Roadblock To Nirvana

Self No Comments

Imagine that you have made a commitment to always remind yourself that reality is an illusion. That the floor you stand on, the air flowing into your lungs, your body, and the people and places around you are all illusions. That everything and everyone is not real. Whenever you remember to, you make this reminder to yourself. When washing dishes or stopped at a light in your car. Several times a day. For a year.

Brainwashing Myself

043GirlOnBeachThat’s what I did. I consciously brainwashed myself for a whole year. Good idea? I’m not so sure. I experienced many wonderful benefits but encountered one major downside.

Believing that reality is an illusion does have a basis in science. It does not need to be a fanciful flight of the imagination. At the basic quantum level, everything can be regarded as probabilities. In this instance of time, the probability collapses that a quark exists at this position in space. Other probabilities collapse into other quarks at the same position in space to create a neutron. And other probabilities collapse into positrons, neutrons, and electrons to make an atom. And this atom, in combination with other atoms, forms a living cell and with other cells, forms your body. All these gazillion probabilities collapse into you, a thinking being, at this exact moment. And they collapse into you again in the next moment and the next. It’s a miracle that we don’t fly apart, scattered across the universe, blinking into and out of existence.

Expand that miracle to include each of the billions of humans, the Earth we inhabit, and the universe around us. It is awe inspiring. As I convinced myself more and more that all was illusion, I grew more amazed at reality. When I’m hiking, I have to stop and let the marvel of nature wash over me. What possibilities exist for there to be this majestic valley and mountain before me? Sometimes, I spend minutes looking at my hands, wondering at its existence and at the fact that I can move it with my thoughts. Amazement soon moves into gratitude for my existence and the endless wonders that surround me.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” ― Albert Einstein

Note that I’m not in the state of amazement and gratitude continuously, all the time. This mindfulness infrequently comes and goes. Similar to how I have to continually remind myself to remember that reality is illusion, I have to remind myself to be amazed and grateful. I think this infrequency is a very good thing. Because humans adapt, I’m sure that after a while of being continually in such an “enlightened” state, it would start to be dull and average.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

The goal I was shooting for with this mind experiment was to attain better detachment from worldly concerns. And I believe the experiment succeeded. What does detachment sound like? The phrase “don’t sweat the small stuff… and it’s all small stuff” (from a book title) comes to mind. Small stuff like almost hitting a car that cuts suddenly into your lane on the freeway, or having to wait at the checkout line because someone ahead of you has an issue. Because all is illusion, why should I be attached to events and their outcomes? Everything is as it should be. The near collision wasn’t a collision. I am here, waiting in this line, because I am supposed to be here. And I’m doing what I am supposed to be doing. No decision can be wrong if everything is an illusion, including the decision itself.

Detachment is great. Most of the time, I’m not stressing out about what goes on, wondering if I’m making the right choice, or worrying about the future. I am just calm, relaxed. Now, I still do things that I have to do, such as paying the bills and being productive at work, to avoid the possibility of externally-induced stress, such as getting evicted or not having enough money for food. There is only so far you can go before reality takes a bite. I’m sure that a truly detached being wouldn’t care about what happens to his body, but I’m still concerned about not experiencing bad things like pain and starvation.

Other than the survival stuff, I expect things to work out. If they do, great. If they don’t, that’s okay. Surprisingly, most of the time, things work out for the best; if not immediately, then in the near future. Sometimes I think it’s the worse, but then a twist occurs and it’s actually for the best. My previous car, a Jetta, developed a weird crayon smell in hot weather caused by the decay of the sound absorption material Volkswagen used. I was a bit vexed because the issue was a manufacturer defect but the car was out of warranty. I decided to live with it. Months later, my sister upgraded and offered to give me her Civic. I sold the Jetta and ended up with a car which was more reliable, used cheaper gasoline (regular, not premium), and was less expensive to maintain. Because I try not to expect good results, I’m pleasantly surprised when things just work out for the better. The universe (or if you prefer, God) knows what it’s doing.

