Protecting Yourself from Impersonators

You know all the basic rules, right? Lock your doors, don’t dawdle while getting into your car, don’t walk across campus alone, etc. But there seems to be this huge error in judgment that we all make: letting complete strangers into our home, just so long as they’re wearing a uniform.

I can’t count the number of times someone from the utility company has showed up on my doorstep explaining that they just need to “read the meter” and then they’ll be on their way. Being from a small town in Montana, the truth is, they probably wouldn’t even have to be dressed in a uniform and I would take their word for it. So many people out here do business dressed in clothes for the weather; meaning their “uniform” is often hidden under sturdy snow boots and Carhartt overalls anyway.

Problem is, though, that more and more criminals are catching on to this trick, and as naïve as college students are, more and more people are becoming victims of it. Instead of breaking into a house, all they need to do is calmly explain that they’re from the cable company and there’s something wrong with your service, and instead of forcing their way into your car, they just have to get you to step outside of it with some “broken tail-light” comment. Not good. So let’s look at some ways you can protect yourself in this situation.

1.) Ask for proof. Sure they may be in uniform, but a real police officer (even the campus police) will have a badge with a badge number, and will most likely not be alone. Even workers from utility companies or delivery companies will have some sort of identification that proves they indeed work for the company they claim to work for.

2.) Ask for specifics. If they spout off some short “I need to see your meter” reasoning, ask about it. “Why?” “What’s the problem with it?” “Who else has been reporting this issue?” “How long has it been going on?” “Can I read it myself and just give you the answer?” Or most importantly, “My meter is outside, so why do you need to come inside the house?”

3.) Know how things work. As mentioned above, if someone claiming to be from the gas company asks to come inside to “read your meter” that might be the first sign something is wrong, since your meter is never kept inside your house. In addition, there’s no reason for the cable company to show up at your house unless you’ve specifically called them, and if you have a burnt out tail-light an you will never have to get out of the car to “see it,” no matter what the “officer” says. Understanding these simple concepts will help you sniff out when someone isn’t being completely honest with you.

4.) Don’t be afraid to call and check. If they say they’re from the electric company, ask for the phone number and have them to wait for a second while you call the company to make sure. If they claim to be a police officer, call 911 and ask if a police officer was indeed dispatched to your location. It only takes a second, and there’s nothing wrong with being sure.

5.) Report suspicious behavior. If someone does come to your door, and after you ask the appropriate questions (see above), they decide they’ll just “come back later,” they’re probably impersonating. Call the company to make sure they sent someone to your house. If they didn’t, then call the police and explain what just happened, for your future safety and that of others.


Identifying (and Surviving) Dangerous Situations

If you’ve ever turned on the news to hear about the latest horrific killing spree, there seems to be one phrase that is consistently repeated among everyone covering the story: “How could there be no warning signs?” Thing is though, there usually are warning signs; you just need to know how to spot them.

1.) Where are you? A key component to surviving a dangerous situation is to understand your surroundings. The majority of the time the places that you visit in a day are usually all places you’ve been to before (your work, your school, the bank, a bar, the grocery store). Instead of simply coasting through your day, take a look around each of these places. Where are the exits? What would you do if a gunman walked in? Or there was an earthquake? Knowing your surroundings will help you be even more prepared when the time comes.

2.) Is there a behavior change? People, at a psychological level, are creatures of habit. We do what makes us most comfortable. That’s why when you go to class you often try to sit wherever you sat on your first day, and if that seats taken you take the closet seat to that one. So when something changes, for no apparent reason, it can be a warning sign. If the student that always sits at the front of the class and participates suddenly becomes a recluse in the last row, you should be aware of it (and maybe even say something to your professor). Of course, nothing may be the problem (maybe they have strep throat this week), but it’s best to be aware of the change.

3.) Are you given explicit warning signs? For some reason, many people seem to feel that they can disregard “official” warnings. If you live in a place that is susceptible to hurricanes, and you are told to evacuate your area, evacuate your area.

4.) Are others calm? Is the man next to you wringing his hands or sweating profusely? Is the woman behind the register shaking? Is the policeman telling everyone that everything is under control stuttering? These are all tell-tale signs that something is probably not right.

Your best bet in this situation is to remain calm yourself, keep your eyes open, and leave the situation if possible. If the man across from you on the bus is getting more and more agitated, get off the bus.

5.) Are you calm? If everything seems normal but you just don’t feel…right…something may be amiss. Our bodies have a way of picking up on things before we consciously notice them, accounting for that “feeling” that something is wrong.

Trust that feeling. Unless you have a history of being paranoid or nervous for no good reason, it’s surprisingly accurate. If the perfectly pleasant man sitting next to you is making you uncomfortable, move.

