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Hot on the Web

More ways to use the Web to protect yourself

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on February 16, 2007
(Issue 2507, How Wi-Fi Works)

A few weeks back, we shared some tips for using the Web to protect your privacy and credit online – courtesy of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

This week, we share some more of those tips:

The (real) free credit report

Whether on daytime or late-night TV or in offer stuffed in your mailbox, there is no shortage of folks offering you a supposedly free copy of your credit report. Thing is, most of them have strings attached – generally, by requesting your legally mandated free credit report through these outfits, you end up "requesting" some service or other from them.

But as mentioned above, you have a legal right to get a free copy of your credit report once a year. is a clearinghouse for three of the largest credit agencies: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion - each of which maintains a credit report on everyone who's ever had a loan or credit card.

The process is straight-forward: Fill out your info, and then choose which of the three credit agencies you want to visit first.

Now, a credit report is different from your credit rating: The credit report simply shows all loans (including credit card accounts) you have or have had in the past few years, and whether you were on time with your payments. (Perfect, thank you, though not always sure how I manage to pull that off.)

But you can look over every company that reports you as having a loan – and if there is incorrect info on there that could hurt your credit rating (and thus cost you in higher interest rates), each agency has an online form you can use to submit the correct information.

In this age of rampant identity theft, it's probably a good idea to make sure your credit repot is accurate – and to make sure no one else is running around with your identity racking up debt in your name.

Insurance claims reports

With many insurers now having a policy of dropping customers who file claims, and of not accepting new customers who have filed claims, it's important to know if the insurance databases have accurate information about you on file.

You can get a free history of homeowner and auto insurance claims each year by going to

The process here is similar to that for the free credit report: Fill out your particulars, and then your reports are available for online viewing. (Me: No claims on the renters insurance, one car crash from a few years ago still on the record.)

With both the credit report and the insurance claims report, if you're uneasy about sending info like your Social Security Number, you can instead print out a form and mail it in or call a toll-free number and have it mailed to you.

Cookie privacy

If you had dropped the phrase "cookie privacy" on my grandmother, she'd have smacked you upside the head: recipes were for sharing in her world. Anyway, what made them her cookies was how she made them, the sort of stuff you can't write on a card. I've got her recipe collection, but I still can't get my cookies to come out all light like hers.

Today, though, cookies are also small data files Web servers download to our hard drives in order to track our online behavior. Often, it's innocuous – like your bank's Web server reminding itself that you are indeed logged in for your entire transaction. Other times it's less so.

The National Advertising Agency is now running a Web site to let you opt out of some of the online targeted advertising. Targeted advertising is ads delivered to your browser with their content determined by the sites you have visited. Thus, if you visit sites devoted to, say, off-road bike riding, you're likely to see ads about off-road equipment when you visit sites that subscribe to these advertiser services.

When you go to the NAA site, you can click on the Opt-Out link. That page contains a menu that shows the advertising agencies that belong to the NAA, and whether you have a cookie from them on your computer. From this menu, you can simply check a box to opt out of any of the networks you like.

This will not get rid of all the ads you see online – it will only dictate that those networks will no longer submit cookies to your computer that track your online behavior.

It is a small victory for privacy, but a victory nonetheless.