Do Sweat The Big Stuff

The good thing about detachment is that I’m floating along in life, without stress. The bad thing about detachment is that I’m floating along in life, without stress. I’ve realized that self-induced stress is necessary to push me beyond my comfort level, to take action, and to force me to grow. Without stress, I feel like I’m at a dead-end. I’m no longer clawing my way up the corporate ladder. I’m not pushing myself to arrange get-togethers and activities with friends. I’m not under a time crunch to do things, professionally or personally. I get what needs to be done done, but I don’t push myself to go the extra mile. Sometimes I miss being busy, having to sweat about juggling family, friends, work, personal life, and their related dramas. I miss feeling like I’m accomplishing a lot.

“Creativity requires action, and part of that action must be physical. It is one of the pitfalls of Westerners adopting Eastern meditation techniques to bliss out and render ourselves high but dysfunctional. We lose our grounding and, with it, our capacity to act in the world. In the pursuit of higher consciousness, we render ourselves unconscious in a new way. Exercise combats this spiritually induced dysfunction.” – Julia Camera, The Artist’s Way

When I know that my accomplishments have no meaning, it takes a lot of wind from feeling triumphant. There is a lack of motivation and a lot of passivity. I’m not driving. The universe directs my life… I’m just waiting for it to send experiences my way. The ride is very pleasant but I’m not going anywhere. I’ve gone too far to the other end and am falling down a puddle without end. As with anything in life, when you reach a roadblock or dead-end, it’s time to look for a detour.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff… and everything is small stuff” is right and wrong. While learning to not sweat the small stuff, I should have kept sweating the big stuff. The big stuff is not everything, it’s just the important thing. And it is right that I should be sweating the big stuff in my life. Sharing experiences with family, friends, and coworkers. Figuring out what is important and meaningful to do with my life. Having compassion for my fellow humans in their misfortunes and sharing the joy in their triumphs. Putting myself out into the world, making mistakes, getting bruised, meeting cool people, and learning and doing crazy, interesting things. Trying to be a better person than I was yesterday. And, though I hate to say it, forcing myself to eat healthy and exercise. Those are the big stuff that matters.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff… and everything is small stuff except for the big stuff.” – My addendum

Good Vs Bad Procrastinators

I admit that it is an awful amount of big stuff to sweat, especially for a procrastinator such as myself. As with anything in life, procrastination is good and bad, depending upon how you handle it. Being a “good” procrastinator, I push myself to be creative about eliminating unnecessary work and doing the remainder in a way that requires much less effort and time. As a software engineer, I would spend my time to write a program to do repetitive work, instead of doing the repetitive work myself, especially if I know it is recurring work. And I write how-to instructions in detail, in my technical blog and in a wiki at work, because it saves me a ton of time when I can quickly refer people asking for help to an article and when I need to remind myself how to do something. (You probably have experiences with coworkers who ask you a question that you take the time to answer and a few days later, they ask you the same question again. I just point them at the wiki repeatedly until they understand that I won’t humor them and they go off to find another “victim”.)

Sometimes, if I feel a task is not important, waiting until near the deadline to do it can save me time when I find out the that task is no longer necessary. The downside is that if I’m wrong, I may have to work extra hard to meet the deadline; but that is the acceptable risk and most of the time, I come out ahead. Good procrastinators are careful gamblers who figure out the odds that something needs to be done. Bad procrastinators are bad gamblers who bet their energy on things that don’t need to be done, ignoring the important work.

A Simple Plan For The Rest Of My Life

Back to the main topic, I believe I have found a simple 2 step plan to making progress on the big stuff. I created this plan by merging ideas from two books, “The Now Habit at Work” by Neil Fiore and “Why People Fail” by Simon Reynolds. This plan will work for procrastinators, and if it works for procrastinators, it should work for everyone else.

Here is the simple 2 step plan for sweating the big stuff:

  1. Commit to start creating for 15 minutes each day or whatever is most attainable. (For the truly bad procrastinators, 5 minutes might be a better starting point.)
  2. Increase the time as you feel comfortable to.

