4 Big Myths About Protecting Your Private Information in a Natural Disaster

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Whenever a disaster hits, the risk to your personally identifiable information (PII) increases dramatically. Wind, rain, or flooding can destroy vital documents. Important papers can also be swept up or blown away. The good news is that you can take steps to help lock down your PII before it goes airborne. But, don’t be fooled by powerful myths that can lull you into a false sense of security.

Myth #1: Documents don’t travel far. 

In the latest study conducted in 2013, the University of Georgia tracked papers spread after a flurry of tornados in Alabama. Using a Facebook page that posted found documents from those twisters, researchers determined that some items had traveled over 200 miles before returning to land.

The distance your PII can travel multiplies as wind or water speed increases. With tornadoes packing winds of up to 300 mph and severe hurricanes generating wind speeds in excess of 150 mph, it doesn’t take long for documents to travel. Following significant flooding in Colorado in 2013, enough documents were swept away or destroyed that the Colorado Bar Association felt compelled to published advice on how to replace those errant documents.

Myth #2: A safe deposit box keeps everything safe. 

While safe deposit boxes are a great option for document security, natural disasters can still wreak havoc on its contents. Hurricane Katrina damaged thousands of safe deposit boxes, some of which were flooded with dirty and corrosive seawater. At one location, thousands of bank customers had to do the best they could to recover their damaged goods in a carefully controlled environment.

Important note: while the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insures bank deposits, it does not cover safe deposit box contents. This exemption is unfortunate, but makes sense since the contents of each locked box are secret. Therefore, if you store rare collectibles or irreplaceable items in a safe deposit box, talk with your homeowner’s insurance carrier about adding a special rider to your policy that would cover the contents of your locked box. Understanding what to keep and what not to keep in your safe deposit box is also important.

Myth #3: My dishwasher is a big, waterproof box.

Scams can proliferate during and after a natural disaster, but so can well-meant, but incorrect, advice from individuals trying to be helpful. During Hurricane Irma, one woman’s post on Facebook urged Florida residents to store their valuables in their dishwasher. She felt that since the appliances were waterproof and secured to cabinets they were more likely to survive the hurricane. The post was shared over 1,200,000 times on Facebook before Snopes.com pointed out that the concept is seriously flawed. Dishwashers are watertight when operating, but water (and mud) under pressure can flow up pipes and into the device.  

Myth #4: Key papers can be quickly replaced. 

According to USA.gov, replacing vital documents lost in a natural disaster can be daunting. The site provides directions on how to replace the documents, but it is far easier to gather these essential papers before they are in harm’s way. The FDIC and FEMA give suggestions on what documents you should protect and how to store them.

After a disaster, there is often a silver lining as many people are eager to help in a variety of ways. One example is a Lost and Found page following Hurricane Harvey that was set up to reconnect victims and their goods. Similarly, a Florida Keys agency created a Lost and Found page for Hurricane Irma victims. We’re pleased to see some organizers keeping identity protection in mind as they warn finders not to post any photos containing PII on their site.

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