It’s great to buy from small, local businesses, whether it’s a booth at the farmer’s market, the holiday craft bazaar, a family-owned window-cleaning service, or your neighborhood bookstore. You’re supporting your community, and that feels good. But small business owners often have their hands full with day-to-day work, and they may not worry about the need to keep their customers’ personal information safe. If they think about it at all, they may assume that they’re too small to be targets for that kind of crime, and that’s just not accurate. One recent report showed that over 80 percent of small businesses had experienced a data breach of some kind. So if you have a concern about how your personal information is being handled by the Mom and Pop store, just ask them.
One of the first issues for small businesses is how they dispose of paper records. They may be writing down your name, address, or even your driver’s license number on a paper receipt or on a credit card slip if they do manual credit card processing. If you notice your personal info being recorded, ask how they dispose of that paper when it’s no longer needed. They should be shredding it, not just recycling. (Better yet, they should get one of the card readers that work with a cell phone, so they never have to hold their customers’ information.) And while it is in their possession, they should keep it under lock and key so no one else can steal it from them.
Another issue for small businesses is that they often don’t have tech support staff, so their computers or networks may not be very secure. So if you’re web surfing from your local coffee shop, don’t use their networks to do online banking or visit your healthcare portal to review reports from your doctor. If you’re buying local for a big purchase that requires financing, ask how they’re protecting your Social Security number or any other personal financial information from cyber-attacks or even insider theft. The kind of petty thief who steals from a small business can cause plenty of trouble, because they are also the kind who’ll apply for credit cards and take out loans in your name and then give the police your identity when stopped for a crime.
It may seem a bit awkward at first to ask how your information is being handled, but consider this: over 60 percent of small businesses that have a data breach go out of business within six months. By bringing up the issue before there’s a problem, you may be doing the business owner a real favor.