Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Using Legal Document Services

Question: Can a business pay an individual or legal document preparation service to fill out and file debt collection forms like wage garnishments, etc.?

Answer: You can hire anybody you want, but the real question is whether the person or service you hire is engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. Unless the service is provided or supervised by any attorney, legal document preparation services are generally limited to filling out forms and filing them. They cannot legally advise you how to fill out the forms or what forms to file. There are certain areas of the law where you can be represented by a non-attorney or have your documents prepared by a non-attorney, but legal document preparation services generally should not be providing any specific advice.

In its most general sense, the practice of law involves giving legal advice to clients, drafting legal documents for clients, and representing clients in legal negotiations and court proceedings such as lawsuits, and is applied to the professional services of a lawyer or Attorney at Law. However, there is a substantial amount of overlap between the practice of law and various other professions where clients are represented by agents. These professions include real estate, banking, accounting, and insurance.

Moreover, a growing number of independent paralegals are offering services which have traditionally been offered only by lawyers and their employee paralegals. Many documents may now be drafted by computer assisted drafting libraries, where the clients are asked a series of questions posed by the software in order to construct the legal documents. Custom and practice vary by state, so the best advice is to at least ask an attorney for an opinion before completing any important transaction

About the Author: Carl H. Starrett II has been a licensed attorney since 1993 and is a member in good standing with the California State Bar and the San Diego County Bar Association. Mr. Starrett practices in the areas of bankruptcy, business litigation, construction, corporate planning and debt collection.

5 Actions to Help Protect Yourself From Identity Theft

The first step in fighting identity theft is to understand what it is. Based on the experiences of PayPal's fraud investigators, here are 5 actions that can arm you with a lot of protection.

1. Protect your information offline as well as online.

Think shopping online is the biggest risk? While news headlines may make it seem that identity theft is an online issue, it is important to recognize that there are also very real dangers offline.

A recent study conducted by Javelin Strategy & Research suggests that you are in greater danger from identity thieves rummaging for important papers in your trash or breaking into your mailbox.

The Federal Trade Commission estimates that 14% of identity theft is a result of stolen wallets, checkbooks and credit cards. To protect yourself effectively, you should consider shredding your old mail, locking your mailbox and emptying your wallet of anything you don't absolutely have to carry. When you do shop online, it's still good to shop safely. Read more about how to shop safely online from Robert Chesnut, eBay's Vice President of Trust and Safety and renowned internet fraud expert.

It's important to safeguard your identity both on and offline.

2. Don't respond to emails asking for your account information.

Spoof and phishing (pronounced "fishing") are the terms coined to describe emails made to look like they've come from legitimate companies but that actually come from identity thieves. These emails warn you of account problems or other urgent issues to trick you into clicking through to a scam website. The scam website asks you to enter your user name and password or other account information. Once you do this, you've given your information to someone who might use it to do you harm.

PayPal will never ask you to enter your password or financial information in an email or send such information in an email. You should only share information about your account once you have logged in to https://www.paypal.com/ directly from your browser.

Download the SafetyBar
to help block spoof emails. Learn how to spot spoof emails and websites.

Remember: A legitimate vendor will never ask you to enter your password or financial information in an email.

3. Use safer types of payment when paying online.

Most people have become smarter about sharing their Social Security number but think nothing of handing a piece of paper with their bank's name, their account number, their address, and their signature to a stranger — everything written on a check. Industry analysts report that check fraud is a significant problem.

Credit cards offer a little more protection. Credit card companies have invested heavily in software that spots fraudulent transactions as they happen. The biggest concern with credit cards is that the information needed to commit fraud can be easy to get to. The credit card account number you use in a transaction is stored in a merchant's database, and as we've learned from the news, that database might be vulnerable to attack.

Online payment systems, such as PayPal, offer a safe, secure way to make a transaction. With PayPal, you can pay without the merchant ever seeing your credit card number, bank account and other financial information. This significantly limits the information that you share in a financial transaction.

Read more about other ways PayPal fights fraud on your behalf.

Considering privacy protection? Choose your method of payment wisely.

4. Protect your computer.

The key to securing your own computer is to use protective software and keep it up to date. Make sure that you install all security patches available from the developer of your operating system. Run antivirus software to check incoming emails and update the virus definitions frequently. Set up a firewall to prevent intruders from getting into your network or computer.

In addition to using protective software, you should choose strong passwords to protect accounts. Don't use your personal information as a password. Mix upper and lowercase letters. Keep your passwords for each account unique. Read PayPal's advice on creating strong passwords.

Remember: Use a unique, strong password for your PayPal account and keep protection software up to date on your computer.

5. Pay attention.

The longer a breach goes undiscovered, the more costly it becomes. According to the Federal Trade Commission, your chances of suffering significant financial damage from identity theft are far less if you discover the breach within six months of its occurrence. After six months, you are more likely to lose money or spend hours untangling a truly nasty situation.

