People’s financial lives have become really complicated in recent years, and all of us are exposed to the potential for fraud on a daily basis. Being on our smartphones and computers as much as we are, criminals are more than happy to take advantage of us.
A couple of the more common sources of fraud are:
• email phishing
• phone scams
• identity theft
Email phishing is probably best known for stories like the Nigerian “prince” who emails you and asks you to receive money on his behalf, and then if you hold the money in your bank account for a short time, he’ll reward you with $10,000 as a thank you. The only catch is that you have to prove that you’re honest by first sending him $3,000 or some such sum, before he can trust you with his money.
This would be a pretty easy story to see through, for most of us anyway! But what if you get an email that looks like it came from your company IT department, and the email includes a link and a request to log in to some part of the company network, using your credentials of course, and verify your accounts? The IT folks might actually need to test parts of the system, and the request looks routine enough.
These kinds of emails can also come from spammers that appear to be your credit card company or even the IRS. Whatever the source, NEVER click on a link that appears in an email. While sometimes spam and phishing emails are apparent due to lack of logos or mis-spelled words, this isn’t always the case. One thing you can check for is to see where the link actually goes (hover over the link, but don’t click through). You might notice that the website it leads to looks real but might have one letter or digit that is not correct- the email is actually directing you to the spammer’s website. Sometimes the difference in the fake site vs. the real one is so small (using a small letter L instead of a capital I, for instance) that it is almost undetectable.
In any case, if you do get emails from your employer, your bank, the IRS or whoever, just don’t click on links. You can always go to your browser, go to the real site, and log in there if you believe that action is needed. Or call the company directly from the phone number you know to be legitimate. There is never a situation or issue that requires you to respond from inside an emailed message- legitimate companies and agencies do not do business this way.
This leads to the next scam- phone fraud. One of the more common types of fraud committed include calling and persuading you to give up personal information such as account numbers or your SSN. No real bank or credit card company will ever call you and then ask you to verify this information. If you do get a call that seems real, for instance, sometimes credit card companies will alert you to suspicious use of your card, then you should be able to ask for verification, not the other way around. And if you are ever unsure, just hang up and call back the main customer service number to find out what is happening.
A similar situation occurs when scammers call cell phones claiming to be from the IRS or another tax agency, and attempt to scare people into giving up information by threatening them with some sort of prosecution. What everyone needs to know is that tax agencies, when communicating with either businesses or individuals, will NEVER call you on the phone to initiate contact. The IRS sends letters in the mail- and while your method of response can be to call in, the agency will never use just phone or email for outreach on any issue. So if the IRS is calling and threatening to arrest you, hang up! You can always call a direct line to verify anything that is unclear about your account.
Other phone scams include a particularly scary one of late- scammers call and pretend that they’ve kidnapped your child or grandchild, and there is usually some sort of screaming in the background that makes the whole call seem urgent and frightening. Sometimes the scammer is even able to spoof the phone number of your relative, making it seem like they really have the person and their phone. Some family members have been convinced to go out and buy gift cards with cash and leave these in specified places, only to find out later that the supposed kidnappers were fake and that their family member was safe all along. If you get this type of threatening call, hang up, check on your family member, call police- just don’t follow scammers’ directions. These kind of calls in fact come from outside the country and frequently from prisons!
Identity theft is one more way that financial fraud occurs, and the most common way is when someone gets hold of your SSN and other personal information. Scam emails and phone calls are often the way this happens, so be aware of any communication that asks you to provide personal information, if you are not the one that initiated the call, for example.
Using updated virus protection software on your computer as well as firewalls can help protect you from identity theft, and not using the same password for multiple accounts is a good idea. Since we all have many, many online accounts needing passwords, sometimes buying a password manager program such as Dashlane or LastPass is a good idea. They generate and store complex passwords for you and are typically easy to use.
Another good idea is to check your credit report once a year; this is completely free to do. Several years back, I hadn’t checked mine for a while, and when I did do that, I found that while there were no actual fraudulent entries, what had happened was a person with a name similar to mine had entries on my report. It took a phone call to the credit agency to sort out which were my entries and which were not, and I was really glad I took the time to find out that information and get it corrected.
To get your free credit report, search online for “free credit report” and select one of the main credit reporting agencies of which there are three- Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Any of those sites offer credit reports for free once per year; just be sure you are not entering a credit card number or signing