The Internet has made access to all sorts of things, including your money, dramatically more convenient. The ability to instantly pay your bills online, buy a share of your favorite company's stock, and pay your friend for your share of last night's pizza means that money management is a lot easier than it used to be.
Unfortunately, the connected, always-on world we live in means it's also easier for people with ill intentions to get access to your cash. Hackers, scammers, and other sheisty individuals are constantly developing new ways to try to get a piece -- or all -- of your hard-earned funds.
The numbers will blow your mind.
According to a report released by the Federal Trade Commission, there were an astounding 1.1 million fraud reports in 2017. Among those 1.1 million reports, 21% of the complainants reported a financial loss. And get this: Of the people who actually lost money to fraud, the aggregate reported loss was a whopping $905 million!
To put that shocking amount into perspective, $905 million is more revenue than Dunkin' Brands (NASDAQ:DNKN) brought in for all of 2017. Though it might be hard to comprehend, fraud is nearly a billion-dollar business in the United States.
So now you know what a huge issue financial fraud is, but just like G.I. Joe used to say, "knowing is only half the battle." If you're going to keep your money out of the hands of nefarious actors, it's incumbent upon you to take the necessary steps to protect yourself.
Here are a few of the most common financial scams and ways you can avoid becoming their victim.
1. Don't fall for spoofed calls
One scam that especially targets seniors is spoofed phone calls. This attempt at financial trickery begins with someone calling and pretending to be from some government agency. The scammer calls from a spoofed number so that it closely or exactly matches the number of the real agency in order to trick people into picking up the call.
A variation of this trick involves a spoofed number that closely or exactly matches your own. Apparently people have a hard time ignoring calls that appear to be coming from themselves. (Me, is that you?)
Once the unsuspecting citizen answers the call, the scammer begins to demand money -- supposedly fines you've incurred for various things such as missing jury duty or failing to pay taxes in full. Some will even go so far as to claim that there is a warrant out for your arrest!
Another variation of this type of phone scam involves the caller asking for immediate payment for unpaid parking tickets or utility bills. The caller will pretend to be from the sheriff's office, threatening to tow your car or revoke your license unless you pay these "tickets."
First of all, no government agency, not even the IRS, will ever call you requesting payment in this manner. You will always receive a letter in the mail with notice of any violation or fine.
Further, a common red flag with both of these types of scams is that the caller will request that you pay in strange ways, such as with gift cards, prepaid debit cards, or a wire transfer. Law enforcement officers won't ask for payment using those methods, so if you get a request like that, it's most likely a scam.
If you receive a call like this, it's best to ignore it and hang up.
You should also register all of your phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry. Companies are legally obligated not to call to solicit you if your number is on the list. If your numbers are on the registry and you receive a call from someone asking for money, it's most likely a scam.
In this day and age, never simply trust the number that appears on your caller ID.
If you think there may be a slight chance that the call was legitimate, you can always place your own call to the agency -- so you know you are talking to the right person -- to check in and see if there are any issues that you need to be aware of.
2. Don't get mugged by a mobile app
Younger people are not immune to being targeted by scammers. You might assume that the millennial generation, having grown up during the internet revolution, would be less susceptible to financial scams than seniors, yet consumers aged 20 to 29 actually accounted for 40% of all reported losses due to fraud in 2017, compared to just 17% for consumers aged 70 or older.
On the bright side, millennials usually don't have much money at their age, so on average, their losses were smaller than the typical losses of someone over age 70.
The scam that these younger people need to be mindful of involves being asked to pay for items they're buying from third-party merchants on sites like Amazon, eBay, and Etsy by using mobile payment apps like Venmo, Square Cash, and Zelle.
Many of these new apps are extremely convenient but have been slow to implement fraud protection, so using them for online purchases is basically like mailing someone an envelope full of cash and hoping you get the product in return.
In general, you should never pay anyone you don't know personally using these new mobile payment apps. Stick to the approved payment methods of the online marketplace you're shopping on, and in many cases, the marketplace will guarantee your purchase and provide you with a refund if you don't receive the product.
3. Freeze your credit
We're all too familiar with the frequent hacks of customer information that have occurred at some of America's largest companies, the most significant of which was the breach of credit-reporting bureau Equifax, in which an astonishing 145 million consumer records were compromised. That's nearly half of the population of the entire country, so it's safe to assume that your information was in there somewhere.
However, you can prevent someone from using your personal information to obtain a credit card or loan by placing a freeze on your credit profile at each of the three major credit report bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
A freeze on your credit profile means that a bank or any other type of creditor will need to contact you before opening any type of account using your information.
Identity theft was a major concern even before hacking became so prevalent, so placing a freeze on your credit is a smart way to prevent fraudulent activities that could ruin it.
4. Change your passwords frequently
Look, if your password is "password" or "12345" or some other easily guessable combination, you must immediately change it. And even if you have a strong password, you should still change it every quarter.
Yes, I know, it's hard to remember all the passwords you have for different sites and blah, blah, blah. It's also hard to get your money back if someone hacks your bank account. Which inconvenience would you rather deal with?
Set an alarm to change your most important passwords every quarter and use a strong password-generator, and your efforts will go a long way toward keeping the hackers at bay. And if you struggle to stay on top of your passwords, a password manager app such as LastPass can generate and automatically enter complex (and thus secure) passwords for you.
5. Do the two-step with your bank
Finally, if you're using online banking (which you should; receiving paper statements and going into a branch are so 1995), then ensure that you have two-step verification enabled on your account.
Two-step verification means that in addition to requiring a password, your bank will send you a code by text message or email if someone tries to log in from a browser or IP address it doesn't recognize, and that code must be entered in order to access the account.
Go the extra step and use any alerts that your online banking platform allows you to set up. In many cases, you can instruct your bank to alert or contact you if there are transactions involving more than a certain amount or if it detects unusual activity.
With technology evolving every day and hackers working to stay ahead of everyone else, there's no guaranteed way to protect yourself from becoming a victim of fraud. However, employing these techniques and keeping an eye on your accounts will greatly decrease the likelihood that the bad guys ever get access to your hard-earned assets.