Why the weird “start creating” phrase? Let’s address the latter part first, as it is the most important. I believe that the purpose of life for all humans is to create. We express our most pure nature when we do something creative, like drawing a picture, writing a blog, inventing a new skateboard trick, building furniture out of discards, combining flavors into a new dish, and testing a new prank on a friend. When we create, we are pushing our limits to bring something new into existence. It reminds me of the phrase, “man is created in the image of God”. To me, that phrase means that when we are creating, we are closest to God.

When I look closer at my big stuff, I find that the biggest, most challenging stuff has to do with creation. Creating enriching moments with my family, friends, and coworkers. Trying to find my life’s purpose can more accurately be stated as creating my life’s purpose. Creating a better life for myself and my fellow beings. Creating a new, better version of myself each day. If I keep my focus on the big stuff and commit to creating each day, my creations will naturally become the big stuff. I sweat the big stuff by creating it.

Self Help For The Procrastinator

The “start creating” phrase and “15 minutes” time limit are for procrastinators or people who lead very busy lives. I synthesized this approach from two ideas about overcoming procrastination, getting started from the “The Now Habit at Work” and limiting time commitment from “Why People Fail”. I hesitate to take on tasks because I don’t want to commit to spending my time and effort to complete them. The bigger the task and the greater the effort required, the more I hesitate. However, if I think that a task is short (just 15 minutes or even 5 minutes) and the effort is small (I’m committing to starting the task, not finishing it), I don’t mind taking it on. Once I get started, I usually go for longer than 15 minutes and sometimes a couple of hours later, I will complete the creation. (This method is how I usually complete postings for this blog.)

It’s a mind trick I play on myself. The goal is to do something (anything) creative every day and the secondary goal is to establish a daily habit of creation. Once I have the habit, I won’t need the trick as much. Or if the habit never develops (usually true for a procrastinator), I may just have to live with the trick. I can still “start” the same thing today that I’ve started the past 20 days or that I’ve started a year ago. Off and on, I’ve “started” this blog post more than two dozen times already.

Before I end this posting, I want to talk about learning. Sometimes I confused learning with creating. When I’m surfing the Internet and learning new things, could that be considered part of my commitment to doing something creative each day? The answer is yes and no. There is a gray area between creating and learning. I believe that learning may be required to meet the goal of creating, but it should never be the goal itself. For example, how can I invent a new skateboard trick if I don’t know how to skate and can’t perform any of the existing tricks? How can I create a video game if I don’t learn how to program first? So if you are learning in order to surpass that learning and create, then yes, it meets your commitment to start creating each day. If you are learning just to learn, then no, it does not meet the commitment to create.

Start Creating Every Day

Aya_KitouIf we are made in the image of God, then his greatest gift to us is creation in its many splendors. Are we not then made to create? By creating, do we not express our truest nature and offer thanks and gratitude to God?

I wanted to end with a story about Aya Kitou. She was a young woman, a teenager who was stricken with a disease, Spinocerebellar Ataxia, which took her mobility and ultimately her life. Yet, she never gave up on living, on growing, on creating her future, however imperfect and dark it became. From her diary, a quote (translated from Japanese) stands out: “So fall down, get up, and smile because you are alive and experiencing this wonderful gift of life.”

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Judging vs Perceiving Dominant Types

Personality No Comments

In a previous post, MBTI: Not Misleading, Just Misunderstood, I mentioned judging and perceiving dominant functions. I was talking to a friend and believe that I have stumbled upon a good way to differentiate between the two. Consider judging and perceiving in terms of communication.

smurf-devilvsangelJudging dominant types are almost always judging what they hear and what they say, but their judgments are works in progress. Such types will give clues, verbal and nonverbal, as to the degree of certainty in what they are saying. They would say something like “In most cases, I think that this is true.” And the progression over time is that the judgments will grow from less certain to very sure. Eventually, they will say, “This is true.” Some things are not judged, some start with no previous judgments, and others have strong judgment immediately (the result of similar decisions in the past). As judgers examine and re-examine, they re-judge until they reach a point where they are strongly certain.

