Before he became a personal finance columnist, Ron Lieber was obsessed with frequent flier miles.
“The whole system of airline loyalty is a system that begs to be beaten,” said Lieber, a 47-year-old father of two from Brooklyn, N.Y. “The object is to go as far as you can for free, preferably in first class.”
As the “Your Money” columnist for The New York Times since 2008, Lieber has turned that same obsessiveness toward trying to help consumers navigate financial labyrinths that often work against them. He has written about everything from retirement planning to how to raise more financially responsible children.
One piece of advice: “Stay vigilant. Stay wary.” In any transaction, “always stop to ask yourself how the person on the other side of the transaction is making money from me,” he said.
Most recently, Lieber has acted as an information conduit for victims of data theft, notably after this year’s breach at credit reporting company Equifax, in which hackers obtained personal information such as names, Social Security numbers and birth dates of as many as 145.5 million people, including more than 4 million Virginians.
“It is very rare that all of that is exposed, and then to have that exposed for tens of millions of people was unprecedented,” Lieber said. “I hope it never happens again.”
Lieber has covered the breach extensively. When he was contacted by more than 2,000 readers unhappy with Equifax’s response, and who were unable to understand what to do to protect themselves, he and The New York Times set up a special blog to answer people’s questions and offer advice.
“The thing about the Equifax situation that makes it so complicated and frustrating is that it is an enormous system that none of us ever asked to be a part of,” said Lieber, whose “Your Money” column occasionally appears in the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Sunday Business section as part of the Spending Well pages from The New York Times.
“There are times that we all benefit from the fact that all this information is gathered about us, and it makes it easier for us to get credit, but before Equifax existed ... people were still able to borrow. It just took longer,” he said.
Now, it seems we have traded information privacy for speed, he said. And there seems to be little consumers can do about a situation such as the Equifax breach.
“There does not seem to be any good way to get them to erase your data and not gather any more,” he said. “They seem to fall into a kind of a regulatory black hole.”
On Dec. 12, Lieber will be in Richmond speaking as part of The Times-Dispatch’s Public Square on the challenges consumers face in protecting their identities against consumer fraud, cyberthreats, ransomware and other fraudulent activity. The event is scheduled for noon to 1:30 p.m. at the newspaper’s downtown offices at 300 E. Franklin St.
Joining him in the discussion will be Thomas Gallagher, who recently retired after leading the Better Business Bureau of Central Virginia for 35 years. The group advocates for ethical business practices and warns consumers about scams.
During Gallagher’s tenure, membership in the local BBB has grown from 777 businesses to about 4,700.
Gallagher said the rise of the online marketplace has fundamentally altered the relationship between customers and sellers. “Business has gotten far more complicated than it was,” he said. “So many things are online.”
In the online marketplace, consumers are doing fewer face-to-face transactions and are dealing with distant entities. “We are giving them their credit card information, personal information,” he said.
Gallagher, who worked for several other Better Business Bureaus around the country since 1969 before coming to Richmond, holds that ethics are the backbone of the free market system, and those principles must still apply in the digital marketplace.
Lieber approaches data and identity theft in much the same way he approached airline loyalty rewards, asking how the system functions and how is it being exploited.
“When I write and when I speak, I am trying to help people understand a couple of things,” Lieber said. “One of the first things, is ‘what system are we enmeshed in here?’ Whether it is the banking system or the credit card system or the higher education system, can we sort of peel back the layers to see how it works?”
Lieber, who wrote a personal finance column for The Wall Street Journal before joining The New York Times, offers two pieces of advice for people to help protect themselves.
One is to instruct the three major credit bureaus to put a freeze on your credit files, making it harder for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name.
Second, Lieber recommends using two-factor authorization for your accounts. That is, try to avoid systems that only require one password to access your personal information, but instead use multiple methods to verify your identity.
“All of us have to operate under the assumption that our data is there for the taking,” he said. “And even if it has not been exposed or stolen or up for sale out there on the web, you have to conduct yourself accordingly.”
What that means is “just being careful and wary,” he said. “It is everything from having a freeze on your credit files, to make it hard for a third party to open an account in your name, to really checking your credit statements carefully every month.”
Electronic data is convenient and fast, but it also can make us inattentive, Lieber warned. He recommends maintaining paper records and carefully checking them.
“I don’t want people to be paranoid, but I do want them to be careful,” he said. “Make it hard for thieves to get the better of you.”