IDENTITY THEFT… It strikes a chord of fear. Regrettably, it is on the rise, and now is the time to protect yourselves and your loved ones.
My firsthand experience with this propelled me to write about this terrible reality. A close elderly relative was unlucky enough to take a phone call that drew them into a costly scam. Before the onset of mild dementia, I couldn’t fathom them being taken in by such deception. As it goes, a scammer focuses on fear and vulnerability, using believable scenarios that lure people into acting immediately.
Unknown Call, Emails, or Texts
Be wary of anyone unknown to you using high-urgency verbiage concerning your assets or information.
For example: “This is the Social Security office. We’re calling because it has come to our attention that your information has been stolen. We highly recommend that you take your money out of your bank accounts now and transfer them to VISA gift cards where we will assist you in relocating those funds to a secure account.”
Remember, government agencies wouldn’t normally call, text, email or contact you via social media asking you about your personal information. Also, most banks and other financial institutions have layers of security often requiring additional unique information to withdraw money.
What to Do
• If it’s a phone call: HANG UP – DO NOT RESPOND. Slow down, take a breath. Never allow anyone to hustle you into anything, especially when it involves your finances, social security number or other personal information. With a smartphone think about changing your settings to filter out unknown callers. This way if someone calls that you don’t know it will go directly to voicemail. Now you can listen to your voicemails and make decisions in a calmer, clearer state of mind. If you don’t know what to do, ask someone you trust to help.
• If it’s an email or text: DON’T CLICK on a LINK or REPLY DIRECTLY to a message. Scammers are getting increasingly better at their facades and making you think they are a legitimate company. They can borrow logos/graphics from the web anywhere and make it look like they are the face of organizations we all know. They may tell you it’s imperative that you call them now. Do not take this at face value. If you want to check to see if it is a genuine directive, go straight to the company’s website, find their information and contact them personally.
What to Do if Someone was Successful in Scamming You
• Call the police and create a police report.
• Alert the company or financial institution that is associated with the money transfer: bank, asset holders, cash apps and/or credit card companies.
• Report it to the Federal Trade Commission at: www.ftc.gov/faq/consumer-protection/report-identity-theft
• If you believe your social security number was compromised, consider freezing or locking your credit reports for the top 3 national credit agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. If someone has successfully discovered your social security number they can use it to try and open credit accounts in your name. Freezing or locking your credit reports can help put a stop to this. The downside is that your own ability to apply for credit is also disabled, but you have the power to re-initiate at any time.
• Sign up with a credit monitoring agency. There are many out there to choose from, but keep in mind to look for one that is associated with all 3 major credit bureaus.
Unknown Charges on Your Account
There are a number of tactics hackers use to breach your data. They have become well-versed at learning new technologies to “crack the code.” Their ability to encrypt passwords is alarming. Remember all those times you were asked to create a unique password with multiple letters, numbers, symbols… the list goes on, but the reasons for doing it are valid.
What to Do
• More than ever, it is critical to perform weekly, if not daily checks on any online, traditional or credit card accounts. Anything that seems “off” should be investigated immediately to cut off any further activity.
• Yes! UPDATE Passwords on a regular basis. We all know the cataloging of the unending list of passwords is no one’s favorite task, however, it never seems important until you’re hacked. Start a routine of updating your passwords every 60-90 days.
• Make Your Passwords UNIQUE! Simple passwords are vulnerable, and an experienced hacker can easily encode a short or highly-used password. Use 12 or more characters, and make it stronger with a variety of letters, numbers, and symbols. The longer it is, the harder it is to encrypt. We wait for the day that passwords are irrelevant, but until then…
• Enlist 2-factor authentication whenever possible. Simple… two walls of security are better than one.
• If you have a Google account, they provide a password checkup tool completely free of charge. Check it out!
Unemployment Insurance Fraud
The Wall Street Journal stated; “The U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General on March 31 estimated that at least 10%, or more than $89 billion, of the $896 billion that the federal government has allocated to state unemployment-insurance programs since March 2020 might have been ‘paid improperly,’ a large part of which may be because of fraud.” That being said, it adds more fuel to the fire to take steps to protect your personal information.
What to Do
If you become aware that your name and social security number were used wrongly for application for unemployment benefits:
• Report it immediately to the state unemployment office
• Notify your employer
• You can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud by completing a complaint form online, or call 866-720-5721.
• Follow the directions given in the prior paragraph, What to Do if Someone was Successful in Scamming You.
All of this can feel very unsettling. Researching and writing about this topic was a little frightening. No matter how scary it may be, don’t let that get in the way of acting on behalf of the safety of your identity. It is even more frightening when it actually happens to you or someone you love.
Keep abreast on this issue, educate yourself but most importantly take some time today to protect yourself and your loved ones that need help. Lastly, keep a secure & encrypted list of all of your accounts, including account numbers, passwords, name of associated financial organizations or online apps, as well as their contact information. If any of your personal information has been compromised you can use this list and act quickly. Doing this very important organizing will not be the most fun you’ve had in your spare time, but the added peace of mind is worth the time and energy spent.
Leonhardt, Megan; ‘Consumers lost $56 billion to identity fraud last year—here’s what to look out for,’ (Mar 23, 2021) CNBC Make It on www.cnbc.com.
Tergesen, Anne; The Wall Street Journal, ‘Unemployment-Benefits Fraud Has Soared in the Pandemic. Here’s What to Do. Protect your Social Security number and other personal information whether or not you are an identity-theft victim,’ (April 29, 2021) www.wsj.com.