Young or old, wealthy or poor, online or in person—nobody is immune from financial scams and identity theft slams. No matter who you are or how well-informed you may be, the bad guys are out there, daily devising new tricks for every fraud we fix.
Who Are They? Fraudsters and Thieves
Financial fraudsters are after your assets.
Identity thieves want to steal your personal information—usually, so they can commit financial fraud by posing as you and breaching your security.
What Do They Want? Your Money and Your Life
Some of your most treasured personal information includes:
Social Security numbers, passports, driver’s licenses, and similar identifying information
Financial account and credit card numbers
Passwords (or insights about you that help them guess at weak ones)
Your and family members’ contact information (name, address, phone, email)
Your and family members’ birthdates
Details about your life (interests, travel plans, relationships, your alma maters, etc.)
How Will They Get It? However They Can!
Criminals come in all shapes and sizes, and will use anything and everything that might work:
Most mayhem occurs the same old ways: the real or virtual equivalent of strong-arm theft; breaking and entering; and increasingly, scams that trick you into giving your goods away.
They may be strangers. They may pose as someone you know. Unfortunately, they can be someone you know. (Elder abuse, for example, is often perpetrated by family members.)
They may commit their crimes online, by phone, in the mail, or in person.
Phishing emails and deceitful or compromised websites try to trick you into clicking on bad links or opening infected attachments. This exposes you to malware, which infects your device with anything from harmless pranks to damaging viruses to serious security breaches.
What Should You Look For? 10 Red Flags
Criminal techniques may be new-fangled, but the tactics—the red flags to look for—are often classic. Whether online, in the mail, on the phone, or in person, be on extra alert whenever:
An offer sounds too good to be true.
A stranger wants to be your real or virtual best friend.
Someone you know is behaving oddly, especially via email or phone. (This may mean it’s an identity thief, posing as someone you know.)
Someone claiming to represent a government agency, financial or legal firm, police department, or other authority contacts you out of the blue, demanding money or information.
You’re feeling pressured or tricked into responding RIGHT AWAY to a threat, a temptation, or a curiosity.
You’re prioritizing easy access over solid security (weak or absent locks and passwords).
You’re sharing personal information in a public venue (including social media).
Facts or figures aren’t adding up; bank statements, reports, or other info is missing entirely.
Your defenses are down: You’re ill, injured, grieving, experiencing dementia, or feeling blue.
Your gut feel is warning you: Something seems off.
An Action Plan
While criminals are forever finding new ways to foil our defenses, there are still plenty of relatively timeless, sensible steps you can take to protect yourself and your money.
Virus software: Install anti-malware and anti-spyware software on all of your devices. Keep them and your operating system current!
Backups: Use backup software for system and/or file recovery as needed. Allow for multiple-version backups, in case you need to go back in time for a safe recovery.
Passwords: Create long, strong, and unique passwords for each of your devices and accounts. Periodically change them, especially on financial and other sensitive accounts, and whenever you may “smell a rat.” Consider using password management software to manage them.
Extra security: Employ extra security when available, such as two-step verification or biometrics (fingerprints).
Hyperlinks and attachments: In emails or on websites, be incredibly cautious about clicking on links or opening attachments, especially from unfamiliar sources. Refer to our “10 Red Flags” above to help spot the most suspicious ones.
Social media: Privatize your social media profiles and activities so only those you allow in can see them. Avoid disclosing too much (such as your birthday or detailed travel plans).
Wi-Fi: Be extra careful on public Wi-Fi connections outside of your home or business. Don’t conduct sensitive transactions on them; assume the world can see everything you’re doing.
Suspicious Phone Calls
Identify: Whenever a stranger calls you out of the blue demanding or enticing you into sending money or sharing information, it’s probably a scam. Even when a caller claims to be someone you know, if their requests seem urgent, unusual, or emotionally charged—watch out. It’s probably an identity thief in disguise. (Sometimes, they’ll even work in pairs—one posing as a family member in distress, and the other pretending to be an official!)
End the call: Your best line of defense is to immediately hang up. Don’t engage in conversation; you may accidentally divulge information a con artist can then use against you.
Don’t cooperate: Unless you initiated the call, never share your credit card number or any other sensitive information, especially in response to an urgent threat or enticing “prize.”
Investigate: Do what you can to verify the caller’s legitimacy. For example, if they claim to be from the IRS, end the call and contact the agency directly to inquire further. If they claim to be a family member in distress, tell them you’ll call them back and then call a close relative to find out more. Google the suspicious number to see if others have reported it.
Report: Report the suspicious number to federal authorities.
Credit and Records Management
Watch for inconsistencies: Whether you’re receiving banking, credit card, and investment statements online or in the mail, scan each one for odd or unfamiliar transactions.
Watch for missing statements: If statements you were expecting to receive suddenly stop arriving, a financial fraudster might have pirated your account and redirected it elsewhere.
Monitor your (and your kids’) credit reports: Take advantage of your right to request free annual credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com. Review them carefully for inaccuracies. While you’re at it, check to see if your minor children have a credit history. (Unless you’ve opened a file in your child’s name, they shouldn’t; if they do, this is a big red flag.)
Consider a credit freeze: If you rarely apply for loans, you may want to freeze your credit, unlocking it only when needed. Note: Effective September 21, 2018, a new federal law makes it easier to freeze your own and your minor children’s credit files, for free.
Follow up promptly: If something seems off, immediately change any login passwords, and promptly contact the service provider and appropriate federal authorities.
Remain on guard: Don’t assume you’re safe just because you’re not online. There is still plenty of old-fashioned theft going on.
Secure it: Secure any paperwork you must keep. Lock up your home, desk, file cabinets, car, mailbox, and trash bins. (Identity thieves will “dumpster dive” to steal your stuff.)
Shred it: Use a micro-cut shredder to destroy any paperwork you do not need to keep.
When you’re out and about: Keep a close eye on your purse or wallet (at work and social events, in the gym and stores, and so on). Avoid keeping personal identification in your car.
Filling in forms: When filling out medical forms, credit card applications, and similar paperwork, provide only what is essential. Don’t provide your Social Security number on initial request, and push back if pressed for it. It’s rarely actually required.
Banking: When using an ATM, be aware of others around you, and avoid using one that looks like it might have been tampered with.
What If They Succeed? Act Promptly
If you believe you’ve been exposed to identity theft or financial fraud, time is of the essence.
Online: If it’s an online event, immediately change the passwords on any affected accounts. It may help, and it certainly can’t hurt.
Financial: If you feel your financial security has been compromised, we’ll want to hear from you as well! We’ll do all we can to help you fix the breach and minimize any damage done.