It pays to pay attention. Check your PayPal account and credit card balances often. Review your credit reports for unusual activity at least once a year. PayPal members can also take advantage of a special offer for credit report monitoring.

Remember: Check your accounts and credit reports often to discover and stop problems quickly.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

New Credit Card Scam

Consumer advocate Clark Howard recently posted information on a new credit card scam that targets credit union members.

One of the most common Internet scams is a technique called "phishing". A person goes "phishing" by trying to get the recipient to divulge personal information such as online passwords or their social security number. In this new scam, the intended victim receives an email that purports to be from the National Credit Union Administration. It targets people who are members of credit unions and it looks very official. Not only are the graphics very real looking, but the link in the e-mail looks real too.

You never want to update your information or your accounts through an e-mail. Always go to the Web site itself or call the organization.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

New Credit/Debit Card Scam

Adapted from a release issued by the Institute of Consumer Financial Education

There's a new scam out there, one that may take in even the savviest consumer, because the con artists have obtained information that makes them look legitimate. By phishing and pharming on the phone and over the Internet, scammers are getting credit card numbers, personal identification numbers (PINs), and the three- to seven-digit security numbers off of the backs of credit and debit cards.

You could easily receive a call from a crook representing him- or herself as an employee of the institution that issued your personal or business credit or debit card. The caller says that he/she is processing a credit of almost $500, because one of your cards may have been used improperly. Wow, you think, a $500 credit. If you're like most cardholders, you sit up and take notice. The caller already has your credit card number(s), name, address, and telephone number, so you don't hesitate to answer his/her questions.

Stop. Hesitate. Don't answer. The reason the scammer is calling is that he/she needs the numbers from the back of your card. With this information, the caller can start running up charges on your account.

The scenario goes like this: an unsuspecting consumer answers his/her home or work phone and hears, "This is [gives a name], and I'm calling from the security and fraud department at VISA. My employee ID badge number is 3736214."

Next comes an ominous warning. "Your VISA card has been flagged for an unusual purchase pattern, and I'm calling to verify some things. This would be on your VISA card which was issued by [name of your bank or credit card company]. Did you purchase an anti-virus software program with a personal firewall for $497 from a sales and marketing company based in Georgia?"

When the consumer responds that he/she did not purchase the software, the caller continues, "Then we will be issuing a credit to your account. This Georgia-based telephone boiler room outfit is a company we have been watching. The bogus charges range from $297 to $497, which are just under the $500 purchase pattern that most cards flag. Before your next statement, the credit will be sent to [cardholder's address]. Is that correct?"

After the victim confirms that yes, that is the correct address, the con artist says, "I will be starting an internal fraud investigation. If you have any questions, you should call the 1-800 number listed on the back of your card and ask for the Security Department. You will need to refer to this control number." The caller then gives the consumer a six-digit number. "Do you need me to read it to you again?" he or she inquires politely.

Now the thief goes in for the kill—getting the target's security code or PIN. The caller states, "I need to verify that you are in possession of your card. Please turn your card over and look for the numbers on the back. There are seven numbers; the first four are part of the card number, the next three are the security numbers that verify you are the possessor of the card. These are the numbers you may sometimes use to make Internet purchases to prove you have the card in your possession." Then the scammer asks you to read the last three numbers back to them.

After the consumer tells the caller the three numbers, the con artist responds, "That is correct, I just needed to verify that the card has not been lost or stolen, and that you still have your card in your possession. Do you have any questions?" When the victim says that he/she doesn't, the caller urges, "Don't hesitate to call back if you do," and disconnects.

The victim actually says very little during this conversation and is never asked to tell the caller his/her debit or credit card number. The cardholder usually feels secure that this was a legitimate call and rarely calls back. Those intuitive cardholders who do call the bona fide VISA Security Department are informed that the call was bogus and just another scam. More upsetting, however, is that during that call, the cardholder often learns that new purchase of $497 was recently charged to his/her card.

Should you receive such a call, the Institute of Consumer Financial Education advises, do not give out any security numbers. Make a verifiable fraud report to the issuer involved and immediately close the account(s) in question. VISA or MasterCard will reissue a new number. What the crooks really want is the three-digit Security PIN number on the back of your card. Don't give it to anyone who calls you.

Instead, tell the caller(s) that you will call VISA or MasterCard directly for verification of your conversation. According to the Institute of Consumer Financial Education, VISA and MasterCard Security Departments would never ask for anything on the card; they already know the information because they issued the card.

Don't let the promise of a refund con you out of your PIN number. If you do, by the time you receive a statement listing charges for purchases you didn't make, it may be too late to undo the damage. It could also be more much more difficult to file a fraud report.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: should you receive a call like this, hang up immediately.

February 2006
Adapted from a release issued by the Institute of Consumer Financial Education.