You may pride yourself on sniffing out phony calls and emails, but scammers are constantly evolving their tactics, so your know-how may need an update, too. Last year, Americans lost $905 million to fraud—a $63 million jump from the year before, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Use these expert-approved strategies to keep that target off your back.
As you’ve probably noticed, robocalls are on the rise. You might be impervious to the most common calls, such as a zero-interest loan offer or a warning about a problem with your credit card. But some schemes are especially sneaky. A recent one: When someone answers yes to any question (for example, “Can you hear me?”), a recording of that response is used as a voice signature to authorize fraudulent charges by telephone.
Not familiar with a number? Let the call go to voicemail. If you do answer, don’t respond to any questions or obey any prompts (such as pressing a button to opt out). Doing so verifies that yours is a working number and could make you a target for more calls. Add your phone number to the National Do Not Call Registry (via the Federal Trade Commission's website: www.ftc.gov). Apps are available to help ward off international scammers.
An offer to lower your student loans—if you sign up today? Getting rushed might be a red flag that someone doesn’t want you to perform due diligence, says Peggy Tracy, a financial planner and certified fraud examiner in Illinois. Use the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s free BrokerCheck tool to dig into the backgrounds of brokers, brokerage firms, investment adviser firms and advisers.
Personal information like your Social Security number, bank account numbers and wire transfer details should absolutely be kept offline, says Mindy Jensen, a real estate investor and author of How to Sell Your Home. If a scammer hacks into your inbox—or the inbox of a person you emailed—the info you sent can be used to drain your accounts or steal your identity. Use a secure portal to share sensitive info, call the agent or broker who needs the details or deliver forms in person. If you have to send the info by email, encrypt it in a separate file. The recipient will need a password to open the document; provide it via phone call.
When selling or renting property, never post the exact address, only cross streets. It’s easy—and common—for scammers to duplicate your online ad but list the property at a lower price, says Jensen. Then they may tell interested renters that they’re out of town and to mail a deposit before moving in, or they may send a locksmith to re-key the property. “You could be locked out of your own home or have innocent renters show up, insisting they paid money to live there,” she says.
Be wary of requests to make a payment in the form of gift cards. (Yes, this happens.) In many cases, the value can’t be recouped once you’ve handed over the numbers. Instead, use a credit card to pay for any deal or offer. Credit cards typically carry security protections, so if the deal turns out not to be legit, you have a better chance of getting your money back.
No matter how savvy you usually are, a major event—like a divorce, a move or the death of a loved one—can make you more vulnerable to scams. Transitions may stir up all sorts of uncomfortable feelings, and many people react by speeding through big decisions to regain a sense of stability. “But when you’re lonely or hurt or shocked or grieving, you might not be thinking straight,” says Tracy. And you might find that the investment you picked or the new house you bought was the wrong choice for you—and your bank account. Tracy encourages clients who are going through an emotional time to delay major decisions, if they can. “Ideally, take a year so the dust can settle and you can make the best, most clearheaded decisions,” she says.