Simple steps to protect your identity this holiday season

The busiest shopping time of the year is here. Whether we choose to shop online or the old-fashioned way in stores, any good consumer knows shopping transactions can put our identity at risk. Integrity Insurance, an Appleton-based insurance company, offers advice for shoppers to remain protected this holiday season.

Remove extra credit cards, social security card, birth certificate and passport from your wallet or purse. In the case that someone’s purse or wallet gets lost, having personal information handy for a stranger to steal makes them susceptible to identity theft. If this happens, victims should call their credit card company and bank immediately to cancel accounts to avoid any unauthorized purchases.

Social security cards, passports and birth certificates should be kept in a secure place at home. When you go shopping or out in public, only bring what you absolutely need, and never leave your wallet or purse unattended or in an automobile. These situations could give thieves easy access to your personal information.

Reconcile check, credit card and bank statements. Regularly review your check, credit card and bank statements to ensure that all purchases listed are legitimate and authorized. If you notice any transactions that don’t belong, call your bank or credit company immediately to challenge the purchase.

Also, confirming that home and work mailboxes are secure for receiving important mail such as credit card and bank statements will reduce the likelihood of theft. When ordering new checks, arrange to pick them up in-person at a local bank branch.

Don’t click links in emails from financial institutions or vendors that log into your account or require personal information. Online shoppers should also be aware of emails they receive from vendors with links that, when clicked, ask you to enter personal information. If you receive an email that looks like it’s from a financial institution or vendor, regardless if you’re familiar with that institution, don’t click on any links in the email to log into your account or provide information. Instead, go to your browser and type in the domain name of the institution (e.g. http://www.paypal.com). Often times, these emails are from identity thieves who are trying to obtain or phish for confidential information.

Consider purchasing identity theft coverage as part of your insurance policy. Many insurance carriers, such as Integrity, offer identity theft coverage as part of or an endorsement to their homeowner’s or renter’s policy. Adding identity theft protection to a policy will provide some coverage in the case that identity theft occurs. Policy owners should check with their independent insurance agent to confirm what options and assistance are available.

In addition to adding identity theft protection to your insurance policy, consider the monitoring and security options that your credit card company or other vendors offer. Many companies offer protection tools, such as transaction alerts, to help their customers become less vulnerable to a breach.

Check your credit score. Holiday shoppers should also remember to check their credit score annually. Companies such as TransUnion, Experian and Equifax offer free yearly credit reports that allow shoppers to analyze their score for any suspicious activity.

To learn more about identity fraud and access additional resources, visit http://www.us-cert.gov/cas/tips/.

Homeowners, business owners: Don’t get burned this winter

As the weather gets colder, it’s likely that we’ll turn up our heat and brace ourselves for the winter ahead. But as we increase the use of heating systems during the winter months, the frequency of residential and business fires also rises. In fact, more than 50,000 heating fires in residential buildings occur each year in the United States, a majority of which happen from November through March, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

It is important that business owners and homeowners alike prepare their employees and families for potential fires, and practice important prevention habits. Integrity Insurance, an Appleton, Wisconsin-based insurance company, offers advice on how to play it safe when it comes to fire.

Make sure you’re covered.

Homeowners, renters and business owners should ensure they have the proper insurance coverage in place in case of a fire. Most policies cover fire damage to residences or businesses, as well as personal belongings, but may have some limitations. In addition, most commercial insurance will protect business owners from liability if an employee is injured or loss of life occurs during a fire.

“It is important to review your policy on an annual basis with your agent to ensure any changes or upgrades to your home or personal property are accurately taken into consideration when determining what coverages are right for you,” states Christian Martin, Claims Vice President for Integrity Insurance.

Practice makes perfect.

It only takes minutes for a house or business to become engulfed in flames, making a planned escape route a necessity. Plan an escape route and post it where everyone can easily find it. Practice your route at least twice per year at different times during the day, especially with children or people with disabilities.

