We are all targets and we are all vulnerable. Criminals across the country and around the globe - small-time thieves and devious computer hackers - are working around the clock to steal your money and your personal information. There's nothing you can do to guarantee you won't get taken, but there are many things - some of them very simple - that can reduce the risk.
Con artists and disreputable companies will do or say whatever it takes to get what they want. So you need to be vigilant. Because once you wire off your money or give a crook your Social Security number, the damage is done. Life in the digital age does not come with an "undo" button.
With most scams the warning signs are there, if you look for them - let's review the rules:
Question everything: phone calls, mail solicitations, email offers, links on social media. Don't take things at face value. Con artists know how to make their scams look and sound legitimate. They can doctor pictures, copy logos, fake testimonials. It's also easy to "spoof" caller ID and create fake websites.
Think it through and check it out before you respond in any way. A phone call or quick web search could keep you from losing thousands of dollars or giving out very personal information. You can check out companies and offers with the Better Business Bureau, Federal Trade Commission and National Fraud Information Center.
Guard your personal information
Fraudsters use a variety of tricks to get you to divulge account numbers and passwords. They send bogus emails designed to look like it's from your bank and make calls pretending to be with your credit card company.
There's always a reason why they need your personal information. A common ruse is for a phone bandit to ask for your account number and PIN to solve a computer problem or to stop fraudulent transactions spotted on your account.
It doesn't matter what they say - hang up! Those who need your account numbers, PINs or passwords already have them. They'd never call you or send you an email asking for them. When in doubt, contact the company in question by phone - use a number you know to be legitimate, from your statement or the phone book - and ask what's up.
Your Social Security number is the key to your life. A thief can use it to steal your money and your identity. Social Security numbers are also used to access many financial and medical records. So guard that number and only give it out when absolutely necessary to someone you know and trust.
Beware of counterfeit checks
When you sell something online, never accept a check that's made out for more than the agreed-upon price. Fraudsters will do that and instruct you to wire back the extra amount. The check may look legit, but it's counterfeit. The bank may tell you the check has "cleared" and the money is in your account, but once that check is found to be bogus - which could take weeks - the bank will withdraw those funds from your account. That means you'll be left holding the bag for all the money you wired off.
Take your time
Don't let anyone rush you into making a purchase. The buy-now-or-else approach is designed to keep you from comparison shopping. Don't fall for it. If they're really offering a bargain, they don't have to high-pressure you into buying on the spot. If the sales person tells you the price won't be good if you walk out the door - turn around and leave.
Get it in writing
Verbal promises don't count. It doesn't matter what the salesperson tells you, the only thing that matters is what's written down. Most sales contracts specifically state that verbal promises are not binding. That's why you need to read, understand, and agree to the terms before you sign any contract.
Be wary of all links and attachments
It's so easy to click on a link in a text, email, or social media post. It's so tempting to open an email attachment, especially when the message says it's a shipping invoice or some other document you'd want to see.
Fraudsters count on curiosity and that instant response to load malicious software onto computers, smartphones and other mobile devices. And with shortened URLs, you really don't know where that link will take you - maybe a malicious site run by the crooks.
Unless it's something you're expecting and know for sure who it came from, don't open that attachment and resist the temptation to click any links.
If you've really won a prize - it's free!
Never pay to play a contest or to claim a prize. If the contest is legitimate, you're not required to buy anything or pay any money to get your prize - that's the law. You don't have to send in a processing fee, pay shipping or handling charges, or provide your credit card or bank account numbers for any reason. And if you owe taxes on your prize, you pay them to the government, not the contest promoter.
Remember: You can't win a contest you didn't enter. If someone says you did, they're lying.
Don't be fooled by free merchandise offers or money back guarantees
Free is good, but be skeptical of ads that offer to send you a free sample. The initial product may be free, but they'll probably make you pay for shipping and handling. To cover that charge, you'll need to provide your credit or debit card number. Some dishonest companies then sign you up for additional monthly purchases - whether you realize it or not - which can be hard to stop.
A money-back guarantee is designed to get you to make a purchase you might otherwise skip. That guarantee is only as good as the company that offers it. Sometimes the rules are so restrictive it's impossible to get a refund. For example, simply opening the package might void the offer. If you are allowed to return the product, you can expect to pay to ship it back.
Use a credit card for online and mail order purchases
A credit card gives you better fraud protection than a debit card - credit cards are governed by different federal rules. With a credit card, you can dispute an unauthorized charge and the credit card company must take that charge off your bill while it investigates. That's not always the case with a debit card. You can also dispute a credit card charge if the merchandise doesn't arrive or if it's defective and the company won't help you.