These strategies can thwart online thieves
Whether it’s fake online shopping sites, identity theft or scam artists using phone or email, fraud is on the rise, with a record 1.3 million cases in the first nine months of last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Although anyone can become a victim, FTC data show that consumers age 80 and older are far more likely to be scammed by phone and lose the most money, a median of $1,250.
By now, you probably know not to give out sensitive information to anyone contacting you — and that credit cards offer more protection against fraud than debit cards.
With a credit card, the most you’ll be responsible for is $50. Debit cards, however, could leave you paying for all of a thief’s spending spree if you don’t report it within 60 days.
But there’s a lot more to guarding against fraud than knowing which card to use. In fact, it’s the things you may not know that could cost you the most money.
Even savvy consumers can be defrauded
Fraudsters don’t just target the gullible. “I see victims from all walks of life and all professions,” said Alisa Bralove-Scherr, deputy director of mediation in the Maryland Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division.
The biggest mistake people make is to think they’re immune, said Bryan Roslund, assistant state’s attorney for Montgomery County, Maryland. Thieves keep honing their craft, using whatever new scheme they can to take over your bank or retirement account. “This is where they excel,” he said, by finding new ways to take advantage of you.
For example, Roslund said, if you challenge a caller who warns that you have not shown up for jury duty, a scammer knows how to shift tactics immediately — usually by admitting you’re right and that they were working from the “wrong list.”
Some criminals even monitor emails to intercept lucrative transactions. Roslund had a case where a financial agent lost $30,000 when he wired money to a restaurant because someone made a tiny change to the recipient’s email address.
How identity thieves often find you
According to the FTC, you’re more likely to suffer fraud through online purchases, and COVID-19 has only encouraged this equal-opportunity crime to flourish as more Americans turn to websites for shopping. A 2020 Pitney Bowes survey found that 45% of shoppers bought more than half of their goods online, three times the pre-pandemic level.
Scammers capture buyers — especially those looking for deals or hard-to-find products — with convincing emails and websites that appear to be from a known company. In November 2020, for instance, the FTC filed a complaint against the operators of 25 websites claiming to be Lysol or Clorox with high-demand products for sale.
Consumers should scrutinize URLs for subtle misspellings or punctuation at the end, which can be signs of a bogus company website. A site with an “https” address is more secure but not necessarily legitimate. With emails, check for irregularities by hovering your mouse over a sender’s address before opening a message that appears to be from a known source.
A credit freeze is not a credit lock
To prevent identity theft, you may consider a credit freeze or a credit lock, which are not the same. Freezing your credit deters someone from obtaining a loan, phone or credit card in your name. A freeze restricts access to your credit report, which most institutions require before approving a new account. You will need to contact all three credit bureaus (Equifax, Trans-Union and Experian) to get a PIN or password.
“It took me about 15 minutes to do,” said John Buzzard, a financial fraud and security expert with Javelin Strategy & Research during a recent AARP webcast.
You will need to lift the freeze when applying for loans or credit. Under federal law, if you request a lift online or by phone, a credit bureau must do so free of charge and within one hour.
A credit lock offers similar protections, except that you don’t get a PIN, and you can lift the lock yourself. But the convenience comes at a price: Locks don’t have the backing of federal law that freezes do, leaving you vulnerable if something goes wrong. Plus, one of the bureaus charges for the lock (you need all three for a lock to be effective).
You can also lock credit cards you rarely use so that they can’t be used to make purchases. Card issuers will do this for free, and unlocking is simple and immediate.
Thanks to last year’s stimulus package, the three credit bureaus are offering consumers free weekly credit reports until April 20, 2022.
Safest to pay with a smartphone app
Mitchal Smith, owner of a credit processing company in Raleigh, N.C., recommends using an app such as Google Pay or Apple Pay instead of carrying a card that can be stolen or scanned. To pay, you tap your phone at a payment terminal.
Like PayPal, the apps are safer because you don’t give the merchant your credit card number. Instead, Google or Apple assigns a different virtual account number for every transaction you make.
© 2021 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.