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Watch out: Online information predators can ruin financial future

Robins Air Force Base, Ga., -- When it comes to guarding your personal information, you can never be too careful. This is a lesson learned the hard way by several federal employees who participate in the Thrift Savings Plan.

Several TSP participants' personal computers were infected by keylogging software, which allowed criminals to monitor and record all key strokes made by the participants without their knowledge. Keylogging software allows criminals to retrieve passwords, personal identification numbers or encryption keys. About a dozen TSP participants' computer systems were breached by the keylogging software and the breach resulted in a combined loss of about $35,000.

Although neither the TSP nor myPay systems have been breached, Defense Finance and Accounting Service officials are urging all users of both systems to take the necessary steps to make sure their personal information is not vulnerable to scams and identity theft.

One of the first steps to safeguarding your finances is making sure you have updated security software such as firewalls, anti-virus and spyware detection; the lack of such software appears to be one of the reasons the TSP participants' computers were comprised.

Any Department of Defense employees concerned about the security of their personal computer can update their security software for free through the Joint Task Force for Global Network Operations. The service is available at the Robins secure Web site inside the information links box, where a link is available for software for home use.

Along with ensuring the security of your personal computer is updated, DFAS officials encourage personnel to never use public-use computers such as those in Internet cafes to conduct personal business.

"Every one must be diligent in taking time to monitor all accounts, such as personal checking and savings accounts and all credit card accounts, not just their TSP or myPay accounts," said Cheryl McNeil-Jordan Robins, financial services flight chief.

"Make sure the expenditures showing match your records," said Ms. McNeil-Jordan.

She said it is important to monitor accounts daily because the longer the unauthorized activity goes without being detected the harder it is to trace back to the person responsible.

She also said DOD employees should carefully check all balances related to their Leave and Earnings Statement on the myPay Web site.

DOD employees should check their LES each month to make sure everything is OK. They should be aware of all their balances such as their leave balance, she said.

Once you have installed or updated security software, DFAS officials advise users to also be careful to log off secure Web site after they are finished and then to close the browser completely. DFAS officials said using the back arrow or button does not guarantee your secure session was ended.

The security measures don't end when you turn off your computer; there are other steps that should be taken to ensure your financial safety.

"My best piece of advice for anyone is to buy a nice crosscut shredder," Ms. McNeil-Jordan said. "I shred anything with my name and address on it and obviously everything with my account number."

Other steps individuals should take to safe guard their financial information include being aware of your surroundings such as covering your PIN when entering it at retail stores or at an Automated Teller Machine.

"If you are proactive, you can nip it in the bud," said Ms. McNeil-Jordan.

Shoppers and bankers should also attempt to shield account numbers when standing in line to withdraw cash or purchase items.

Other ways she said individuals should protect their finances are by not including their social security numbers on their checks or their driver's license.

"Guard it (your social security number), don't give it out to anyone without making sure they have a valid need for it," Ms. McNeil Jordan.

She also said Airmen who live in dorms or have roommates should also be careful and lock up personal information because you never know who might come in when you are not around.

"Be careful leaving things out for people to see," said Ms. McNeil-Jordan.

She encourages supervisors of young Airmen to help educate them on how to protect their financial information. She said safeguarding finances is a great Wingman's Day or Commander's Call topic.

"Five or 10 minutes of vigilance could save someone a lot of heartache," she said.