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Few of us believe we would ever fall for a scam.  But you should never underestimate the power of emotions and their ability to disable the rational side of your brain.  It is a humbling experience.

My parents both have masters-degree-level educations, were small business owners, and managed rental properties, but they fell victim to scammers who convinced them that one of their grandsons needed their help after causing an auto accident.

Using Facebook posts and other information online, they learned my brother and his wife were out of town at a wedding, and their college-age sons were at home alone.  They built a very convincing story that stretched over a period of days and involved keeping the news from other family members so as not to cause any unnecessary stress or force their grandson to lose his new job.  I was able to stop the scam once I found out about it, but not before they had already given the ‘attorney’ $24,000 in legal fees.

The fastest way to steal money is to convince someone to give it to you, but scammers also steal from you using information you inadvertently give to them.  Here are some of the ways scammers are manipulating our emotions, what they’re doing with the information they obtain, and how to combat them.

Email Extortion Scams

According to the FTC, this scam has increased with the popularity of Bitcoin.  You receive an email from someone who says they have access to your computer, webcam or have installed software to hack your files.  They threaten to release sensitive videos, pictures or compromising information to the public unless you pay them a ransom in cryptocurrency.  They provide one of your old – or recent – passwords to prove they have access, which triggers panic and causes many people to cave to their demand.  But the password was probably obtained through one of the many third-party breaches you read about daily.

If you receive any indication that one of your passwords has been compromised you need to change it, but you don’t need to hand over Bitcoin to keep your privacy.  If you get a message like this, don’t engage with them and report the incident to the FTC at www.FTC.gov/Complaint immediately.

Real Estate and BEC Wire Transfer Fraud

The booming real estate market has helped boost the numbers on this scam.  It begins when someone hijacks the email account of a lawyer, real estate agent, title company or lender to get the details of a real estate transaction about to close.  (You can learn more about email hijacking in my prior blog.)  Posing as a party to the transaction, the scammer emails a buyer with instructions on where to wire money for the closing and the buyer, who believes they have received legitimate instructions, wires funds to the criminal.  A wire transfer is almost impossible to reverse once completed.  The Instagram influencer HUSHPUPPI (@hushpuppi) has 2.5 million followers and was recently charged with using repeated BEC (business email compromise) attacks to support his extravagant lifestyle.

During a real estate transaction, know the phone numbers of all the parties and know their voices.  Get the wiring instruction information in person or over a verified phone number.  Know that wiring instructions rarely change and be suspicious of last-minute requests.  Finally, if your gut is telling you something is wrong, investigate.  You are probably right!

Pop-ups and Tech Support Scams

Tech support scammers lure you in with a pop-up window that appears on your computer screen.  Some messages look like an operating system error message or antivirus software warning and provide a phone number to call to get help.  Others say you must download something to see a video or tell you there are threats detected on your computer.  If you call the number they may ask for remote access to your computer to fix the problem, or they’ll request payment (for tech support you don’t need, to fix a problem that doesn’t exist).  Sometimes they will ask for payment by gift card because it can be hard to reverse.  Others will use it as a ploy to get your credit card number.

As always, do not call and do not download anything.  But also be cautious of the pop-up itself.  Do not click on anything in these pop-ups, including the “X” inside the pop-up box, because it may trigger the download of malware.  To remove the pop-up safely, hold down three keys: CTL+ALT+DEL if you have a Windows computer, or CMD+Option+Escape if you own a Mac.  Then run your computer antivirus software to see if there is malware on your computer that caused it.

Social Security Number Theft

Social Security numbers have been posted on everything from drivers licenses to doctor’s office medical files until we began to realize how easily they could be used by criminals to take over our identity.  If your SS number falls into the wrong hands, it can be used to:

  1. File state and federal tax returns in your name to claim a refund before you have had a chance to file. – This has become so prevalent that the IRS began an Identity Protection PIN program in January 2021 to offer additional protections for your Social Security number on your tax return. To obtain a PIN go directly to the IRS website or talk to your tax preparer for more information.
  2. They obtain medical care or prescription drugs in your name. – If someone obtains medical care using your SS number, it defrauds the insurance provider and creates entries in your permanent medical records for procedures you did not receive and conditions that you don’t have. This can affect your medical care and any purchase of health or life insurance you may want to make in the future.  If you suspect it’s happened to you contact your medical insurance provider right away and take these extra steps.
  3. They file for Social Security benefits in your name (if you are eligible). – The U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of Ohio posted a list of 15 people who fraudulently collected Social Security benefits in August 2020 – most in the Cincinnati and surrounding area – so it happens more than you might think. If you’re over 62 years of age someone can file for your benefits, and you may not even be aware.  To prevent this, create an online Social Security account at ssa.gov.  When you create an account you don’t have to file for benefits, it just means a criminal can’t do so in your name and have the funds sent elsewhere.  And it’s always a good idea to track your benefits using the portal during your working years anyway.
  4. They file for unemployment benefits using your identity. – This has been a huge issue during the Covid pandemic. To file for unemployment in your name they need your Social Security number in addition to other information but having your Social Security number is key.  If someone files for benefits in your name report the issue using the guidelines here.
  5. They use the identity of a deceased person to steal funds. – Criminals sometimes use a deceased person’s personal data to drain accounts, set up new loans, collect government benefits and more. If a member of your family is recently deceased provide copies of the official death certificate to all four credit bureaus and the deceased’s financial institutions.
  6. They open credit card accounts, bank accounts and loans in your name. – This is what most of us think about when we hear ‘identity theft’ and it is the most common way people are scammed. What many of us don’t think about is the Social Security number of children can be used by criminals to apply for a utility service, rent a place to live or apply for a loan as well.  To protect yourself, freeze all four of your credit reports to restrict access to your information and prevent new activity in your name.  Before you do so, it’s a good idea to check your credit reports for any unusual activity at annualcreditreport.com and at www.innovis.com/personal/creditreport for the Innovis report.

 You can freeze your credit using the following links or phone numbers:

 Experian  (888) 397-3742

Equifax  (800) 685-1111

Innovis  (800) 540-2505

TransUnion  (888) 909-8872

Keep your credit reports frozen indefinitely and unfreeze access to your credit history only when needed to apply for a car loan, mortgage, or other credit.

To protect a child, use their Social Security number and check to see if a credit report exists in their name, and if their information is being misused.  You can also take the same steps above to freeze their credit and restrict access to their information.  If you or a child have experienced a theft, visit IdentityTheft.Gov to report the situation and begin the steps toward recovery.

Criminals have been scamming people for years and technology makes it a little easier for them to catch us off guard.  But if you take the steps outlined above and approach online conversations with a healthy dose of skepticism – you’ll be fine!