Protecting yourself from financial fraud takes constant vigilance, and despite the best efforts of countless law enforcement authorities and regulatory agencies, money scams are still extremely common. Every year, millions of people are affected by various forms of financial fraud, putting their Social Security, Medicare, and tax information at risk.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to improve your odds of staying ahead of criminals looking to steal your money and personal information. By knowing some of the most common scams that these thieves use, you'll be more likely to recognize when someone's trying to rip you off and avoid the mistakes that so many others have made.

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1. Phone calls about your Social Security account

One common money scam involves thieves calling you and impersonating a worker at the Social Security Administration. Sometimes, the con artists will start with an automated message saying that your Social Security account has been suspended, asking you to call them back. If you call the number provided, the thieves will try to get your financial information by suggesting that they can solve the problem on your behalf. Some will actually go further, asking you to buy gift cards or prepaid debit cards and then pocketing the cash themselves.

It's quite rare for the SSA to make phone calls seeking to confirm personal information. When it does happen, the SSA gives advance notice, usually by regular mail. So if the phone rings unexpectedly, you should always assume that it's not really a government official -- and after you hang up, you can call the SSA directly at 1-800-772-1213 or call your local Social Security office to see whether you were the target of a Social Security scam.

2. Calls about your new Medicare card

Like Social Security, Medicare participants tend to be older in age, and so criminals think that they're more trusting and therefore more susceptible to scams. Many thieves have taken advantage of the fact that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are in the process of issuing new Medicare cards.

Ironically, the reason Medicare issued new cards in the first place was because of fraud concerns. Old Medicare cards used Social Security numbers as identifiers, so theft of a Medicare card could unlock many other opportunities for thieves to wreak financial havoc. The new cards use a special Medicare Beneficiary Identifier that has nothing to do with your Social Security number.

However, criminals have now adapted, calling people and impersonating Medicare personnel to ask for key personal information. They say that without the information, you won't be able to get a new Medicare card, and some even try to collect a direct payment through a bank account or credit card.

Medicare has responded by saying that it never contacts participants by phone. Therefore, if you get a phone call from someone claiming to be from Medicare, you can be 100% sure that it's a scam.

3. False tax returns with the IRS

Finally, tax-related fraud remains extremely common. The key problem is that if a criminal gets ahold of just some basic financial information like your name, address, and Social Security number, they can file a false tax return. Using completely fraudulent numbers, they can arrange to have a refund sent to the bank account or mailing address of their choice. Only later, when you file your true return, will you discover that a fraudulent return was filed first -- and you'll potentially be on the hook to deal with it.

Your best defense against such scams is to file your tax returns as early as you can. Those who claim refunds have an extra incentive to do so, because the sooner you file, the sooner you'll get your money back. Yet even if you owe money, you shouldn't let that stop you from filing early, because you don't actually have to pay your outstanding tax bill until the mid-April filing deadline.

Be on the lookout

All too often, people fall for money scams from con artists who prey on unsuspecting victims. By knowing what these scams look like, you'll be more likely to recognize when you're being played -- and to avoid giving criminals the money and information they're trying to steal.

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