Conversely, perceiving dominant types do not immediately judge unless they have made similar decisions in the past. Without prior judgments, they wait until the very end to decide. Unfortunately, they (especially dominant perceivers with thinking secondary) usually do not give any clue (verbal or nonverbal) as to the level of certainty of their statements, mainly because they have not decided anything as of yet. They would say, “This is false”, and say it with no, little, some, or total certainty; a listener can’t be sure which. Perceivers wish to explore all the possibilities first before deciding on one. What they state may not be certain at all because no judgment may be attached.

The two different styles result in conflict when they communicate with each other. Judging dominants are continuously judging and communicating their level of certainty. Early on or midway through the discussion, they may say “I believe this is so but I may be wrong”. Perceiving dominants instead will state “This is so” without indicating any level of certainty.

Each type believes they are communicating with their own type. Unfortunately, this is may not be the case. A judging dominant would believe that a perceiving dominant is very certain (because there is no verbal qualifier to the statement made) and attempt to figure out why the perceiver believes his statement to be true. A judger would then ask questions and come up with exception cases. The perceiver, who is “just throwing it out there”, is wondering why the judger is questioning him about what he said and attempting to close off possibilities prematurely. The perceiver first responds by trying to answer the judger’s questions, quickly gets annoyed when the questions persist, and start throwing out other statements or possibilities in reply to the exception cases. The judger gets vexed because he views the perceiver as not willing to explain why, making tangential statements that may conflict with each other, and changing judgments randomly. The end result is a communication breakdown and irritation with each other.

The above situation is made worse if any of the two types do not possess high emotional maturity and strong self-esteem. A perceiving dominant would feel under attack by the judging dominant. The perceiver would wonder why the judger is questioning him. A judging dominant would feel that the perceiver is not being serious, being disrespectful and making fun of him. Negative emotions are mixed into the irritation cycle and can build up to eruptions in anger with each other.

Perhaps a better understanding can be arrived at when we consider how each type brainstorms. When brainstorming, judging dominants will make continual judgments that they refine using exception cases. Judgers will examine the feasibility of a possibility before moving on the next one; judgers explore depth first. Perceiving dominants wish to explore all the possibilites before determining any possiblities’ feasibility; perceivers explore breadth first. Seeking refinement, judgers will look for exceptions to what is suggested by a perceiver. The perceiver may feel that is too premature to close off the possibility by questioning. Because statements made by perceivers are viewed as very certain, judgers may feel that it is too premature to make such judgments so soon. Brainstorming becomes an unpleasant experience for both types.

To make my point, I have painted the two types in their extremes. Both types make judgments. For judging dominants, the judgment is spread over the whole process. For perceiving dominants, the judgment is compressed to the end. Unfortunately, a non-judgmental statement said by a perceiving dominant sounds like a definitive statement to a judging dominant. A definitive statement said by a judging dominant sounds like a non-definitive statement to a perceiving dominant. These misunderstandings lead to a communication cycle which will frustrate both types.

The cycle can only be broken if at least one of the types do not assume that they are talking to their own type and make the effort to determine the type they are speaking to. Judging dominant types should not ascribe certainty of judgment to statements made without qualifiers by perceiving dominant types. Absent any expression of degree of certainty, the judger should ask directly whether what was stated is a definitive judgment. Perceiving dominant types should ask if there is any certainty to another’s statement, instead of assuming none, and if possible, provide verbal indicators as to the certainty of their own statements.

When you find yourself getting irritated in a discussion, stop and ask yourself whether your conversation partner is of a different type. Adjust accordingly and with patience, you will communicate and feel better and so will the other person.

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Real Insurance Is Better than AppleCare

Money 3 Comments

Recently, my brother-in-law decided to buy a 13 inch Apple Macbook Pro with Retina. He asked me if the AppleCare Protection plan, which costs $249 extra, was worth it. I told him no. For the same amount of money or less, one could get a better protection plan than AppleCare.

broken-mask-robotThe AppleCare Protection plan is a 3 year extended warranty plan. It only covers malfunctioning parts. It does not cover accidental damage, loss, or theft. If you drop the Macbook and the display cracks or the laptop stops working, you are out of luck because AppleCare does not cover that. You will need to pay the full repair price, which could be $1000 or more to replace a retina display. If you spill water on the keyboard and your Macbook shorts out, that’s too bad. If you lose the Macbook or someone steals it from the safety of your house, oh well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. AppleCare does not cover any of that.

