It all happened so fast. The person on the phone spoke with urgency and authority, and before you knew it, your Social Security number came flying from your lips. Or perhaps it was a longer grooming process, and the scammer convinced you they were a real rep from a trusted financial institution, and you felt secure enough to spill.
Any of that sound familiar?
Sadly, we live in an era rife with scams, and the pandemic has only made things worse — losses due to coronavirus scams now total more than $100 million, and since March, many states have reported a doubling of complaints related to COVID-19 scams. If you’re wondering what personal information scammers seek to exploit in the first place, the answer is simple: All of it. “To a professional scammer, no type of information is trivial or of little value. They want anything they can get their hands on to present as a more legitimate version of you,” says Neal O’Farrell, Executive Director of the ID Theft Council. “
But the most common types of info they seek include your Social Security number and date of birth, says cybersecurity expert Brett Johnson. And unfortunately, this info is easy for them to find. “At the end of the day, everyone’s information is out there. The question is: how do I protect myself, and what do I do if my information is compromised.”
FREEZE YOUR CREDIT
Most garden variety thieves want your info so they can apply for credit, so the first thing you need to do is freeze your credit, recommends O’Farrell. “Freezing your credit is the single most effective tool to prevent new account fraud,” says Robert Siciliano, CEO of ProtectNowLLC.com.
A credit freeze is a service arranged with the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and Transunion) to restrict access to your credit report. When you freeze, lenders and fraudsters alike are barred from viewing your information (until you unfreeze it). Thus, no one can fraudulently open a new line of credit in your good name.
Contact each bureau individually — which you can do online, via phone, or via snail mail — and request a credit freeze, which is free. It’s crucial to contact all three bureaus — here’s how to do it.
Freezing your credit is not only something to do once your information is compromised; it’s also something you can do to be proactive. Even if you haven’t yet been scammed (to your knowledge), freeze your credit, and freeze your children’s. Because let’s face it — we’re all at risk, all the time.
Credit freezing is a definite first step towards greater security, but don’t stop there. “Don’t assume that while your credit is frozen, there isn’t more a scammer can do,” reminds O’Farrell.
MONITOR ALL ACCOUNTS
Next, monitor all your accounts. “The only thing a credit freeze does is stop new account fraud. But for adults, most fraud is on existing accounts, so you have to monitor all of them and place all alerts possible,” explains Johnson.
CHANGE YOUR PASSWORDS
Another important step: change your passwords. Even if they haven’t been compromised. “For any important accounts you have — enable multi-factor verification, and set every alert that’s available,” recommends O’Farrell.
Ask yourself: “Am I using the same password for multiple accounts?” If so, change that.
“You have to practice strong password security. I advise people to use a password manager,” says Johnson.
INVEST IN IDENTITY THEFT PROTECTION SERVICES
To protect your sensitive information, you can invest in identity theft protection services like LifeLock, which offers credit monitoring and identity alerts to suspicious activity. If your information has been compromised, there’s often a restoration component that will involve experts who specialize in fixing stolen identities, explains Siciliano.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SCAMMING AND HOW TO SUSS OUT A SCAM
It’s understandable that we’re easily tricked. “When we see the words ‘SSA,’ or ‘IRS,’ and we pick up the phone, we immediately trust the technology that’s been given to us,” explains Johnson. “What we have to do as people is trust… but verify.”
If you’re not sure about the legitimacy of a request, you can always ask the rep to email you at the account they have on file. A scammer will try to keep you on the phone. “If they say ‘Don’t hang up,’ that’s a sure sign you need to hang up at that point in time,” advises Johnson.
Also, and perhaps most importantly, “the Social Security Administration and IRS don’t call anyone…” notes Siciliano.
“There is no legitimate organization that will call you and require you to pay something over the phone. Not the IRS, not the SSA, not a credit card company, debt collector, or sheriff department. You’re never required to give your Social Security number or make a payment via the phone. My number one tip is just say no, ” says O’Farrell.
Senior citizens are the most vulnerable to scams, emphasizes Johnson. If you have elderly parents and grandparents, speak to them about scams and set up barriers between them and scammers.
Johnson recommends that elderly people in particular have a buddy — an objective third party safety net they can talk to when likely scams present themselves. “One of the reasons that scams work is because the scammer isolates the victim by not letting them hang up until the scam is complete, or by grooming them.”
Talking to a buddy also helps slow things down so you can sit back and consider what’s going on. “Pause for a moment to think about it. Think about how reasonable or rational it is. Never act out of desperation,” instructs Johnson. Desperation leads to poor choices, and scammers profit by conjuring a sense of desperation.
Many scammers will come to you with some sort of sudden “problem” you need to address by giving information, acces, data, or cash. Ask yourself: Have you ever talked to this person before? Are they immediately coming in with a problem? That’s always cause for suspicion.
“If you fall for a scam, it’s a good wake-up call. It shows you weren’t paranoid enough, and it’s a reminder to be more careful in the future,” says O’Farrell. “Use it as a spring cleaning of your security and privacy.”
“When people are scammed, they tend not to talk about it because they’re embarrassed and blame themselves,” explains Johnson. “We have to change that perception. It’s always the scammer’s fault.”
MORE ON HERMONEY:
- How To Protect Yourself From The Latest (And Incredibly Clever) Scams With Frank Abagnale
- The 5 Slickest Scams Of 2019 — That Even We Almost Fell For
- 10 Ways To Keep Your Family Safe Online During The Coronavirus
- Freezing Your Credit Is Now Free For Everyone — Here’s What You’ll Need To Do
SUBSCRIBE: Sign up for our free weekly newsletter. Subscribe to HerMoney to get the latest money news and tips!