Here's the reality: Con artists have always been around. Even the Old Testament Book of Genesis (B'reishish in Hebrew) had its scam in the story of Isaac and his brother Esau.
Here is another reality: The computer has made their work easier and more pervasive. Attorneys general in our states have been tracking the types and frequency of scams and it is no surprise that most scams today are connected in some way to computers. In previous columns, I've already mentioned several of the Top 10 scams: the IRS, debt collection, computer support, and identity theft scams. Today, I'll round out the list.
Don't get caught
Phishing is a major route to identity theft and the number four fraud on the list. It is an attempt to obtain personal or sensitive information to steal identity and assets. The most common phishing scams are calls or email notices that appear to come from a bank, credit card company, or government agency asking for verification information.
The calls sound official. The emails are sophisticated and appear legitimate with the use of appropriate language and logos. But never provide personal information in these situations. Call the company or agency using a number you know to be valid to report the incident.
Successful phishing expeditions result in identity theft — as well as profiling, the collection of personal data used to perpetrate additional scams and fraud. We caution everyone to be particularly careful regarding what is posted in social media (e.g., Facebook) and what information is given to unknown individuals on the telephone or online via websites and email. Giving out any information can easily provide impostors with usable content to impersonate grandchildren, friends, relatives, and even romantic interests expressing distress or the need for money. The best way to protect yourself from becoming a victim of this tactic is to independently verify the identity of the individual contacting you.
Con artists are also successful in exploiting our greed or desire to make easy money. Calls, mailings or emails announcing lottery or sweepstakes winnings and even Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes are common. These scams usually announce that a prize was won and the "winner" need only pay a small fee for processing the prize or to cover taxes. Sophisticated scams even send checks to the "winners" enticing them to deposit the check to make these advance payments, but these checks bounce and nothing is ever dispersed. Always remember that you cannot win a lottery prize or sweepstakes unless you actually purchase a lottery ticket or enter the sweepstakes.
Be particularly careful when using Craigslist or online product and service listings. In these frauds, fake rental listings and/or products and services are offered with a request to cash a fake check or send money to a shipper/agent to complete a transaction. Be cautious when conducting independent transactions online. Utilize cash transfer services such as PayPal or insured methods of payment and be sure to research the record and identity of the vendor with whom you are dealing.
The disconnect threat
The final category in our 2016 Top 10 scams and frauds is the effort targeting businesses. The scam may threaten utility disconnection, request payment for unsolicited or fraudulent invoices, involve fake orders for goods or services and even duplicate the infamous IRS debt collection scam. Impressive stationery with corporate logos is often used and frequently impostors impersonate corporate officials, including CEOS, to demand immediate payments using large bank wire transfers that are irretrievable.
Protecting yourself from falling victim to scams involves a good deal of vigilance and common sense. If you believe you are being targeted or are a victim of a scam, contact your state attorney general's office. If you are a victim of identity theft, notify the Federal Trade Commission.
Coming up next: The tactics of con artists.
Elliott Greenblott is the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network. The AARP is seeking fraud fighters. Join the AARP Fraud Watch Network and receive watchdog alerts and tips. It's free. Go to aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork or volunteer by emailing email@example.com, calling 877-434-7598, or by emailing Greenblott at firstname.lastname@example.org.