By Pam Reiss
Your phone is probably ringing a lot more than you would like it to, and often, you have no idea who is calling. We recently talked about how to deal with the annoying sales and marketing calls (phone spam) that we’re all being bombarded with. But, there’s another big problem that can be an even bigger nuisance: phone scams. These calls come from criminals looking to prey on unsuspecting victims to get money, information, or both. There are many different scams going on at all times and they leverage fear, compassion, or simply ignorance to get people to give them information.
Threats, prizes, special promotions are some of the more common tactics scammers use:
- Debt collection agencies demanding payment;
- Social Security Administration representatives saying there is an issue with your Social Security number;
- Lottery scams claiming you’ve won a big prize but need to provide personal information or pay the taxes on your winning;
- Arrest threats from scammers impersonating the IRS other federal entities;
- Charities looking for funding, especially after a natural disaster or other crisis;
- Tech support calls claiming you have a virus or other problem with your laptop or other device, asking you to let them log into your machine remotely.
Currently, there are also many COVID-19 scams circulating, with callers offering masks or sanitizer, testing services, work-from-home opportunities, debt consolidation, or loan repayment plans. Other scammers are claiming to be with contact tracing services and may tell you there’s an outbreak in your area.
The most important thing to understand if you answer the phone is to never give out any personal information to anyone you don’t know. That includes things as simple as confirming your name, address, email, or any other information. Every piece of information you provide, regardless of how irrelevant it may be, is likely to be added to a growing file that scammers piece together and can use or sell to other scammers. Realize that legitimate organizations aren’t going to call you and ask for sensitive information.
There are really two good options for handling calls from people you don’t know.
The first is in situations when you answer the phone and realize it’s not someone you know. Hang up immediately. That’s the easiest way to avoid giving away any information. Don’t engage callers, don’t threaten them, don’t even speak to them. Once you start talking, they realize you are not only willing to answer the phone, but will engage them, which is yet another valuable piece of information. Don’t even follow prompts to push certain buttons, and do not return single-ring calls.
If you think it may have been a legitimate call from your bank or some other organization, call them – not the number that just called you, but look up their main number – and find out if the call was real. Legitimate callers won’t mind that you are taking extra precautions.
The other solution many people have started using is to simply not answer the phone if they don’t know the number or it’s not in their phone’s contact list. Even if you think you might know the number, realize that scammers can easily spoof local numbers to make people think a friend is calling them. In most cases, friends, family, and other legitimate callers will leave a message and you can call them back. By not answering, you’re not even providing the small bit of data that you are likely to answer a call – which is valuable information to scammers.
You can also use technology to help. Your home and mobile phone providers offer tools to help identify or block unwanted calls. Check with your provider to see what options are available. Most mobile providers have free and paid versions of call filtering apps that can help protect you.
If you do receive a scam call, you should also report it to the FCC. How much information you provide is up to you, but the more information you are able to give, the more detail the FTC has to analyze complaint data and identify and react to ongoing scams and identify the individuals behind them.
Scammers count on their victims not being smart enough to figure out what’s going on before it’s too late. Understanding the tactics scammers use and the ways they try to get information from you can help your identity and your money, and help avoid having to deal with recovering funds (which may not always even be possible) and identity theft.
Not surprisingly, online shopping has increased significantly over the past four months, with restaurants and retail stores being closed and even those that were open using curbside pickup or delivery. That trend continues, and even when the pandemic subsides, almost half of consumers say they will continue to use online shopping for home delivery or curbside pickup.
Many have found that online shopping is simply a more convenient option. In many cases, it offered an opportunity to get items that were otherwise unavailable because stores were closed or items were out of stock due to high demand. That’s all true, as long as the items arrive as scheduled.
But, many people have also reported not receiving their purchases. In fact, the FTC says it has received more reports of problems with online shopping, with more than half saying they never received their items.
In some cases, there have been delays, or items have simply gotten lost in transit. Companies like Amazon typically do a good job letting customers know when their items are delayed. In many cases, if the item is lost somewhere in transit, Amazon will offer customers the opportunity to request a refund, even though the item may eventually still arrive. It’s good customer service.
Over the past several months, thousands of unverified, fraudulent sites have popped up claiming to have many high-demand products available. Once they receive payment, they simply don’t ship the items and, when customers call to inquire, they claim delays due to the pandemic to avoid being detected as fake for as long as possible. It was a concern even before the pandemic, which only created another opportunity for fake sites. Some of these sites even mimic legitimate retailers, making it even harder to tell what’s real and what’s not.
The good news is there are ways to limit your exposure to these scams. Here are a few tips for smart online shopping to help you steer clear of any issues and make sure you get the products you order.
- Try recognized brands first. They may not always have what you’re looking for, but it’s a good place to start.
- Be wary of sites selling products that are in short supply, or name brand products at much lower prices than you would normally pay.
- Make sure the website is and HTTPS site (not just HTTP), indicating a higher level of security. This is important any time you make online purchases. Also click on the padlock next to the web address, which will give you even more information about the site’s security.
- Also check the URL itself. Some fake sites use addresses very similar to legitimate sites to fool people. If you typed in the address manually, double check it to make sure you didn’t make a mistake.
- Keep your browser updated. Most browsers will warn you if you’re about to go to an unsafe site.
- Also keep you security software updated. This is another tool to help avoid malware from suspicious sites.
- Examine the reviews. Many sites pay for fake 5-star reviews that all sound about the same. Look for a variety or reviews and ratings. You can also use sites like Fakespot, which analyzes and rates the validity of reviews on sites.
- Other resources are available to help check website reputation, like URLVoid or Google Transparency Report. You can also check the Better Business Bureau for its ratings.
- Pay with a credit card. This may be the best way to protect your money when buying online, regardless of the site. If something happens and you don’t receive your purchases, or if they aren’t as advertised, you can contact your credit card issuer to dispute the charges if.
Online shopping is often very convenient, and it can be a way to get items that aren’t readily available locally. But, there’s no question scam sites are a growing issue. But, scammers are successful because they rely on unsuspecting victims. Arming yourself with the information and tools to avoid scams or low-quality product knock-offs will help keep you from being disappointed or losing money.