What does AppleCare cover? Well, if your keyboard or display malfunctions through no fault of yours, then Apple will repair or replace that component. The Genius Bar members at your local Apple Store will check the Macbook for damage, such as large dents, that could cause the malfunction. If they find such damage, they can refuse the repair; if you are very lucky, you will get someone nice enough to allow the free repair. Be aware that Apple has put moisture detectors inside the Macbook so that if you spill water on it, the Genius Bar will know and can refuse the repair even if you have AppleCare Protection.

There is a reason why extended warranties are pushed so often by retailers. They make a lot of money off of them. Usually if a product such as a laptop were to fail, it would most likely fail during the first year when the product is still under the standard one year warranty. So if the customer pays for an extra year or two of warranty, that is considered an almost guaranteed 100% profit for the retailer. Not to say that there isn’t any case where a day or two after the one year warranty expired, the product failed and the owner was glad to have paid for extended warranty. That case is the exception though. The odds suggest not buying an extended warranty.

When most people buy AppleCare, I think they believe that they are buying insurance. They aren’t. Insurance could cover repair or replacement due to accidental damage, loss, or theft. AppleCare is not insurance. For the same amount of money, they could get real insurance that provides greater peace of mind.

First, before we talk insurance, make sure that you buy that expensive Macbook with an American Express credit card. (If you don’t have an American Express card, get one. There are basic American Express cards with no annual fee that provide the two benefits below.) Purchasing an item with an American Express card provides the following two benefits for free:

  • Purchase Protection: your purchase is protected for up to 90 days from the date of purchase from accidental damage or theft. You will be reimbursed up to $1000. (If you have an American Express Platinum card or similar, you get protection from loss also and up to $10,000.)
  • Extended Warranty: doubles the warranty on your purchase up to an additional year. For an extra year after the original warranty expires, if the purchase malfunctions through no fault of yours, you will be reimbursed the original cost (up to $10,000).

Purchasing the Macbook with an American Express credit card will add one additional year of extended warranty on top of the standard Apple one year warranty for free. It is a no brainer to do so. American Express service is very friendly. For example, the Wifi feature on my sister’s iPhone 4s broke (due to an Apple hardware defect) after she upgraded to iOS 7. Because it was past the one year warranty, Apple wanted $200 to replace the iPhone. I told my sister to call American Express to see if she was eligible for the free extended warranty. She was. They asked her to send them the receipt and then gave her a credit for the original cost of the iPhone. How cool is that?

Second, before buying insurance for your Macbook, check that you don’t already have it. You may have a rider on your house or rental insurance that covers your personal property such as electronics. Check to see what is covered. For example, my renter’s insurance covers theft and loss of personal property due to fire (burst pipes, etc.). Unfortunately, accidental damage is not covered. In the case of theft or loss, my rental insurance company will reimbursed me for the deprecated cost or if I purchase a replacement, they will cover the original cost. (This is nowhere as nice as American Express’ full credit of the original cost without requiring you to buy a replacement.)

If you don’t have a rider for personal property like electronics, you may want to ask your home insurance company about one. It may be the cheapest option because a rider is considered part of the bundle and you may get a better deal that way. Homeowners on forums provided some examples such as $40/year for $2000 coverage (much less than AppleCare) or $80/year for $5000 coverage for malfunctions, accidental damage, loss, and theft. The insurance cost seems to vary widely (one homeowner mentioned $15/year, another $30/year for $4000 coverage, and a third mentioned a deductible of $50).

