As we all return to our public lives after months of pandemic isolation, another group is also emerging in force: scam artists. Consumer watchdog agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, the Better Business Bureau, and others are all reporting sharp increases in fraudulent activities like fake sweepstakes (financial losses up 35%), deceptive online dating (incidents up 40%) and even non-existent pets offered for sale online (up an astonishing 300%).
While seniors are the usually thought of as the main target for scammers, “younger adults lose money to swindlers much more often than the older people,” reports the New York Times citing a survey by the Better Business Bureau. “The Federal Trade Commission reports similar figures, with 44 percent of people ages 20 to 29 losing money to fraud, more than double the 20 percent of people ages 70 to 79.”
Identity thieves have been especially busy. In 2020 ID theft skyrocketed to nearly 1.4 million cases nationwide, more than double the 2019 number and three times the 2018 figure, according to the Federal Trade Commission. No one is immune from ID theft. While it’s impossible to safeguard your information completely, you can reduce your risk by taking these five simple steps:
1. Keep private information private. Unless you initiated the call and you know and trust who you are talking to, never ever give out private information like your Social Security number, bank account number or credit card number.
2. Monitor your credit (it’s free). Normally, federal law requires the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—to allow consumers access to one free credit report each year. However, Forbes Magazine reports that “[w]hen the pandemic upended consumer finances…the bureaus changed their policies to allow one free report each week to help Americans keep a closer eye on their finances. In March, the bureaus extended the free weekly credit reports through April 20, 2022.” A new investigation by Consumer Reports found that more than one third of nearly 6,000 volunteers surveyed, found errors in their personal information or financial accounts.
3. Invest in a paper shredder. ID theft prevention experts say: “Don’t toss. Shred.” Did you know that mailings with credit card offers, insurance solicitations, and similar items often-times have your personal information in them? Florida State Attorney R.J. Larizza advises that “[c]riminals can physically go into your trash, get mailers out, fill out credit card applications in your name and have direct access to your credit! Shredding your junk mail can be the difference between being the victim of a crime and not.”
With a shredder you can also shred documents containing your personal information, including credit card numbers, account numbers, Social Security numbers, birthdates, previous and current addresses, passwords, phone numbers and driver’s license numbers. An inexpensive paper shredder can be bought for as little as $30 to $50 which is pretty cheap protection against identity theft.
4. Never use any part of your address or birth date as PIN or password. In this age of ever more frequent computer hacking, we all know to keep our user names and passwords safe.
But, we need to go one step further and never use numbers or words associated with us like our address or birth date, because these are easy for hackers to guess. Also, never write your PINs anywhere and especially not next to your debit card.
5. Don’t carry sensitive documents in your wallet or purse. The Identity Theft Resource Center says you should never carry with you these five things:
- Social Security Card (or any piece of paper with the SSN written on it)
- Birth Certificate
- Bank Account and Routing Numbers
- Password Cheat Sheets
You should photocopy the documents you do carry with you like your driver’s license, credit and debit cards, etc. On the photocopy write down the email address and phone number associated with each document and then store the photocopy in a safe place like a safety deposit box or at home in a fireproof storage container.