Case in point: I used to work night shifts at a psychiatric hospital. One night, around 3:30 in the morning, one of the patients came out of his room into the hallway. He looked at me, smiled and waved and went back to his room. A few minutes later he came out again and asked what time it was, then went back to his room. Now his behavior was completely normal; nothing out of the ordinary at all! But I had that weird feeling in my gut, so I got one of the male nurses to ask him if everything is okay. The patient confessed to having extreme homicidal urges. We took the necessary precautions, but if I hadn’t said something, based on just a gut instinct, who know what would’ve happened.

Top 5 Fears of First Year College Students

I remember my first day on campus. I’d already planned out the next four years of college in my head, and I couldn’t wait to get started. My mom dropped me off at the dorm, helped me unpack a bit and then we went to a little Chinese place for lunch. I remember my fortune cookie read, “You’ll have many great adventures with your newfound independence.” I showed my mom and she started crying.

After lunch we headed back to the dorm where we said good-bye and she headed by home. But that’s how it goes with a first year college student. You’re dropped off and left alone to fend for yourself, just like that. Typically a few fears begin sneaking into your head. So here is a list of the top 5 and how to cope with them.

1.) “What if I fail?” This is a perfectly reasonable fear. It’s been drilled into your head that high school courses are nowhere as difficult as college courses, than of course you’re going to be nervous. Plus, it can be a lot of pressure trying to make sure all that money you’re spending on your education isn’t going to waste. Let’s take a look at the facts though:

– Your university understands that you just came straight from high school. The courses you take your freshman year are designed to get you used to a college schedule and lifestyle.

– You’ve been prepared. If you’ve taken Honors Physics, chances are Physics 101 is not going to be a problem.

– You have options to help. Schools often have free tutoring centers, and almost every class has a few students that create a study group of some kind.

2.) “What if I hate my roommate?” It can incredibly scary to move into a new place knowing nothing about a person that is going to be sleeping a few feet away from you every night, but you’ll get used to it. Most likely, you’ll get along just fine with your roommates minus a few annoying traits (their love of egg salad sandwiches, they listen to weird music). Worst case scenario though, you can always move. It sounds like a huge pain in the ass (and sometimes it is), but it’s not the end of the world. Your situation is always changeable.

3.) “Will I make any friends?” Yes, you will make friends, but it’s understandable to be stressed about it. So go meet new people! Go to dorm functions, like a Thursday Night Game Night or a coffee break with some students in one of your classes. And don’t feel bad if you latch on to someone in the beginning (like your roommate) that doesn’t end up being your best friend in the spring. There are so many people in college it’s actually more difficult not to end up being friends with at least a few people.

4.) “Will I run out of money?” Maybe. The best thing to do is to create a budget before you even get started. How much is food going to cost? Have you already bought your textbooks for the semester or do they still need to be purchased? Maybe your parents will help you out a bit (try to avoid that,  you’re a big kid now), and you can always take out student loans (try to avoid that as well, you end up paying them back in the end), so in the end you certainly aren’t going to starve to death. Create a budget, stick to it, and get creative when it comes to saving money (gas is expensive, use the campus shuttle and leave your car at home).

5.) “Is it safe?” It’s perfectly natural to question the safety of your new school. After all, you’re in a new place that is unfamiliar to you. Is the Campus Police really as vigilant as they say they are? Is theft really not a problem or are students just not reporting when their things get stolen? Can I walk to the library at 8:00 at night or will I be mugged? In any case,  you’re best option is to take care of yourself the best way you can. Walk in well-lit areas, preferably with a group of people, and carry pepper spray in your purse or pocket. Lock the doors to your dorm room, and make sure your valuables (social security card, extra cash, etc.) are locked in a secure area, like a safe. Be careful in any situation where there’s alcohol present, and have the Campus Security phone number programmed into your phone. You should be fine, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry, right?

Stalker 101: What You Can Do to Protect Yourself

I’ll admit, this post is a bit personal for me. I’ve been the target of a crazy ex-boyfriend once before and lately a friend of mine is going through the same thing. As her situation has finally come to a tipping point, I thought it might be useful to share with you the same advice I’ve been giving her on the matter.

1.) Keep a record. It can be tough to get anything done if someone is standing across the street looking at your house. Sure, it’s incredibly uncomfortable, but there’s really no law against looking creepy while standing on public property. If that were the case, there would be plenty of people locked up in jail strictly for their choice of facial hair.

So it’s incredibly important to keep a record. Is he (or she, although I’m going to write the rest of this article using “he”) parked next to you when you leave work? Do they follow you a couple cars behind on your way home? Do they hang around your apartment complex because they’re “visiting a friend?” Write all these instances down. They may not seem like much on their own, but when combined with 53 other instances you’ve built yourself up a pretty solid case of stalking.