Designate a meeting spot a safe distance from your home or business, such as a tree across the street, so you can assure everyone made it out safely. Alert the fire department if someone is missing or if pets are trapped so they can perform a rescue safely.

Fire-proof your home or business.

Stop the fire before it starts by eliminating potential hazards in your home or business. Equip yourself with fire extinguishers, regularly tested smoke alarms and sprinklers. Keep curtains, towels or any items that can easily catch fire at least three feet from heaters. Business owners should also consider posting “No Smoking” signs around machinery and flammable materials to alert employees of potential danger.

It is also important to protect important papers including birth certificates, property inventory and proof of its value, such as receipts, titles and appraisals.

“In the case of a fire, you may be required to show proof of property value to ensure full coverage from your insurance policy,” said Martin. “Make copies of all important documents, and keep the originals in a bank safe deposit box outside of your home or business.”

Memorize emergency contact information.

Make sure that everyone in your home knows how to dial 9-1-1. Business owners and families should also post emergency phone numbers in a central place such as on the refrigerator or in the break room so they are easily accessible.

By taking the proper safety precautions, homeowners, renters and business owners can protect themselves, their property, family members and employees from a fire. To learn if your policy protects you from fire, talk to your independent agent or log onto www.integrityinsurance.com.

New publication is a new adventure

I took a surreal trip Wednesday. I drove from my home in Darboy to Shawano – less than an hour away – to pick up the first edition of a new publication that I’m editing – Midwest Agriculture Almanac. What made the trip so bizarre was that my first newspaper job after college was at the paper in Shawano. From the time I got there until I left eight months later, I was looking for another job. Coming from Madison where I went to school and being single, I felt that the town was too small and I had big plans and dreams (New York Times anyone?)

barn photoBut to phrase Steinbeck wrote, our best laid plans don’t always work out. I took a job in Manitowoc after Shawano and met my soon-to-be husband. We married and then I took a job at the Appleton newspaper and moved up the food chain there. Had two children in 15 months. Through a series of unfortunate events nearly eight years ago, I found myself without a newspaper job. I then started freelancing and was very fortunate to connect with several publications and organizations in Wisconsin. It’s been a great experience and opportunity since I’ve been able to set my own hours, which has been essential since my son was diagnosed with autism. I sometimes work on weekends and in the evenings so I can take him to various doctor appointments and I don’t have to explain to anyone when I have to leave work to go pick him up at school if he’s having a bad day.

In early January, a colleague from my time at the Appleton newspaper contacted me about taking over Midwest Agriculture Almanac. I had written for two issues last year. It’s a quarterly publication focused on ag issues in the Midwest – just like the name said. He couldn’t devote the time to it and was I interested? Of course! I’m not only the editor, but I also own the newspaper and formed my first LLC and get a business bank account so I can write checks to the printer and freelance writers and accept payments from advertisers and readers. I like the idea of getting to make my own decisions about what stories to run and being in control.

It’s been kind of crazy the past six weeks as I put together my first issue, including laying it out via InDesign – something I hadn’t done in a while. But it worked out well. The production guys in Shawano said it looked great and I’m now in the process of taking the website live before Monday, when it should arrive in the hands of subscribers.

And while I’ve done some writing on ag issues through the years as a business writer, I had no idea just how complex and interesting the ag industry is. There’s a lot of technology involved and ag plays a huge role in the economies of Wisconsin and other Midwestern states. I’ve learned a lot in the past few weeks and can’t wait to learn more in the months to come.

Since the paper is quarterly, I can still do all of my other freelance work as long as I stay disciplined and organized, which I think I can do. I recently lost two writing clients and Midwest Agriculture Almanac fills that monetary and time gap.

But what made the drive to Shawano interesting was my perspective. I never imagined 21 years ago that I would be a successful freelance writer and that I would still be in roughly the same area. I think that 21-year-old would have thought that to be a failure, but she was wrong. I may not have made it to the New York Times, but I am still able to do what I love – write – and spend plenty of time with my family.