Nobody likes to think about the possibility of a natural disaster or a terrorist act. But as victims of disasters such as Hurricane Harvey can attest, it’s important to prepare for a disaster long before it happens. Once a disaster has occurred, it is unlikely that you will have sufficient time to take steps to protect yourself.
Disaster plans require a number of considerations, including having a disaster kit and an evacuation plan. As privacy advocates, we have a narrower focus when it comes to disaster preparedness: control of your personal information.
It’s important to realize that different types of disasters are likely to result in different consequences. You may be asked to shelter in place, to evacuate to a facility in your own community, or possibly to relocate to a far-off location in another state. Or you may choose to stay with a relative or friend. Likewise, you may be able to return to your home after a short while, or there may be an extended period of absence. In the worst case, your home and its contents may be completely destroyed.
Each of these situations will result in different challenges to protecting your privacy and personal information. Therefore, it is difficult to provide specific advice that will apply equally to every situation. Instead, we offer a number of suggestions that may or may not apply to a particular disaster situation.
- Focus on Redundancy – It's impossible to know what a disaster might bring. A good disaster plan should be flexible enough to work in a wide variety of situations – and that means building in system redundancy. Consider storing your personal information in more than one place and in more than one format. This might mean, for example, storing copies of important documents and information in a safe deposit box and scanning documents for storage on a USB flash drive that you carry with you (make sure that the files on the flash drive are encrypted).
- Don’t Leave Your Personal Information Behind - Make a practice of shredding documents that you no longer need to reduce what is left behind (and unattended) when disaster strikes. All unnecessary documents containing personal information should be shredded or carefully secured on an ongoing basis—before disaster strikes. During a flood or tornado, documents could be scattered over a wide area. If looting were to occur, thieves might enter your home in search of such documents. Encrypt hard drives, USB flash drives and other electronic data to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.
- Plan for the Unpredictable – Consider how flooding, power outages, home destruction, and fires may affect how you store your sensitive information. Place documents and devices in waterproof and fire resistant pouches (even the items you place inside your safe deposit box). Store digital copies of important documents on an encrypted USB flash drive. Alternatively, consider using a secure cloud-based service. Be aware that storing data in the cloud has its own risks because you aren’t in control of the physical servers that contain your records.
- Neither Rain Nor Snow - A disaster may disrupt mail service for days or weeks. Using direct deposit for payroll, retirement, Social Security and other electronic payments can help avoid difficulties in depositing funds to your account if you can't get your mail or if your bank branch is closed.
- Protect Your Vital Records - Be sure that the original copies of important documents (such as birth certificates, wills, marriage certificates, and Social Security cards) are properly secured. You may want to keep the originals in a safe deposit box. Alternatively, you may want to carry them with you. Each alternative comes with its own risks. You risk loss or theft if you carry these documents with you. But, if placed in a safe deposit box, you may not have access to them if you need to relocate far away, or if access to the box is temporarily impeded by the disaster.
- Consolidate Your Critical Information - Create a list of account numbers and contact information for banking, credit cards, insurance policies, investments, and other financial service providers. Include your checking account's routing number, and basic medical and prescription drug information. Remember to keep this information up-to-date for yourself and family members.
- Carry Identification - You may need your driver's license and passport to prove who you are in order to obtain benefits, claim your property, or, if relocated permanently, to apply for a new driver’s license or a new job. Keep your passport (which is not normally something that you carry with you in your wallet) in a secure but accessible place where you can grab it quickly.
- Pack Some Power – Plan for widespread and long-lasting power outages. Think about the digital data that you might need to access and how you will access it if there is no power. For many people, mobile phones might be their only source of contact information. Purchase back-up batteries or chargers for your mobile phone and other devices.
- Stash Some Cash - Remember that financial networks may be down after a disaster. ATMs and credit card processing may not be available. So be sure to have a supply of emergency cash for essentials. Small denominations are best.
- Keep It With You – Unfortunately, thieves tend to take advantage of people at their worst, and disasters are no different. Just like when you travel abroad, important documents and cash are safest if they never leave your sight. Consider using a money belt to secure these items.
- Take Photos of Assets – Take a home inventory with photos or video to document all of your valuables for insurance purposes. Store the photos or video footage in a safe place. If you decide to store it in the cloud, keep in mind that cloud services might be subject to disruption from the same disaster that can impact you.
- Be Prepared for Scams - During and after a disaster, scammers are likely to be out in full force to get your personal information. Be cautious when giving out your personal information, particularly your Social Security number. It is the most valuable piece of information to identity thieves.
The key to protecting your privacy, your personal information, and avoiding identity theft is planning ahead. Take a few moments now and be ready if disaster strikes.