2.) Don’t hesitate to call the cops. Let me be perfectly clear here, if someone is creeping you out, there is nothing wrong with calling the cops to come check it out. My friend’s ex, for example, keep showing up at her house, ringing the doorbell and then leaving. He does this every 30 minutes when she’s at home. It’s immature, odd, and incredibly eerie.

And sure, he can’t get arrested, but just the sight of blue and red lights might be enough to throw him off his game a little bit. And besides, if someone is already stalking you, it might not take much for them to take another intrusive step, like trying to break into your home. Call the cops, they’re there to help you.

3.) Get a restraining order. People underestimate the power of a restraining order. Yes, it’s just a little piece of paper, but it’s set’s a ruling that if this person comes within a certain distance of you (whether it’s at home, your place of work, or just follows you while you’re out jogging), they can be arrested. And the thought of being arrested is often enough to deter a committed stalker. In some cases, of course it won’t be enough, but every little bit helps.

Oh and in order to get a restraining order, it’s going to be helpful to have that list of instances from tip #1.

4.) Change your phone number, move or get a different car. Changing your phone number is one of the easiest things to do. It takes less than 10 minutes, and since you still have the same phone with the same contact list, all you have to do is send a mass text to everyone you want to have your number that this is your new number. Some companies even have ways to go online and change it.

Moving is a bit more complicated. If you’re renting, consider finding a different spot and make sure when you move it all happens at once. Then just be careful on your way home for a few weeks (or months, depending on the dedication level of your stalker). But if you own your own home (or just flat out don’t want to move), there are still other things you can do, like getting a garage. Sure they may just be able to look in and see if your lights are on, but it’s still a start, and if you live in an apartment complex where they can’t see your home, you’re golden.

And a new car? No, I said a different car. Swap cars with a buddy for a couple weeks or hell if you’re not super attached to the car you got just go trade it in for one (and maybe a nicer one) with similar payments.

I understand that all of this might seem a bit extreme (a restraining order?) and not a bit fair (moving? A different car?), but the fact is, if you’ve got a crazy stalker problem you need to suck it up and do what needs to be done. And if that means driving your brother’s old Chevy Nova for a couple weeks, do it.


Is Your Campus Safe? The Real Way to Find Out on Your School Visit

We all want to make sure we’re going to be on a safe campus, but figuring out which schools are safer than others tends to be a little easier said than done. After all, every school wants more students, so the every campus security officer (on any campus) is probably going to tell you the same thing when asked if their campus is a safe place: “Yes.”

So how do you get around the fluff? Here are a few tactics to get you the straightforward answers you need to know to make an informed decision.

1.) Ask other students. As mentioned earlier, asking Campus Security about campus security is a bit of a conflict of interest. If they are having problems (say, constant theft or vandalizing), they’re never going to tell you about it. Likewise, your campus tour guide also has a job of making the school reflects in the highest light possible, so the actual crime statistics are either going to get glossed over (“Sorry, I really don’t know the numbers on that…”) or manipulated (“We haven’t had a recorded on-campus assault in over 10 years…” but then they leave off the part about being #3 in the nation for reported assaults.) So ask the other students, most of them will be happy to tell you. Some questions:

Do you generally feel safe on campus?

Do you know of anyone that has had issues with campus crime?

Are there any problems you know about (like don’t bring your laptop to class unless you want someone will wrestle it from you)?

2.) Talk to the housing department about their policies. In actuality, it really doesn’t matter how safe a campus is if there is nothing put in place to prevent campus crime if it could potentially happen. Case in point: dorm policies. Just taking a quick look around will be able to give you some answers. Can you see in the windows? Are there doors propped open? Is there someone else on staff that’s keeping an eye out while you’re there asking another staff member questions? And speaking of questions, here are a few to ask:

What time do the main doors lock?

Are visitors required to check in?

What’s your policy on overnight guests?

What kind of surveillance does campus security use? Do they circle the parking lot every hour? Are there cameras set up outside?

3.) Get a copy of the crime statistics. Yes, you need to do this. Every school has some kind of record of the amount of crime that happens on campus, including the number of reported offenses. You may need to get this from campus security, but it will be a huge help in determining if it’s the school for you. A school may have a low crime rate, but that number could be misleading if students are reporting things and nothing is being done about them. If the number of reported offenses is low, that’s usually a good indication of a safe campus.

What are some ways you check to make sure your school is safe?

A Post to Parents: How to Keep Your Peace of Mind without Pissing Off Your College Student

Fact: when you’re a parent, sending your kids off to college can seem like an overwhelming concept. How will you know if they’re safe? They’re so far away from you, what if something happens and you can’t get there in time? How do you know they’re being careful? Plus, if you do try to find out these things, you may come off as being intrusive, causing your child to be more secretive than they already may have been in the first place.

