Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Here’s a little story of fraud and imagination with a few important lessons regarding security…

This story starts in a roundabout way with a missing checkbook.  If you are one of those people who travel a lot, you realize how often you are looking for a missing item.  Several months ago on one of our many trips between our two houses, a checkbook was misplaced.  We looked at Mike’s house, tore apart his car and had my mom search her house all to no avail. 

To this day Mike is convinced that his Dodge Nitro ate the checkbook and it will eventually turn up, but he took precautions nonetheless.  He reduced the balance in this account to $400, and he moved recurring transactions to another checking account.  Several months went by, and there was no sign that anyone had the checkbook.

Last Thursday night while doing some online banking, Mike discovered that the balance in this checking account was now zero. He looked online for a copy of the check and instead found two PayPal transactions.  He then viewed his PayPal account and realized that his account initiated these purchases.

Being the helpful wife that I am, I asked if had forgotten about some purchase he had made recently using PayPal.  When he located the payee on these transactions and went to their web site, he promptly informed me he had not purchased a prom dress!

Next began a whole weekend of phone calls to the bank to prohibit transactions on this checking account and to PayPal to report fraud.  Fortunately everyone assured him that the $400 would be refunded to his account.  Here’s where things really got kind of funky…

Thinking now that this was not about his missing checkbook but that someone hacked into his PayPal account, Mike wanted to change his password.  Talking with PayPal customer service early Friday morning, they said they would send him an email with information regarding these two transactions.  Mike checked throughout the day on Friday, and he didn’t receive their email.  Being slightly paranoid, he continued to check out things on his computer.  I told him it was just like CSI except he wasn’t using Q-tips!

His next comment was “you won’t believe this, but I found the email from PayPal in my sent box”.  He also found several other emails that he had not sent.  He called Yahoo to discuss a possible mail problem.   During their trouble shooting, they asked him to check mail filters.  Much to his surprise, Mike found 3 filters directing incoming email from PayPal, EBay, and the prom dress store to be put into his sent mail folder instead of inbox.    He suddenly realized that someone had hacked his email to hide these fraudulent transactions!

The plot thickened as he read the emails in his sent box… The prom dress store sent an email to Mike asking about the shipping address being different than the billing address.  They asked for some documentation proving the identity of Mike as the purchaser.  The ‘perp’, posing as Mike and using his email, sent the prom dress store a copy of ‘Mike’s Verizon bill’.  This bill, which we had never seen before, had Mike’s postal address pasted in, and it included a phone number that was not Mike’s cell phone number.

So now the real paranoia sets in.  Someone has hacked your PayPal account, made purchases from a store in China and hacked into your email to cover up the transactions.  Mike proceeded to spend many hours changing passwords on every account possible, deleting email filters, providing documentation to PayPal and doing more investigation. 

Here’s what he found through a whole series of web searches. 
The prom dress store was located in China. The emails sent from his account included a name and phone number.  The phone number had a Santa Barbara prefix.
The name signed on the email was the same as a past president of Vietnam, and judging from the number of people with this name, it was a popular name. Surely all this information was bogus, but coincidentally, we had just vacationed in Santa Barbara…

So, there is our tale of attempted fraud.  Our imaginations went crazy these past few days.  Why buy prom dresses from China?  Or was this really a money laundering company?  What is the China connection anyway?  Was it a person or a ‘bot’ that hacked into Mike’s accounts?  Why put emails into the sent box instead of deleting them?  Why include a name and phone number on the email sent under Mike’s name?  Was this a mistake or by design?  Did the use of Mike’s iPad in Santa Barbara have anything to do with this?  Is there anything else we should be worried about?

Ok, finally the lessons learned from all of this:

1.     Don’t use your email password on any other account as email may not be secure with mobile devices. Turns out Mike had the same password for email and PayPal.  Oops!
2.     Change passwords frequently and make them difficult, especially if the user name is your email address. 
3.     Check your online bank and credit card transactions frequently to insure they are legit.
4.     If you find something suspicious, report it to your financial institution ASAP which gives you better chance of a refund.
5.     Review whether email filters are in place.
6.     Review your sent emails to make sure you sent them.
7.     Be slightly paranoid about your computer and file security.
8.     Don’t be afraid to indulge in a little international intrigue…


Tuesday, March 20, 2012


With time and a quieter pace, I find myself more observant of shifts and changes.  After a lifetime of cramming as much as possible into a single day or racing to bring a project in on time, I am breathing again. While working I always wanted the pace to slow down so I could have time to think.  Finally after taking a break from a 34 year career, I finally have time to think and reflect.

Vacation was a major reset button for me, and since then I noticed I have a "go with the flow" attitude about many things...

Last Saturday I rode my bike for the first time at night!  We were busy during the day, and the first time we could get out was about 8:30 p.m.  Of course I had to break thru that mantra from childhood of  'don't ride your bike after dark', but it was so worth it!  The evening sky was filled with stars, and it felt like we had the whole world to ourselves.  I was able to avoid scrapes with the help of my new bike headlight/flashing light and my memory of where the patches of gravel were located in the neighborhood.

Mike and I had a 16 mile bike ride last week somewhat by accident.  We rode our bikes to DMACC (Des Moines Area Community College) and then into Ankeny where Mike convinced me to head to the High Trestle Trail.   If we had discussed a 16 mile ride before we started, I would have said that was too far, and we weren't ready.   But we made the decision on the fly because it was a beautiful night and we felt great.  Of course I haven't lost my penchant for lists, and I'm tracking our exercise...so far 69 miles of biking in March.  Who would have ever thought this was possible in March in the Midwest???

