Shutdowns open scam doors to government websites

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If the government shuts down again in a few weeks, some of its websites might be inaccessible because of expired security certificates. Each government agency is responsible for keeping its security certificates updated, a process usually done annually. When agencies are shut down, however, certificates can expire.

These certificates confirm the identity of the website and assure the user they have established a secure connection with a web server hosting the website. If you need to access a government website, check for the padlock symbol before the URL name of the website, which denotes it is a secure site. Some web browsers — for example, Google Chrome, — don’t allow you to access a website without a valid security certificate.

Scammers view this as an opportunity to set up similar looking websites to fool us into thinking we are accessing real government sites. To protect yourself, don’t be tempted to do an internet search for another way to access the agency’s website if using the traditional method was unsuccessful. This will likely lead you to an official-looking but very fake site. And if the site isn’t secure (e.g., lacks the padlock symbol), DO NOT enter any personal information.

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I FROZE MY CREDIT: In December, I wrote about how to freeze your credit. I took my own advice and went to the three credit bureau websites to do just that. It was a fairly quick and easy process on TransUnion and Experian, but Equifax had an unexpected challenge.

As a security precaution, each site asks you a series of questions to make sure they can identify you’re the right person making the request. The questions are specific to the individual, like which company you have or had a mortgage with, what model of car you drove, what company you insured your car through, or a former address. All pretty basic stuff as long as you can remember these details.

But Equifax threw in a zinger and asked where Raj Patel has lived in the past. My choices were Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, or Austin.

My question: Who the heck is Raj Patel? I think I might have worked with a Raj Patel about 12 years ago but I don’t really remember. This had to be a trick question. But I figured I was up for the challenge and consulted Linkedin (a professional social media site). That turned out to be no help since there are over 3,500 profiles for Raj Patel. Just my luck, there’s at least one of them in each location.

Now I had no choice but to guess, so I picked Houston. I think, “Houston, we have liftoff” was running through my head. Anyway, that must have been the wrong answer because I failed the validation test. So Equifax ended up having to snail mail my validation code, which came in the mail about a week later. Once I got the code I was able to complete the process in a few minutes.

Freezing your credit is a fairly easy process as long as you don’t get a trick question like I did. Even the Equifax rep couldn’t tell me why I was asked such a bizarre question with no apparent link to me. But even so, I think it was worth the trouble to freeze my credit. Now I’ll have to thaw it out and let you know how that goes.

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BOGUS USPS WEBSITES: A Coeur d’Alene reader called to warn us about fake websites that appear to be from the United States Postal Service (USPS). Just so you know, the USPS charges $1.05 to forward mail for up to 1 year, or 60 days for magazines.

The official website is www.usps.com. All other websites have no affiliation with the USPS.

Customers have complained that some sites charge consumers up to $40 to change an address and, in some cases, the address changes don’t get made. The Postal Service has no affiliation with the businesses that manage those sites, so if you’re looking for a refund, contact those who operate the sites directly. If you want to lodge a complaint, call 877-876-2455.

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Remember: I’m on your side.

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If you have encountered a consumer issue that you have questions about or think our readers should know about, please send me an email at terridickersonadvocate@gmail.com or call me at (208) 274-4458. As The CDA Press Consumer Gal, I’m here to help. Please include your name and a phone number or email. I’m available to speak about consumerism to schools, local and civic groups. I’m a copywriter, columnist and consumer advocate living in Coeur d’Alene.

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