One of the biggest mistakes you can make when it comes to protecting yourself from financial scams is thinking you’re too smart to be duped by one.
“We’re all vulnerable — we can all fall for a scam given the right set of circumstances,” says Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that provides advice and assistance related to identity theft. Keeping yourself safe starts with accepting that fact, she adds.
“You look at the profiles of victims who filed complaints and it runs the gamut from highly educated, high-income people all the way down to the most vulnerable people in our population,” says John Breyault, vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League, a nonprofit advocacy group that speaks out about consumer concerns.
While there isn’t a “foolproof solution to stay safe from all scams,” as Breyault puts it, there are strategies you can employ to reduce your risk. Here are four of the most important ones:
Hang up and ‘go to the source’
If you’re contacted by anyone claiming to be your bank or other familiar company, end the conversation and call the institution’s verified number yourself, Velasquez says. “We always say, ‘If you did not initiate the interaction, then you need to go to the source,’” she adds.
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Otherwise, you don’t actually know who’s on the other end of the line, she says, especially because scammers can spoof the number that shows up on your caller ID so it might look legitimate.
In some cases, you might want to pay your bank a visit in person to get clarification. When Thorn Roberts, owner of a small business in Elizabeth, West Virginia, received a payment request he didn’t recognize, he went to his bank to ask about it.
“They knew it was a scam,” he says. As a result, he immediately canceled his accounts and created new ones. Thanks to his quick action and the bank’s help, his money was safe.
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Secure and monitor your accounts
Basic online security practices can also help protect you, Velasquez says. She recommends enabling multifactor authentication on your financial accounts, creating unique passwords and not sharing personal details such as your birthdate online.
Jason Zirkle, training director at the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners and former fraud analyst with law enforcement, suggests checking your financial accounts at least once a week and investigating any unidentified charges immediately. Even one small erroneous charge could suggest someone has access to your account, signaling the beginning of a larger problem.
Get familiar with common scams
The Federal Trade Commission reports that the top scams of 2022 include people impersonating institutions like banks, phony sweepstakes and fake job postings. “You don’t have to become an expert in each one, but you need to understand the hallmarks of most scams: They contact you first, dangle some sort of bait in front of you and create a sense of urgency,” Zirkle says. Then, they ask for either money or personal information, which they use to access your money.
That’s what happened to former government executive and security expert Ken Westbrook’s mother earlier this year. A fake tech support window popped up on her computer, which likely came from a malicious ad. It connected her to criminals who persuaded her to call them and send gift cards and cashier’s checks under the guise of protecting her bank accounts from being hacked.
“My mom knew gift cards were a red flag, but she did it anyway because they scared her,” says Westbrook, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area. Eventually, Westbrook discovered what was happening and put a stop to it, but only after his mom lost thousands of dollars.
These scammers “sound like the nicest tech support people that you’ve ever dealt with,” says Chris Pierson, founder and CEO of BlackCloak, a cybersecurity firm. “They install remote management tools to see what’s on your screen and then can suck out your files and extort you.”
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Report scams and be your own advocate
Reporting fraud to government agencies and private organizations allows for better fraud tracking. While there’s no centralized source for fraud tracking, you can report it to the Federal Trade Commission, your state’s attorney general’s office, the FBI, your local police station, your bank’s fraud department, the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker and the Identity Theft Resource Center, among others.
Most people who lose money to scams never see it again. “The first thing you need to do is accept your money is probably gone and you won’t get it back,” Zirkle says. He suggests “being your own advocate” with your bank and police. In some cases, your financial institution or law enforcement might be able to help you recover some or all of it.
Still, some losses are harder to quantify. “In addition to a financial crime, it’s an emotional crime,” Westbrook says. “People are affected by this for the rest of their lives. What I tell everyone, and tell my mom, is, ‘It’s not your fault. The thieves work for organized crime gangs who are very good at what they do.’”
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Kimberly Palmer writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @kimberlypalmer.