Protecting Your Privacy In Public

Why sponsoring a tiger won’t stop the scammers.

By , Columnist

Public transport can be a strange place, but it does have at least one thing going for it. Surrounded by such an eclectic mix of people there's a fair chance you'll get to watch some entertainingly stupid behaviour to pass the time.

I was sitting in a train carriage a few days ago when a passenger a few seats away answered his cell phone.

“Hello? Who? Oh yes, I’ve got a few minutes. Yes… yes… no, I’ve just finished university. But I used to sponsor a tiger!”

This conversation had potential.

“My name? Sure, it’s -”

From the looks of those nearby, I could see I wasn’t the only one whose Spider Sense started to tingle as this passenger provided his caller with his full name and address. A few moments later his right hand disappeared into his trouser pocket to bring out a credit card, the details of which he happily started to read into the phone.

“The expiry date? It’s -”

“Ahem, excuse me!” (Well, how does one politely interrupt a potential fraud?) “Before you carry on giving those details to a random person - as well as to everyone else in this carriage - are you certain you know who it is you’re speaking to?”

“Yes,” he replied with a puzzled expression. “It’s the World Wildlife Fund.”

“Are you 100 percent certain?”

“Yes. They told me who they were. Anyway, they know me because I’ve given them money before.”

“But you just had to give them your name and address!” I pointed out. “They obviously didn’t know who you were a moment ago.”

“Oh, it’s fine!” he replied, waving me away and returning to his phone. “The expiry date is…”

As our trusting friend continued to read off his card details the other passengers sitting nearby caught my eye and simply shrugged their shoulders with a rueful smile. They knew that you just can’t help some people.

Fear not, this hasn’t simply been an excuse for me to say you shouldn’t give out your details to unknown callers; you know that already.

Have you ever considered, though, just how much information we all reveal without really noticing? People are becoming much more careful about the information they post online and that’s great, but in the real world it seems we don’t always apply the same controls.

From freely answering surveys or giving our bank details to charity collectors on the street, to holding not-so-private phone conversations in a crowded train carriage, it sometimes seems we’re only too happy to provide complete strangers with everything they need to steal our money.
I was chatting to a friend about this today, and he suggested that there are in fact some times when you might genuinely need to make a credit card payment over the phone in a public space.

To reduce the risk, perhaps companies should think more about using the type of automated systems that accept card numbers typed in via the key pad. Other, more secure, systems are currently being trialed but these aren’t yet commercially available.

One day a yet-to-be discovered approach may even solve the problem once and for all, making someone very rich in the process. If that someone turns out to be you then feel free to remember who gave you the idea and cut me in on the royalties!

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Steve Clark is the director of an IT support company based in London, UK. A confirmed geek who's been nosing around inside computers for the past three decades, he considers solving puzzles, cracking codes, and improving security protocols to be legitimate ways of having fun.

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