Monday, February 10, 2014

Privacy breaches offer ‘teaching moment’ for financial education

By Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger

One of the most effective ways to stay relevant to your community, build support and attract positive attention is to tie your services and message into “hot topics” in the media and around the kitchen table. One of those hot topics these days is the security of personal data, triggered by the theft of credit and debit card numbers and the personal information — including names, email addresses, phone numbers and home addresses — of as many as 70 million Target customers.

This conquest of hackers of corporate America made big news. However, while it was indeed one of the biggest such breaches of privacy in U.S. history, it was only the latest in an increasing trend. Also last year, the Barnes & Noble bookstore chain reported that someone had planted software in PIN-pad devices at 63 of its stores in nine states, stealing data from cards’ magnetic stripes when swiped. And it’s not just chain stores that are at risk. In January, the U.S. district attorney in Manhattan announced indictments of 13 people for installing Bluetooth-enabled, banking-data-gobbling skimmers at gas stations.

Financial coaching is offered by NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley both individually and in classes.
Participants listen closely in one of NBRV's financial-
education classes. 
NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley (Woonsocket, RI) recognizes a “teaching moment” when it sees one. Drawing on the expertise of its financial-education coaches, it responded with a list of tips for preventing identity theft on its website and in its e-newsletter, which it sent to its 1,000-plus subscribers as well as to more than 1,000 clients. Readers are directed to contact the NBRV team for a personal credit analysis. (Now, that’s a newsworthy call to action!)

“How to protect personal data has always been an important part of our counseling program,” says Ainsley Morisseau Cantoral, director of resource development and communications for NWBRV. “But with identity theft in the news, our homeownership staff and I saw an opportunity to reach out to a broader audience.”

Cantoral is passionate about her organization’s outreach programs because she knows what it feels like to be faced with a financial crisis. Several years ago, someone stole her Social Security number and used it to obtain a credit card, putting her into serious debt. Her family also had experience the foreclosure crisis firsthand.  Working to promote NWBRV's Homeownership Center is an ideal “match” for her.

Ten years ago, NWBRV was among the first NeighborWorks network members to open a homeownership center.  A credit review was a standard element of the coaching the organization provided potential homeowners. However, four years ago, NWBRV began broadening its financial-education services in response to a worsening economy in which credit was becoming more difficult to understand and improve for a broader population.  And in 2011, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) chose NWBRV as one of the partner agencies to run a state Financial Opportunity Center. Through the center, residents can access employment counseling, personal financial-management assistance and help in accessing public benefits such as food stamps and health care insurance. Recently, to serve a greater number of residents, NWBRV decided to supplement the center’s four-week-long financial-management series with six, stand-alone, one-hour workshops on specific topics such as improving your credit score.

“When we were brainstorming, it became clear that our clients’ needs are very diverse, and the series couldn't do justice to them all,” explains Cantoral. “For example, in one series, the participants might include a homeowner facing foreclosure mitigation, someone transitioning to rental unit from the local homeless shelter, and another individual preparing to buy a home for the first time. Their financial coaching needs are very different but our curriculum was trying to be ‘everything to everybody.’"

Data security will be among those topics, as NWBRV continues to adapt to respond to the changing needs and concerns of its community.