same for your clients.

In addition, Cliff Ennico, who is NOT the attorney whose advice I summarized in the earlier blog posting, offered some useful suggestions of his own for information you will need to have readily available in the event of an emergency. I have attached the link here.

Finally, I wanted to add a suggestion of my own. I had an issue with identity fraud when the previous tenant of an apartment I had purchased continuously updated her mail forwarding. By unhappy coincidence we shared the same last name, so that much of my mail was re-routed to her in another state. This mail included frequent flyer statements from the airlines on which I travel (which I now receive electronically rather than in paper form). As a “courtesy” to me, the airlines automatically updated the mail forwarding information with this woman’s address. I only learned of this matter when I called an airline to request frequent flyer awards and was told that they could only mail the tickets (back in the days of paper tickets) to the address on file for me, which was in Tennessee. When I protested that I lived in New York, not Tennessee, the whole issue of the improper mail forwarding came to light. The airline staff advised me to instruct them in writing not to automatically update my account address for mail forwarding unless I specifically request in writing that they do so. I did the same for some of the online and catalog merchants from which I often order products, as they also use mail update services as a “courtesy” to customers whose mail has been forwarded. It is a sad lesson, but vigilance pays.

An Attorney’s Advice – No Charge

Monday, January 19th, 2009

An attorney friend of mine recently had a horrible experience following the theft of his wallet. He sent me the following advice with the request that I post it for you. To minimize your potential losses from credit theft, he recommends the following:

“1. Do not sign the back of your credit cards. Instead, put “photo identification required.”

2. When you are writing checks to pay on your credit card accounts, do not put the complete account number on the “memo” line. Write only the last four numbers. The credit card company knows the rest of the number, and anyone who might be handling your check as it passes through all the check processing channels should not have access to it.

3. Put your work phone number on your checks instead of your home number. If you have a post office box use that instead of your home address. If you do not have a post office box, use your work address.  Never have your social security number printed on your checks. You can add it if it is necessary. But if you have It printed, anyone can access it.

4. Place the contents of your wallet on a photocopy machine. Do both sides of each license, credit card, each piece of identification in your wallet. You will know what you had in your wallet and all of the account numbers and phone numbers to call and cancel. Keep the photocopy in a safe place. I also carry a photocopy of my passport when I travel either here or abroad. We’ve all heard horror stories about fraud that’s committed on us in stealing a name, address, social security number, credit cards. Unfortunately, I, an attorney, have firsthand knowledge because my wallet was stolen last month. Within a week, the thieve(s) ordered an expensive monthly cell phone package, applied for a Visa credit card, had a credit line approved to buy a Gateway computer, received a PIN number from the Department of Motor Vehicles to change my driving record information online, and more.

5. We have been told we should cancel our credit cards immediately. But the key is having the toll free numbers and your card numbers handy so you know whom to call. Keep those where you can find them.

6. File a police report immediately in the jurisdiction where your credit cards, etc., were stolen. This proves to credit providers you were diligent, and this is a first step toward an investigation (if there ever is one). But here’s what is perhaps most important of all (I never even thought to do this):

7. Call the three national credit reporting organizations Immediately to place a fraud alert on your name and also call the social security fraud line number. I had never heard of doing that until advised by a bank that called to tell me an application for credit was made over the Internet in my name. The alert means any company that checks your credit knows your information was stolen, and they have to contact you by phone to authorize new credit. By the time I had been advised to do this, almost two weeks after the theft, all the damage had been done. There are records of all the credit checks initiated by the thieves’ purchases, none of which I knew about before placing the alert. Since then, no additional damage has been done, and the thieves threw my wallet away this weekend (someone turned it in). It seems to have stopped them dead in their tracks. The following are the numbers you always need to contact when your wallet, credit cards or other personal identifying information been stolen:

  • Equifax: 800-525-6285
  • Experian (formerly TRW): 888-397-3742
  • Trans Union : 800-680-7289
  • Social Security Administration (fraud line):800-269-0271″

Water Landing Diverts Ground Traffic

Thursday, January 15th, 2009
USAirways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River as Seen from My Office

The View From My Office: USAirways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River

This is the view from my office window of USAirways Flight 1549 after all of the passengers were safely evacuated and the plane is almost completely submerged in the Hudson River. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the flight, which had departed New York’s LaGuardia Airport on its way to Charlotte, was airborne less than three minutes. An emergency water landing was made after the pilot radioed air traffic controllers that he had experienced a bird strike.