So take it straight from the mouth of a college kid. We understand that you’re just trying to look out for us, but the truth is, we want to be able to look out for ourselves now. I can’t count the number of people I know that chose the school they did based on the fact that is was “far away from home.” Not close to home, far away from home. We’ve grown up, and even though you’ll always see us as your little baby, we need to be treated like adults.

So here are a few ways that you can “check up on us” to give yourself peace of mind, without making us feel like you’re hovering over us, watching and critiquing our every move.

1.) Talk to us, but don’t lecture. As long as we feel we won’t be judged, we’ll have no problem keeping those lines of communication open with you. If you ask what I’m doing next weekend and I tell you I’m going to a St. Patrick’s Day party, only to be lectured for half an hour (about things I already know, it’s not like you haven’t given me this lecture before), the next time I go out (say, spring break?) I’m not going to tell you anything to avoid the 1/2 hour lecture. A simple, “Well have I hope you have fun dear, but make sure you’re being careful. If you drink tonight you aren’t planning on driving, are you?” is plenty enough to let me know you’re concerned. And of course I have alternate transportation lined up if I decide to have a few drinks, you raised me better than that, remember?

2.) Don’t go over our head. There is no quicker way to alienate your child than to completely disregard their privacy. If it’s finals week, and you know this, don’t have the RA show up at your student’s dorm room at 10:00 at night just to check if they’re all right. I guarantee the phrase “You’re mom said to call her, she hasn’t heard from you in four hours and she’s getting worried…” Will come out as, “Dude, how crazy is your mom? She’s been calling me non-stop to go check on you just call her already so she’ll get off my ass.”

3.) Trust us. If you buy us a dorm safe to put our valuables in, would you really show up to see if we’re using it? The right answer here is, “No, of course not, that would be crazy…” but many parents would actually do that. And no, just because a lot of other parents are doing it doesn’t make it okay. It just means the majority of parents you know are overly intrusive in their kids’ lives.

4.) Know our roommates phone numbers. If I haven’t gotten ahold of my mom in awhile (meaning a few week), she’ll call and leave a message and send me a text to call her. If she doesn’t hear from me by the end of the day, she’ll send my roommate a quick text just to make sure everything is alright. Typically, she gets a text back that says something like, “Yeah, everything’s fine, Marlee dropped her phone in cake batter last night and it isn’t working that great. Want me to have her call you on my phone?” There. Easy as can be.

Besides, there just has to be a time when you let us handle some things on our own. After all,  you don’t want us to be dependent on you forever, do you?

Staying Safe in the Digital World

We all remember out parents telling us to watch out for strangers. We all knew the rules: don’t accept rides from strangers, don’t accept candy, food or gifts from strangers, and if anyone does try something, tell on them; immediately. And as we got older, we applied these three basic rules to our “adult” lives. We still didn’t accept rides from strangers, instead of candy or food we now make sure not to accept drinks from strangers (unless it came with the lid on or you saw the bartender pour it), and if someone won’t back off we tell someone of authority, like the cops, the bar manager or our employer.

But then came the internet. And while it’s always been around, you have to admit it’s taken on a whole new form in the last few years. So much so, in fact, that it seems like people have forgotten how to apply those three “rules”. So let’s examine how they would still work in the online world.

1.) Don’t accept rides from strangers. In the digital world, a “ride” is typically going to mean something like a friend request. It’s someone that you don’t know asking to have access to your personal information. If you were at a bar and a complete stranger come over and asked you to tell them your children’s names and what your plans were this weekend, you’d probably be a little creeped out. Just because you both like that particular bar doesn’t mean you know them enough to give them personal information. But online, if a member of a common interest (say, a Harry Potter fanclub or something), friends you, you’re much more likely to accept their request.

This is breaking the rule. Unless you know exactly who this person is (meaning you have met them in real life), they should have no access to any of your personal information.

2.) Don’t accept candy from strangers. “Candy” in the online world can be used to describe emails or services, like someone offering to clean your house. If you don’t know them, or haven’t been actively seeking their services, don’t accept it. Don’t open any emails from an unfamiliar source, and don’t accept any “free trial offers.” The scams of old are still out there, they’ve just been updated to work in the digital age. The consequences could range from a virus ending up on your computer, to identity theft, so even physical consequences, like someone showing up at your house unwelcomed.

Of course we all are a little naive. If I get an email from a long lost friend that says something like “Great news!” in the subject line, of course I’m going to open it. In that case, it’s important to have the right computer software to be able to protect yourself should your curiosity get the best of you.

3.) If anyone tries anything suspicious, tell on them. If you’ve got someone you don’t know constantly emailing you, tell someone about it; whether it’s your school that hosts the email, your employer who assigned you the email address, or even law enforcement. Since many cases of internet fraud, harassment and identity theft go unnoticed until a great number of people have been affected, it’s important that you let someone know right away when something doesn’t quite feel right.