Financial safety - it’s a jungle out there

Maybe it is a generational thing, but the current FIRE entrants didn't seem to get the memo on financial safety, trust and just how dangerous it is out there. I guess until you have been a target of theft, you don't really feel the issue. We talk openly about safety & trust in this article.

Thieves want your money.   

I shouldn't have to say this because it is bleedingly obvious.  But it gets easily forgotten on the Internet.   So let's talk a bit about the dangers of the Internet and your wallet.  Forgive me as I'm going to get blunt and I'll probably offend some people. 

Internet = International Network

Key word here is "International".   As I write this, the world population is around 7.3 billion people.  According to Wikipedia, at the time I write this, the Internet is accessed by 56.1% of the world.  The growing population that are getting Internet access are those in poverty stricken countries that eventually are getting access to Free mobile hotspots, etc.   Many of these are in sub-Saharan African nations.  The promise of the Internet reaching everyone on this planet is real.  Eventually it will be as available as air.

That means you are going to have a growing number of those that have literally no wealth, sharing access to information with those that have wealth.  The hopeful side of me would think that maybe those that have no wealth will look for information as to how to become self-sufficient.  But when you are starving, you'd be surprised just how far people will go to get resources rather than risk death and sickness.  

Now I'm not saying that just because some regions of the world have high poverty rates, that they are full of thieves.  And that often the most crafty thieves are those in high economic regions but are forced to steal due to drug addiction habits, or just they are predisposed to crime due to their peer group, how they were raised, economic situation, etc.  Just keep in mind, all of these people have access to the Internet.

So I was floored recently when this website was added to this directory:     I am grateful to the folks behind this for adding to the directory.  But when I went to review the listing, holy cow....   There are people openly publishing their net worth on there!

Not hiding in plain sight

There's some generally held concensus that by sharing your journey on something difficult with others, it will help you stay the path.  This is very common with weight loss.  We saw the popularity in the early 2000s with TV shows like "The Biggest Loser" where overweight people would get weighed on TV, and then showed their journey to losing weight.  I mean to do that is embarrassing but it does keep you accountable when the world is seeing where you start from and where you end up.

But your net worth is NOT your weight.  There are dangers associated with disclosing it, and I come from a generation where you didn't openly talk about how much money you were worth.  It is considered crass and somewhat obscene to tell someone how much you are worth.  Maybe the customs have changed in the 21st century, but the risks associated with breaking free of this custom are severe.

Look, I get it.  Youth never wants to listen to their parents.  They want to disrupt common thinking and do things their way.  Sure, that's fine.  But there has to be some level of sanity here because it seems that there are many in our society that are blatantly publishing information on the Internet that isn't in their best interest.  

Is privacy dead on the Internet?

No, it is not dead.  At least you can not be a target by just adopting some simple practices that sends thieves away from you and onto another target.  First, let's understand something that was so well demonstrated on the TV show "Catfish" on MTV over the past 10 years or so.   It is very simple to track down someone based on any of the following bits of information:

  • Email address
  • Phone number
  • Website URL
  • Name

What do I mean by this?  Well if you start with doing a Google search on you, you will likely find yourself listed with your home address, etc. on many, many websites.    Here are just a few of them that routinely have your data on them:

There are dozens and dozens more.  And they keep coming up all the time.  You are giving these sites your information when you don't even realize it.  When a site gets hacked and its customer list ends up on the dark web, sites like these harvest the data and populate their databases.  So although you might not think you are public on the Internet, check and you'll find you probably are.

Sites like these empower anyone to be a Private Investigator, without having to pass any form of state regulation or licensing.  There is no verification that the person accessing this information SHOULD be allowed to do that.  So if you combine this information with publicly disclosing your net worth, you are a target.  Yes, you.  The one with the big mouth.

And what if you have taken the position, "I have nothing to hide, therefore I don't care".  Well take off your clothes and walk down your street and let's see how you feel about that.  The reality is that privacy is a part of our lives and we need to protect it.  I've even written (successfully) to our local state Attorney General's office to get some of these sites to remove information because they won't do it unless you pay them.  Talk about an extortion racket - "We've got your information and we are sharing it publicly - if you want us to stop, pay us $X".  Kidnappers use that same tactic.  

Privacy over-reach

Now the problem comes when you ask your elected officials who are not technical, nor investigators, to pass laws to stop this from happening.  They did this in Europe with the General Data Protection Regulation  (GDPR).  And they are about to pass something similar in the state of California.  The problem is that they don't work unless every country participates.  This is the problem of International Network (the Internet).  There isn't any international legal authority that is able to enforce across all countries that are connected to the network.  So one group enacts laws that negatively impact others that are not doing anything nefarious and this is what we have.

However something has to be done.  The fact is that your information is out there, and your home address, etc. is literally given to thieves without your consent.  

We live in a world where we share everything about our lives on social media.  But we are sharing it with those we probably don't want to be sharing with.   But whereas that is a failing on the individual, and not a responsibility of some government nanny-state, it doesn't remove the databases that have your information out there.

