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Immunizing Yourself Against Financial Scams and Identity Theft

Written by Brian Puckett, CFP®, CPA/PFS, Attorney at Law.

No one is immune from financial scams and identity theft slams. Whether you are young or old, wealthy or poor, or transacting business in person or online, you have be aware that bad guys are out there, devising new tricks for every fraud we fix.

Who are they? Financial fraudsters are after your assets, while identity thieves are out to steal your personal information – which they may then use to commit financial fraud.

What do they want? Scammers are after your personal information, such as Social Security numbers, passports, drivers’ licenses and other identifying information. They want financial account and credit card numbers; passwords or insights that help them decipher weak ones; and contact information for you and your family. They want to know your birth date and those of your family members, and they want details about your life that will come in handy in passing themselves off as you—such as your interests, travel plans, relationships, alma mater, etc.

Scammers will get this information however they can. Old-fashioned breaking-and-entering is one way, but they can get their hands on valuable information more subtly, and they can do it online, by phone, in the mail, or in person. Phishing emails and deceitful or compromised websites that trick you into clicking on bad links or opening infected attachments are one approach. Malware that infects your device with pranks, viruses and security breaches is another.

What should you look for? There are 10 red flags you should never ignore.

  1. 1.An offer that sounds too good to be true.
  2. 2.A stranger who wants to be your real or virtual best friend.
  3. 3.When someone you know is behaving oddly via email or phone. (It may be an identity thief.)
  4. 4.Someone claiming to represent a tax agency, financial or legal firm, police department or other authority contacts you out of the blue, demanding money or information.
  5. 5.You’re feeling pressured or tricked into responding RIGHT AWAY to a threat, a temptation or a curiosity.
  6. 6.You’re prioritizing easy access over solid security (weak or absent locks and passwords).
  7. 7.You’re sharing personal information in a public venue (including social media).
  8. 8.Facts or figures aren’t adding up; bank statements, reports or other info is missing entirely.
  9. 9.Your defenses are down: You’re ill, injured, grieving, experiencing dementia or feeling blue.
  10. 10.Your gut feel is warning you: Something seems off.

 

Knowing scammers and slammers are out there can make us feel helpless and hopeless—it is so hard to stay ahead of people who have made deception an art form. But there are things you can do.

 

Protect yourself online. Keep your anti-malware, anti-spyware and operating system software current! Use multi-version backup software to aid you if system or file recovery is needed. Create long, strong, unique passwords and periodically change them. If it is available, use extra security, such as two-step verification or fingerprint access. Be careful about clicking links or opening attachments, especially from strangers. Keep your social media profiles as private as possible, controlling who is allowed to see them. And be extra careful when using public WiFi; assume the world can see what you’re doing.

Be Alert to Suspicious Phone Calls. Legitimate callers don’t call unannounced and entice or threaten you. Never share your credit card number or any other sensitive information. Your best line of defense is to immediately hang up. Once you have ended the call, contact the alleged source directly to inquire further. And report the suspicious number to federal authorities.

Manage your Credit and Other Financial Records. Monitor your financial statements for any for odd transactions. If a statement is missing, it’s possible your account has been redirected elsewhere. Keep an eye on your credit report by requesting and reviewing your free AnnualCreditReport.com. If you rarely apply for loans, you may want to freeze your credit. And if something seems “off,” immediately change any login passwords, and promptly contact the service provider and appropriate federal authorities.

Make Personal Security a Priority. There is still plenty of old-fashioned theft going on. Security matters, so lock up your desk, files, car, mailbox and trash bins. Use a micro-cut shredder to destroy any paperwork you do not need to keep. When you are out and about, keep a close eye on your purse or wallet everywhere you go. When filling in forms, don’t provide your Social Security Number unless actually required. And when using an ATM machine, look for others around you or signs of tampering.

Act Promptly If an Attack Succeeds. If your identity has been stolen or compromised online, promptly change passwords on any affected accounts and recover backups as needed. Check in with any bank or other institution involved, and the government agency responsible for overseeing the breach: the Internal Revenue Service for tax fraud, and the Federal Trade Commission for anything else.

Finally, 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.