Instead of a rider, you can purchase personal property insurance directly. Most likely, standalone insurance will be more expensive than a rider. The most recommended standalone insurance for a Macbook is an Inland Marine Insurance policy (can be gotten from several insurance companies like AllState, State Farm, and Farmers Insurance). Though originally created to cover expensive electronics on boats, the policy applies for land usage also. In a forum post (Best Insurance on Earth for your MacBook / Air etc. Far better than AppleCare), one person mentioned that it costs about $32/year for $1500 coverage of multiple devices with no deductible. (It was mentioned also that the Inland Marine Insurance policy did not cover phones.)

Another insurance mentioned was State Farm’s Personal Articles Policy, which costs $60/year for $3000 coverage. There are also insurance companies, like Safeware, that sell policies specific to high-end equipment and electronics. As with all other types of insurances, make sure to shop around to get the best deal.

When talking about insurance for electronics, Square Trade is a name that often comes up. Square Trade costs about the same as AppleCare; but in addition to the extended warranty, Square Trade covers accidental damage. Because Square Trade does not cover loss or theft, I believe that it is not the best deal. Square Trade is better than AppleCare but you can get better insurance than both for less.

Insurance is personal. I do not purchase extra insurance, such as extended warranties. (I do use an American Express card to take advantage of the free extra year of warranty though.) I am gambling that I’ll be careful enough not to break my Macbook, lose it, or be robbed. Considering all the money I have saved from not buying extra insurance or extended warranties on my many laptops, even if I have to pay full price to replace a Macbook, I will break even or come out ahead. However, if you feel more comfortable having some protection (nothing wrong with that), please consider the alternative options above to AppleCare. You will get much more bang for your buck.

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Send Me Money, Sucker!

Money No Comments

Recently, I got an email from a family member which reads as follow:

From: XXXX@yahoo.com
Subject: Urgent!

Hi,

I'm out of town suffering a terrible incident, I need your urgent favor,
Please email me back as soon as possible.

Thanks.

XXXX
(XXX) XXX-XXXX

The displayed email address looks correct as XXXX@yahoo.com, but when I check the headers, the reply-to address is XXXX@outlook.com. And the phone number has the wrong area code.

I recognized it as the money gram scam. Basically, if you reply to that email, you will receive a request to send money by Western Union (or a similar money transfer service), where it is easy for anyone to go and pick up the cash. (If you call the number, you will probably get voicemail.) The way this scam works is to hack into someone’s email account, send this same message to everyone in the address book, and hope that one or two people will fall for it and send money.

ScroogeMcDuckI sent a warning to my family and wasn’t surprised to find that most did not recognize this email as a scam. They were confused or thought it was a joke. The family member, whose email account was hacked, disclosed that several friends and acquaintances were calling to ask why he needed $930. This tells me that a lot of folks are not knowledgeable about Internet scams. I want to talk about scams, Internet and otherwise, and the one method that I use to fight them.

In the past, this and other frauds were perpetrated by isolated con artists. Nowadays, I believe that most of the scams on the Internet are perpetrated by criminal organizations. If I was a mafia boss, I would definitely have an Internet racket because face it, you can make a ton of money (from the hundreds of millions of victims) with very little risk of getting caught or punished, especially if you are located in another country.

So, there are groups of hundreds of criminals, backed by the best servers that dirty money can buy, running scams across the Internet (and elsewhere). They are working full-time to steal money from you and the companies you do business with. If they are truly International, they may be working full time across multiple time zones, while you are sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom, and watching TV.

You may throw up your hands in defeat at this point. And to be truthful, I agree. There is no way you can beat everything that an organization like that can throw at you. The best you can aspire to be is a potential victim that would take too much effort to defraud. Sad to say, your goal is to be less naive than the masses. Or more simply, the criminals will go for the lowest-hanging fruit and your job is to avoid being the lowest-hanging fruit.

The most powerful tool that we victims have in our arsenal is to “trust but verify” or more accurately, verify before trusting. This applies to almost everything in life. To illustrate, one of my friends did fall for the money gram scam above a couple years ago. After sending the money, she had some doubts so she called the friend up and the friend replied, “What? I’m not in XXXX country, robbed of everything, and in need of money!” My question is: Why didn’t she call up the friend or the friend’s family first before sending money? If she had verified first, the friend or the friend’s family would have told her that the email was a fake.