I still feel the need to accomplish something each day, and although this usually means lots of house stuff, sometimes it can be fun stuff too.  Although yesterday it could have been unpacking boxes at Mike's house, it instead meant  finishing a new purse that I designed and constructed out of old jean pockets. The purse turned out great, and I realize that I'm so happy when creating something new!

And I am finding that clocks and schedule are highly over rated. We are very flexible about schedule depending on what is going on that day.  We stay up later than ever and awaken later than working days.  We eat when we are hungry instead of at a scheduled meal time.  Of course that often means finishing a bike ride or walk right before dark and eating dinner around 9pm.  Hey, this seems to work!

Lately I've been noticing more of nature's show.  Flowers have been magnificent this year, and I've had time to take out my camera  to capture the colors.  The birds have been singing a lot this Spring.  Like us humans they are  likely amazed at the warm temperatures this March!  Breaking heat records daily for the past week, our minds go to global warming...

I am learning to accept and value the differences in how Mike and I each tackle tasks.  He spends time researching, reading reviews and analyzing many options before picking a path. I think about cause and effect, options, time and cost and quickly make a decision.  Although these differences lead to some spirited discussions, our styles work for each of us.  It's not likely that either of us will ever change, and so I'm letting go of a need to convince him to move faster.  That along with our own separate tasks creates a more harmonious environment :)

Last Saturday we enjoyed a great St. Patrick's Day party in downtown Indy.  We got to hear one of our favorite local bands, Chris Shaffer and The Why Store while enjoying watching crazy people in green clothes.  No doubt about it, people were having fun!

And I am also learning that multi-tasking isn't always a good thing especially if you miss the sights and sounds around you...

And since I've let go of my heavily scheduled work life, I  missed my own goal of publishing a blog entry each week.  But I think that's just fine...


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Who knew?

Who knew how hard it would be to write a blog entry when life returns to normal after vacation?  I mean after beautiful beaches and sunsets, what do you write about?  Anyway here is a random list from the past week.

Who knew...

Hibiscus plants bloom inside during the winter?  Nice surprise when I returned to Des Moines

Indy was warmer than Ensenada, San Diego or Santa Barbara our first day back from vacation? 70 degrees was definitely a pleasant surprise!

March is a great time to take down Christmas lights?  No jackets needed.

Dead pine trees can be removed in a mere hour by trained professionals?  Mike and I knew from the start we should not be climbing pine trees with a chain saw!

Angie's List is such a great way to find good painters?  And painters would be surprised at a color coded task list?  Doesn't everyone provide this when getting painting estimates?

For my banking friends, you may want to skip the next statement which could be disturbing...
Joining a credit union could be a great experience?   Great rates attracted me, and the amazing customer service exceeded my expectations!

Mike would be setting up the saw outside in March?  Don't know much about this, but it looks scary!

You could bike in March in Iowa?  We found a new paved trail near the Carney Marsh in Ankeny.   A bit windy though...

Crocuses can grow in Iowa without snow?

I would create a "punch list" of things  to be done to sell my house?  Hey, I learned a few things during my time working with Facilities! 

Spackling holes in drywall would be mindless fun?   Ok, I know you are thinking I'm losing it,  and I need to get a real job!

I hope you are having a great week and enjoying this amazing weather!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Much needed vacation

There are times when you just need to escape from it all.  With minimal planning we found ourselves in route to Southern California and Baja, Mexico.  We had a wonderful time with our friends Gretchen and Craig in La Salina, near Ensenada; and we enjoyed exploring Southern California (SoCal).

Instead of dragging you through all the details of our vacation, I thought it would be fun to chronicle what I observed about the West Coast with my trusty camera in hand...

Uniquely Mexico...

We found a huge Mardi Gras parade in Ensenada.   Schools must have been closed for the day judging by all the students in the parade.

Parades in Mexico are big on confetti.

The parade route was lined with shops, bars and restaurants.  And the bucket of beer found us…

Rest stops in Mexico have armed guards.  Just a bit unnerving...

It took 2.5 hours of waiting in traffic to get through Immigration into the U.S.  I never expected that.

Bigger than life in California...

Gas in California was at least $4.38 a gallon.
A glass of tea cost $3 at a winery restaurant as did each refill.

Mike said the “freeways in L.A. never sleep”.  We were amazed (and stressed) at the freeways with 7 lanes in each direction and the constant traffic. Even on Saturday afternoon the freeways were grid-locked.


Clouds (in the Midwest you would be seeking shelter from a tornado)

Rainbows (when did you last see a double rainbow in Iowa?)

Oil Rigs
I was quite surprised to see oil rigs so close to shore along the Pacific Coast Highway.

And other random observations...

SoCal residents were wearing coats and talking about this cold winter.  Mike and I were thrilled with 60-70 degree weather without jackets.

There were many beautifully dressed women in California.  Boots, leggings and sweaters were the attire du jour.  (Possibly I need to step up my wardrobe a notch and retire my cargo pants).

Every women’s bathroom provided toilet seat covers.  Government regulation?  

Hot air balloons
Our balloon went over 1 mile high. Who knew, and wouldn’t you think someone might have warned me beforehand??? 

We had such a good time on this vacation, truly a respite from our reality of house stuff.  We were gone 10 days but it felt like 30 days…definitely the sign of a great vacation!