All of the passengers were safely evacuated from the aircraft thanks in large measure to what was described as extraordinary skill and calm on the part of the pilot. As I write this blog posting, at 9:00 p.m., I can see rescue workers in police boats surrounding the location where the aircraft is submerged, as they perform ongoing work for the emergency investigation. I can also see emergency vehicles along the West Side Highway that extend from the area to as far north (at least as I can see) to 42nd Street, although the news media report that traffic has been halted from 79th Street.

While the emergency landing itself is extraordinary, the ground disruptions it caused are not, as New Yorkers are only too familiar with the need to make alternate commuting plans in the event of disruptions – irrespective of the cause. Whether it is a steam pipe explosion on 42nd Street or an emergency airplane landing in the Hudson River, commuting disruptions are everyday disasters for which our local small businesses must be prepared.

Ice Storm Disables Small Businesses in the Northeastern States

Monday, December 15th, 2008
Beautiful but destructive

Beautiful but destructive

A recent ice storm left 1.25 million residents of the Northeastern United States without power this past weekend, a powerful reminder of the need to prepare for the “everyday disaster”. The affected area stretches from Maine to Pennsylvania, with the Governors of Massachusetts and New Hampshire declaring emergencies in their states and calling up the National Guardsmen. Utility crews from as far away as South Carolina are joining the effort to restore power with the expectation that some homes and businesses will be without power until next week. For small businesses facing the threat of power failure, your contingency plan should address the following needs:

Continuity of telephone communications.

Analog lines work if your area is experiencing a power outage as the lines are powered by the phone company. For small business use, it is rarely cost-effective to implement redundant phone circuits. If the telephone service fails, it is most likely due to a service outage, not to the actual hardware. But even if it is the actual hardware, since nearly everyone has a cellular telephone, it is the natural backup solution for your land-based circuits. The question is how to automatically connect land- and cell phone-based service so the cell phone service would take over if the land lines fail. The problem is that once the land lines have failed, it is not possible to forward land-line calls to the cellular phones. The second issue to consider is the likelihood of failure of cell phones in a major power outage as towers to relay signals will be depleted of reserve power.

The solution is developed by thinking in reverse. You give out the cell phone number as your general contact number. You program the phone such that any incoming call is forwarded to your land-based phone when the cellular phone is switched off. If your land-based line fails, simply switch on your cellular phone. Thus, in a localized disaster that displaces you from your office (such as the terrorist attacks of 9-11), the cell phone provides service. In a broader disaster such as a large-scale power outage, when cell phone stations are depleted of power with which to relay signals, use your analog phone to receive and make calls without interruption. (Remember that the phone must be directly connected to the analog line; a hand-held phone will be disabled by a power outage.)

Continuity of voice mail.

Sign up with a voice mail provider that delivers your messages over the Internet via e-mail. In fact, you should sign up with an integrated voice and fax service. This service often costs less than a regular phone line. Single providers of only voice mail or fax delivery via the Internet are usually not cost-effective. Since the Internet has been designed to automatically re-route traffic if one or many paths no longer work (the opposite of the “cascade effect” that disables electrical supplies across a wide grid), as long as you can connect to the Internet from somewhere (such as from a battery-powered laptop), you can receive your e-mails and hence, your voice messages and faxes. If both your land-based phone service and your cell phone service fail, your calls or faxes are forwarded to your integrated service number. You could even configure your system in such a way that it automatically sends you a short notification message with a summary of your voice or fax message to your cell phone or pager. It is a service you will enjoy during normal operations as it reduces unnecessary calls to your cellular phone.

Protection of computers and data.

Even when electrical power is available, there are quality issues, like peaks in voltage as well as micro-outages. Since IT equipment is sensitive, use an uninterruptible power supply unit (UPS), which is usually a surge protector, together with a small buffer battery that would supply energy for about 10 minutes after the electricity supply is terminated, enough to finish important work and to shut down the system. Most units support an automatic shutdown before the battery is completely depleted. Some buildings supply self-generated backup power. Please note that this power is usually much “dirtier” than power from the outlet. Under these circumstances, you must use a UPS unit, preferably one that is designed to smooth out erratic electricity supply.