Email Links: Bad Idea

Avoid clicking on any links in an email, especially an email from your bank. Definitely, do not login if the link takes you to a login page where you are prompted to input your username and password. Instead, open up a browser and manually type in the address of your bank or whatever.

If you’re lucky, clicking on links indiscriminately may get your computer infected with a virus or spyware which will just slow down your computer. If you’re unlucky, a virus will erase your hard drive or a spyware will record what you type, like passwords, and transmit the data to someone who doesn’t have your best interest in mind. Worst, if you click on a link to your bank account and input your username and password, you may have just given access to your bank account to a criminal.

The last is referred to as phishing (pronounced like “fishing” because they are “phishing” for your money) which involves pretending to be a trustworthy entity in order to acquire sensitive information. Basically, someone nefarious creates a website which looks exactly like your bank’s login page. They send you a fake email from your bank with a link. When you click on the link, you are taken to the fake login page. After you input your banking username and password, they could then forward you to the real bank or just throw an error that maintenance is in progress. In the meantime, they have your username and password to access your bank account with.

Phishing may be used to gain access to accounts belonging to other companies than your bank, like investment firms, credit card companies, loan application processors, mortgage payment companies, etc. I believe that all legitimate businesses should make it a policy to not include any links in their official emails; instead, they should ask their users to manually browse to their company websites.

Note: If you receive a complicated link in an email, perhaps pointing to a specific Google or Yahoo photo album, which requires a login and you can’t figure out how to manually browse to it, here’s what you can do:

  1. Browse to the company address by manually typing it in, and log into your account.
  2. Go back to the email and click on the link.

If the link is legitimate, the system will recognize that you are already logged in and bypass the login screen. You would then go directly to that page; that is, the photo album. Doing the above will help you to avoid being tricked by a phishing website.

Phone Calls: Just Hang Up

Similar to the above, if you get a phone call from your bank and are asked to verify your identity, ask what the call is about, say bye-bye, and call your bank’s official phone number (listed on the back of your ATM card, their website, or in the phone book). Calling them directly is the equivalent of manually browsing to the company website. If the “bank” calls you and you provide your verification info (mother’s maiden name, social security, etc.), you may have just given your identity away to thieves, who could then gain access to your accounts or more likely, open a new credit card or loan in your name.

Knowing the above, the perpetrators will attempt to override your caution. A year ago, I got a phone call from my credit card company. They told me that they believed my credit card number had been stolen because they were seeing charges for flowers amounting to over a thousand dollars in Florida. They asked me to verify my identity so they can confirm that the charges were fraudulent. Of course, I answered every question they asked. Afterwards, I realized with horror that I might have just given the keys to my identity away to someone who “called” me on the phone. Thankfully it was a legitimate call, but it could have easily been a trick. What I should have done was ask them what the call was about, hang up, and call the credit card company back directly.

Phishing: Old as the Pharaohs

Phishing isn’t something new on the Internet; it has been around for a long time. I’m sure it has been around since mankind first discovered how to cheat and steal. I think all effective scams involve the use of phishing (again, pretending to be a trustworthy entity) because no one hands their money to some entity they don’t trust.

For example, suppose that you are on a business trip. You arrive late at the hotel. You’re hungry but too tired to go out. Conveniently, there is a flyer for pizza delivery that someone slipped under the hotel room’s door. You dial up the pizza place, make an order, and pay with your credit card. An hour later, the pizza hasn’t arrived yet. You call back and get some lame excuse like the oven has exploded, sorry, but there won’t be pizza for anyone. Or maybe no one picks up. Congratulations, you’ve just had your credit card number stolen.

Remember what P.T. Barnum supposedly said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Try not to be that sucker. But if you fall for a scam (which I must embarrassingly admit to once or twice), forgive yourself. You are only human. Just repeat to yourself, “There’s a human born every minute.” (To be exact, there’s a human born every 8 seconds.)

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