Best practices to protect yourself

Here's some real steps you can do today to protect yourself on the Internet:

Remove yourself from public directories

First, you need to remove yourself from these databases.  It can take a lot of work to do this, which is why I signed up for this service - DeleteMe    This is not a PAID sponsorship by this company - I am a customer of theirs and I'm simply sharing that they have been really good for me.    You pay an annual fee and they will find all directories that have your data in them and request deletion from the database.  I've also had to go to the local state Attorney General and report any directory that wouldn't remove this information without a fee and it works - they removed it after the Attorney General's office contacted them to do it.

It is a high priority for congress to fix this issue, but the reality is that we all know just how long it takes to get laws implemented and passed, so in the meantime you can do most of this yourself.

Set domain contact info to private

Now once you are no longer on the Internet (and yes, you are probably in some WayBack Machine thing but let's focus on what we can do now and going forward), you need to review all of your website URLs and make sure you opted to get the "Privacy" option on them.  Yes, domain registrars charge more for this but by not disclosing the name, address, email & phone number of the person who is the technical or adminstrative contact on the website, you are not putting your information out there.  

Get a proxy physical address

There are many services in the USA that will provide you with mail receiving and scanning.  I find them invaluable.  They have a real physical address that you can use, and although you do have to pay a fee for this, rather than you spending your time going to a PO Box or picking up your local mail at your house, they will receive and scan it and make it available to you via secured web portal.  This means you can travel freely without having to be back home to get your mail.  PO Boxes are fine, but the majority of services that need a physical address for things won't accept you using PO Boxes.  Plus you still have to go to the PO Box and pickup your mail.  With the exception of parcels, a mail scanning service is a great way to make life easier but also removes the need to disclose your physical address.

This is also a perfect service for any Digital Nomads, because it allows you to maintain a physical address without actually being there.

Use a proxy phone number

One of the greatest tools I discovered years ago was Google Voice.  I realize that Google constantly change what they are offering and stop offering services periodically, but Google voice has been a great thing for me.  Not only can I use one phone number that they issue me and then forward that number to my cell phone, or wherever, now I don't need to disclose a physical phone number.  But for me, more importantly I can recevie text messages anywhere in the world using Wifi if they are sent to that number.  It is a bit harder for outgoing calls and text messages, but there are ways of doing that as well.  I use my Asterisk phone system to act as a proxy for outbound calls, so they always have the caller ID on them that I want even though I might be on the other side of the planet making the call.  This is not something that the average person who isn't highly technical can do, but you might want to do some Google searches for companies that can offer you an outbound phone number that you can access by proxy when you travel.  It also allows you to swap SIM cards on your phone.

This brings up one other important thing....  When you get a phone, get it unlocked.  If you are getting a smartphone and paying by the month for it, that's just not going to cut it for those on the path to financial sustainability.  But to further lock you in, those phones don't let you swap out SIM cards.  This means you can't take advantage of the third party providers that often are 30-50% cheaper than the major carriers for services on the same major carriers.  But also if you find yourself traveling in Europe, you can just buy a local SIM card and install that into your phone if it is unlocked and avoid any International roaming charges, etc.  It also allows you to move away from traditional phone carriers for service and use data, which means Wifi access can give you phone and text messaging services if you are using Google Voice.

And the most important one....

Stop telling everyone what your net worth is.  Not only can it be seen as an obscene gesture, but you are openly advertising yourself as a worthy target for thieves.

Thieves are smart - they won't waste their time trying to break into something that has no guaranteed pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  If you put out there that you are on the path to FI and you are currently worth $1 million, then there are 1 million reasons a thief will make every effort to find you, phish from you, extort you, kidnap your family (yes, this is real - CHECK THIS OUT) or try and take over your identity.  If they can pretend to be you, then they can find your bank accounts and try and get your bank to release funds to them.  They can target real estate titles, or other records of ownership of assets and attempt to get them moved under their control.

This type of extortion and theft has been going on since the dawn of time.  But if you were raised in a middle class, privileged world, with a gated community, etc. you probably have never experienced what it is like to be a victim of theft.  So let's not try and increase the odds of that.  By not disclosing what you have, then there is no incentive for bad actors to try and grab it from you.

Think of the Internet as a crowded Mardi Gras festival, full of pick pockets.  Would you openly pull out your wallet in the middle of a crowd, knowing that there are bad guys out there who will steal it?  Nope.  You are not that stupid, right?  Then why are you doing this on the Internet?

A fool and their money...

... don't stay together very long.  You think you are pretty smart following financial independence, right?  You think that you are disrupting the status quo and chasing a FIRE lifestyle.  OK, smart guy.  How about you start protecting yourself so that you are not losing all that hard work to thieves.  Remove your net worth information immediately from any blog, directory or website out there so you can get some peace because it is just a matter of time before you lose it all.  

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