Because the only fleece you want to feel is the fabric kind.
You give side-eye to emails from Nigerian princes who want to wire money. You know the IRS probably isn’t making phone calls to collect tax payments on a weekend. You pride yourself on your ability to sniff out phishy email attachments. But here’s the thing: Scammers are constantly evolving and testing out new tactics, so your know-how may need an update too. Last year, Americans lost $905 million to fraud—a $63 million jump from the year before, according to the Federal Trade Commission. And though you might expect there to be a correlation between a person’s age and vulnerability, people younger than 50 actually reported losing money to a scheme more than older folks did. Use these expert-approved strategies to keep that target off your back.
It’s not just you—almost 900 million more robocalls are made each month compared with a year ago, according to YouMail, an app that analyzes calls through its robocall blocking service. At this point, you might be impervious to the most common calls, such as a zero-interest loan offer or a warning about a problem with your credit card. But some schemes are super sneaky. A recent one: When someone answers yes to any question (for example, “Can you hear me?”), a recording of that response is used as a voice signature to authorize fraudulent charges by telephone. Not familiar with a number? Let the call go to voicemail. If you do answer, don’t respond to any questions or obey any prompts (such as pressing a button to opt out). Doing so verifies that yours is a working number and could make you a target for more calls. Register your number on the National Do Not Call Registry. To ward off international scammers, try an app that can help block problematic callers, like Truecaller, Hiya, or RoboKiller.
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Have a sounding board.
Friends don’t let friends navigate financial decisions alone. That’s doubly true when one of you is weighing investment opportunities or choosing whether to make a big purchase. Assemble a team of trusted advisers that includes your financial planner and perhaps an attorney. The next crucial step is committing to run every decision by them, says financial planner Catherine Scrivano, founder of Casco Financial Group in Phoenix. “If someone—anyone—approaches you with a financial proposition, be ready to respond, ‘I have a team of advisers I speak to before I make any decisions.’ That alone will deflect scammers.”
Take your time.
An offer to lower your student loans—if you sign up today? Getting rushed might be a red flag that someone doesn’t want you to perform due diligence, says Peggy Tracy, a certified financial planner, a certified fraud examiner, and the founder of Priority Planning. Use the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s free BrokerCheck tool to dig into the backgrounds of brokers, brokerage firms, investment adviser firms, and advisers.
Play it safe with email.
You live your life over email, but personal information like your social security number, bank account numbers, and wire transfer details should absolutely be kept offline, says Mindy Jensen, a real estate investor in Longmont, Colorado, and the author of How to Sell Your Home. If a scammer hacks into your inbox—or the inbox of a person you emailed—the info you sent can be used to drain your accounts or steal your identity. Use a secure portal to share sensitive info, call the agent or broker who needs the details, or deliver forms in person. If you have to send the info by email, encrypt it in a separate file. (With Microsoft Office, this is as easy as selecting Protect Document from the Tools menu.) The recipient will need a password to open the document—provide it via phone call.
Shield your address.
When selling or renting property, never post the exact address, only cross streets. It’s easy—and common—for scammers to duplicate your online ad but list the property at a lower price, says Jensen. Then they may tell interested renters that they’re out of town and to mail a deposit before moving in, or they may send a locksmith to rekey the property. “You could be locked out of your own home or have innocent renters show up, insisting they paid money to live there,” she says.
Default to Credit.
Be wary of requests to make a payment in the form of gift cards. (Yes, this happens.) In many cases, the value can’t be recouped once you’ve handed over the numbers. Instead, use a credit card to pay for any deal or offer. Credit cards typically carry security protections, so if the deal turns out not to be legit, you have a better chance of getting your money back.
Be cautious in times of tumult.
No matter how savvy you usually are, a major event—like a divorce, a move, or the death of a loved one—can make you more vulnerable to scams. Transitions may stir up all sorts of uncomfortable feelings, and many people react by speeding through big decisions to regain a sense of stability. “But when you’re lonely or hurt or shocked or grieving, you might not be thinking straight,” says Tracy. And you might find that the investment you picked or the new house you bought was the wrong choice for you—and your bank account. Tracy encourages clients who are going through an emotional time to delay major decisions, if they can. “Ideally, take a year so the dust can settle and you can make the best, most clearheaded decisions,” she says.