Certain high-rise apartment and office building have back-up generators that provide low levels of power for up to fourteen hours after termination of the central electrical supply. Many workers and residents of these buildings mistakenly believed that a volt of electricity is a volt of electricity irrespective of whether it comes from the central utility or a back-up generator. During the recent power outage, they used their home and office computers with electricity delivered from a back-up generator, without the benefit of a UPS unit, and damaged their computers in the process. Also, remember to turn off appliances and equipment during a power outage as power supply may be erratic when it is initially restored.

Basic measures of preparation.

Of course, all of the basic measures for preparation apply (keeping battery-operated radios, extra batteries, non-perishable foods, flashlights, bottled water, etc.) for both your home and your office. It may seem obvious, but a glance at the people queued up at stores for such supplies on the evening of August 14, 2003 (when a massive outage left 50 million people in the U.S. and Canada without power) suggests that these measures were not obvious to everyone. It also bears repeating that measures recommended for small business contingency will yield immediate benefits to your business in terms of improved operating efficiencies, even if disaster never strikes. Finally, remember that each suggestion put forward for small business contingency solutions can be applicable to home and to personal needs.

Illustrating a Lesson

Thursday, September 11th, 2008
Look carefully to see what is not obvious

Look carefully to see what is not obvious

I recently did a live radio interview with Tron Simpson of KCMN-AM in Colorado Springs, which took me back to my last visit to Colorado Springs a few months ago. The occasion was the annual small business awards luncheon hosted by the local Small Business Development Center. I was flattered to have been invited as the keynote speaker and after the luncheon, I led a three-hour workshop on small business disaster preparedness. I had been invited by Matt Barrett, the Director of the SBDC. Matt and Assistant Director Lisanne McNew were most gracious hosts. On my return home after the program, I had an experience that perfectly illustrates the concept of everyday disasters and the importance of having good processes in place.

My return flight departed Colorado Springs for Dallas-Fort Worth, where I had to make a connecting flight back to the New York City area. As we passed over Kansas, I heard a loud pop and the cabin rapidly lost pressure. Passengers became nauseated as we were jostled about in our seats like beans frying in a pan. Shortly thereafter, the pilot announced that we were returning to the airport in Denver where better aircraft maintenance facilities were available and, if necessary, alternate flight connections.  I had many hours in the airport terminal to make the acquaintance of my fellow passengers, as we had been instructed to remain in the gate area. Of course, everyone asked everyone else about the purpose of their travel and I mentioned my book and the event in Colorado Springs. Then one of the passengers who was seated next to the emergency exit door where the seal had broken (that was the “pop” we had heard) stated that he had suspected a problem as soon as he took his seat. He reported to the cabin crew that he could hear a hissing noise through the door. His concerns were dismissed. But as the aircraft pulled back from the jetway and towards the runway, the hissing sounds grew more ominous, particularly after takeoff as we gained altitude. In the context of the six disaster categories outlined in Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best, we all agreed that this was an example of equipment failure.

When I related the details to Stefan, he offered a different diagnosis. Stefan has a degree in Aerospace Engineering and he told me that aircraft always have multiple redundant systems to protect against the risk of a single failure. At least three things had to go wrong simultaneously with that flight in order to account for our experience. The risk of any single one occurring in isolation is small; the risk of all three striking simultaneously is negligible. Stefan diagnosed the problem as human error; the issue around the faulty seal should have set off an alarm in the cockpit. Perhaps the pilot was fatigued and did not notice. The pre-flight mechanical inspection should have surfaced the problem. It appeared that either the airline did not have proper procedures in place, which seems unlikely, or, more likely, the procedures were in place and they were not followed.

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs

By the way, in case you are wondering about the photographs that accompany this blog post, I took them at a local site in Colorado Springs, the Garden of the Gods. Matt was kind enough to show me this beautiful natural setting when he drove me back to the airport. Matt spotted a deer, which sought to hide itself behind the trees, while I did my best to get a picture. If you look at the “V” shape between the main branches of the tree trunk, you can see the deer’s eyes, ears and nose. Sometimes you have to look very carefully to see beyond the obvious.