Using Your Computer to Store Vital RecordsKim Boatman
Every family should have a plan when it comes to accessing vital records in an emergency. Disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and more recently the California wildfires have left vast numbers of families attempting to recreate personal financial records, identification, health documents and more. Yet mishaps of a mundane, everyday nature can be just as costly. A leaky pipe can create a myriad of problems if you’ve been storing essential documents in a cardboard box in the basement.
What should you do with your important paperwork? Is it smart to scan your records and store them on your personal computer? In the Internet age, should you store backup copies with online services? And what should you do with the originals?
How do you plan for the unforeseen emergency? Carefully and thoughtfully, says Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research center. "Don’t gamble with your personal information," she says. But, she adds, “There’s no rulebook for it," and people have to learn to think creatively about storing personal information.
Assessing Your Vital Documents
The first step is to consider just what constitutes a vital record. Most of us probably count birth certificates, car titles, tax returns, stock certificates and insurance policies among our critical paperwork. But there are also secondary records -- such as bank statements, health records, insurance policies and wills -- that you also may want to safeguard. Re-creating all the documentation that a family requires in every day life can be daunting in the event of an emergency.
Questions to ask yourself include:
- What information would I need in an emergency?
- What if my home is destroyed or inaccessible? How will I access information about bank accounts, insurance policies and the like?
- What’s my fallback plan?
Keeping Records on Your Computer
That fallback plan for some involves storing information or copies of important documents electronically. Everyone seems to have a personal computer these days. It's quite easy to scan birth certificates, car titles, and other records into a digital format to store on your computer. Before you log in information to your computer as a backup, however, make sure you have adequate security protections in place on the computer, such as anti-virus and anti-spyware software, according to privacy experts. You’ll also need to scrub the hard drive, erasing all personal information, if you ever dispose of the computer.
Encryption -- data-scrambling software long used by governments and the military -- is a smart idea to protect this sort of data. Some software operating systems, such as Microsoft's Vista Enterprise, now have encryption programs built in so that they are easy to use for protecting data. Other programs are commercially available to encrypt files, emails and even instant messaging communications. Most encryption programs require a password to protect your data. So if you keep that password safe, no one should be able to access your personal information.
Another option to keep your documents safe is to back up the data onto a USB drive, says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy of the non-profit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. A USB drive is a small, portable flash memory card that plugs into a computer’s USB port. Some USB drives come with their own encryption. And this device is easy to find -- available at any electronics store and even some pharmacies.
Pros and Cons of Online Backup
Another alternative gaining in popularity is to employ a commercial online service that specializes in secure document storage. The benefit of such a service is that they store all your records, emails, and files and you can easily download the information onto a new computer in case your old computer crashes -- or is washed away in a flood. Online services have come down in price so that they are affordable to consumers -- some services charge less than $100 per year. But you need to exercise caution when entrusting an online service with your vital records, says Stephens.
Privacy experts recommend asking these questions of online backup companies before taking the plunge:
- The company storing records for
you can be served with legal process. Are they likely to offer much resistance
if someone pursues your personal records through legal venues?
- You've read the company’s privacy
policy, but can and how do they guarantee that the policy will not change?
- Are their security controls
adequate to protect against hackers? “The one thing that we’re learning,
if you create it, they will come,’’ Coney says. “All you need is one very
brilliant bad actor out there.’’
- What happens to your data if the
company goes bankrupt or if you don’t pay the monthly fee?
- Will the service be financially liable for lost or stolen information?
After going through that checklist, if you feel comfortable with the answers, you may want to opt for online backup of your vital records.
What to Do with Originals and Copies
Ideally, says Stephens, you want multiple layers of protection when it comes to important documents. “Sometimes people forget there are old-fashioned solutions. People forget about old-fashioned safety deposit boxes,’’ he says.
It might sound inconvenient, but it makes sense to keep copies or originals in a safety deposit box in a bank or other secure financial institution somewhat removed from your home. You want the box far enough away that it’s likely secure if a disaster hits your home.
The idea is to keep important information in at least two geographically distinct locations. If a trusted family member lives out of the area, it also might be wise to have them store an encrypted USB drive with your vital records and/or photo files of your assets in a secure location like their own safety deposit box.
Lastly, remember this: You might not have access to an operational computer during an emergency. While we might live in a digitized age, it’s not necessarily the only solution. “There is an advantage to having a paper copy,’’ reminds Stephens.
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