Data breaches, identity theft, and online scams, oh my! Year after year, a destructive flood of fraud sweeps the nation, leaving countless victims in its wake. Unfortunately, new and improved technology only gives fraudsters an edge, making it easier than ever for scam artists to nab financial data from unsuspecting consumers.
In fact, swindlers and hackers pinched US$16 billion from 15.4 million U.S. consumers in 2016, according to Javelin Strategy & Research’s 2015 Identity Fraud Study. To make matters worse, the Identity Theft Resource Center reports there were 1,339 recorded data breaches in 2017 – “a new record high.” But even in these uncertain times, there are things consumers can do to protect themselves from greedy, increasingly crafty fraudsters.
1. Never Wire Money to a Stranger
At some point or another, you’ve probably received an odd email from a wealthy Nigerian prince whose father/mother/brother recently died and left him a huge fortune. Because of his noble status in a foreign country, the prince needs your help transferring the millions of dollars from a U.S. account. In return, he will reward you handsomely with hundreds of thousands of dollars! All you have to do is wire $5,000 to him.
Although it’s one of the oldest internet scams in the book, there are still consumers who fall for this rip-off or some variation of it. No matter what the circumstances – whether you receive an email from a wealthy traveler who needs your help getting back to the U.S. or your long-lost cousin who claims to be in an emergency situation – NEVER wire money to a stranger. Once you wire cash (especially overseas), it’s virtually impossible to reverse the transaction or trace the money. If you’re worried about your cousin, check separately. She’ll probably be safe at home, and you can alert her that her email’s been hacked.
One of these "Nigerian Princes" was recently detained and charged on December 31, 2018, and to no one's surprise, he turned out to be a 67-year-old man from Louisiana. This particular brand of the scheme first popped up in the 1980s and Americans have lost millions of dollars to the scam.
2. Don’t Give Out Financial Information
Never reveal sensitive financial information to a person or business you don’t know, whether they reach out to you via phone, text or email. Scammers will sometimes email or call you, claiming to be from a retailer, financial institution or government agency. They may say your account has been compromised or needs to be updated. More often than not, these crooks are trying to trick you into giving them your credit card number, Social Security number or other financial information.
This common scam is known as phishing. Remember, your bank or credit card company will never contact you and ask for your personal information. If you receive a suspicious call or email and are concerned about your account, call the credit card company or bank directly to check on your account status.
3. Never Click on Hyperlinks in Emails
If you receive an email from a stranger or company asking you to click on a hyperlink or open an attachment and then enter your financial information, delete the email immediately. Even if the email appears to be from your bank or credit card company, it’s more likely a scam known as pharming. The Better Business Bureau advises consumers to ignore and delete any emails that make these kinds of requests.
4. Use Tough-To-Crack Passwords
These days, a password like “12345” or “P@ssword” just isn’t going to cut it. Hackers can easily crack passwords that are simple number combinations or a common pet name. Create passwords that are at least eight characters long and that include some lower and upper case letters, numbers and special characters. You should also use a different password for every website you visit.
But how on earth are you expected to remember 20 different passwords that look something like this: “5Rg6&*eQ$3”? That’s where a password program like RoboForm or LastPass can help. These handy programs help you generate strong passwords and securely and quickly access them when you need them.
5. Never Give out Your Social Security Number
If you receive an email or visit a website that asks for your Social Security number, don’t do it. It’s more than likely a scam. Legitimate businesses rarely ask for this information.
6. Install Antivirus and Spyware Protection
Protect the sensitive information stored on your computer by installing antivirus, firewall and spyware protection. Once you install the program, turn on the auto-updating feature to make sure the software is always up-to-date.
7. Don’t Shop With Unfamiliar Online Retailers
When it comes to online shopping, only do business with familiar companies. If you’re interested in purchasing a product from an unfamiliar retailer, do some research to ensure the business is legit and trustworthy. Visit the Better Business Bureau’s website or search online for consumer feedback and complaints.
8. Don’t Download Software From Pop-Up Windows
When you’re online, be wary of pop-up windows that appear and claim your computer is unsafe. If you click on the link in the pop-up to start the “system scan” or some other program, malicious software known as “malware” could damage your operating system.
9. Make Sure the Websites You Visit Are Safe
Before you enter your financial information on any website, double-check the website’s privacy rules. Also make sure the website uses encryption, which is usually symbolized by a lock to the left of the web address. When you see the lock, this means the information you’re entering is safely encrypted and protected against hackers.
10. Only Donate to Known Charities
If you receive a call or email solicitation for a charity looking for donations, do your homework before you whip out your credit card. Some scammers create bogus charities to steal credit card information. You can search for legitimate charities on the IRS website.
The Bottom Line
In this day and age, it seems like financial scams and rip-offs are lurking around every corner – both on and offline. (See the Federal Trade Commission’s Scam Alert for the latest ones. Spotted a scam yourself? You can report it to the FTC here.) By following these 10 tips, you can outsmart even the most cunning fraudsters and shield yourself from financial harm.
(See also: Identity Theft: How To Avoid It.)