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From Romance to Robocalls: Keeping Yourself Safe from Scams

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From Romance to Robocalls: Keeping Yourself Safe from Scams

Wisdom from ancient times can help us avoid modern technology traps.

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Scamming people out of their money is not new—as the saying goes, “There is no new thing under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9). However, technology has made scams more prevalent and sophisticated.

In 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received reports of fraud from 2.8 million consumers, resulting in $2.3 billion in losses. Imposter schemes and online shopping fraud accounted for $392 million of those losses. By 2022, fraud losses skyrocketed to $8.8 billion, largely from investment scams, especially cryptocurrency fraud, which doubled to $3.8 billion.

Where do most of these scams occur? Online fraud is rampant, with 77 percent of scams occurring on social media. In the past year, Facebook Marketplace impersonation doubled, and on WhatsApp, it tripled. The anonymity available via the platforms lures scammers.

Surprisingly, young adults aged 20-29 report more frequent losses due to scams than those aged 70-79, according to the FTC. However, older adults tend to lose more money because scammers target their substantial assets, including savings, pensions, life insurance and property.

Scammers persistently adapt to our new tech habits, capitalizing on consumer novelty and emotions.

Kathleen Peters, Chief Innovation Officer at Experian Decision Analytics in North America, emphasized the need for businesses and consumers to stay vigilant in the face of rising scams. “Businesses and consumers need to be aware of the creativity and agility that fraudsters are using today, especially in our digital-first world,” she said.

The Bible provides guidance to avoid tech scams, offering practical insights for all areas of life. Its advice is akin to that of a trusted loved one or confidant.

Scripture emphasizes wisdom. Armed with wisdom and knowledge of how scams work, we can better avoid them. Proverbs 4:6 advises, “Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you” (New International Version).

Being proactive helps shield us from being ripped off. Proverbs 22:3 states, “A prudent man foresees the evil, and hides himself: but the simple pass on, and are punished.” And Proverbs 14:15 warns, “The simple believes every word: but the prudent man looks well to his going.”

Critical thinking is essential.

To defend yourself against fraud, staying informed about the latest scam tactics and using common sense is essential. We will discuss some of the most common scams and provide practical measures to help you protect yourself.

Robocall Scams

Simply being aware of typical scams can help, experts say. Robocalls in particular frequently target vulnerable individuals like seniors, people with disabilities and people with debt.

“If you get a robocall out of the blue playing a recorded message trying to get you to buy something, just hang up,” said James Lee, chief operating officer at the Identity Theft Resource Center. “Same goes for texts—anytime you get them from a number you don’t know asking you to pay, wire, or click on something suspicious.”

Mr. Lee urges consumers to hang up and call the company or institution in question at an official number.

Scammers will also often imitate someone in authority, such as a tax or debt collector. They might pretend to be a loved one calling to request immediate financial assistance for bail, legal help or a hospital bill.

Romance Scams

During the pandemic, more people turned to dating apps and social media to seek love, allowing fraudsters to forge trusted relationships without meeting in person. This shift was significant. From January 1 to July 31, 2021, the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center received over 1,800 complaints about online romance scams, resulting in $133 million in losses. Experian predicts that romance scams will continue to rise as fraudsters exploit these connections to request money for various reasons.

According to Will Maxson, assistant director of the Division of Marketing Practices at the FTC, “romance scams” often target lonely and isolated individuals. These scams can take place over more extended periods—even years.

Kate Kleinart, 70, who lost tens of thousands to a romance scam over several months, said to be vigilant if a new Facebook friend is exceptionally good-looking, asks you to download WhatsApp to communicate, attempts to isolate you from friends and family, or gets romantic very quickly.

“If you’re seeing that picture of a very handsome person, ask someone younger in your life—a child, a grandchild, a niece or a nephew—to help you reverse-image search or identify the photo,” she said.

She said the man in the pictures she received was a plastic surgeon from Spain whose photos had been stolen and used by scammers.

Ms. Kleinart had also been living under lockdown during the early pandemic when she got the initial friend request, and the companionship and communication meant a lot to her while she was cut off from the family. When the scam fell apart, she missed the relationship even more than her lost savings.

“Losing the love was worse than losing the money,” she said.

Investment Scams

Investment scams, often promoted through social media or online ads, are enticing get-rich-quick schemes. Scammers bolster their claims with various “testimonials” from other social media accounts. Many of these scams now revolve around cryptocurrency, taking advantage of its novelty and the allure of being part of the “next big thing.”

Cryptocurrency schemes are particularly appealing to scammers because they allow easy extraction, storage and concealment of stolen funds. For those willing to invest in digital currencies, caution is advised. Implementing multiple layers of authentication and using a “hard wallet” or “cold storage” (methods that involve keeping digital assets partially or completely offline, often using physical records) are initial security steps.

While legitimate cryptocurrency projects do exist, gaining proper market education is crucial for investors. To safeguard against fraud, the FTC recommends independent research of the company, including searches for terms like “review” or “scam” along with the company’s name.

However, the complexity of cryptocurrency and blockchain investments can leave many individuals feeling uncertain. This underscores the ongoing need for education and understanding in this evolving space.

Quiz Scams

Beware of quiz scams on platforms like Facebook or Google. They might seem harmless, asking about your interests in things like cars or TV shows, but they have ulterior motives. They may also ask you to take a personality test.

Despite these benign-seeming questions, scammers can then use the personal information you share to respond to security questions from your accounts or hack your social media to send malware links to your contacts.

To protect your personal information, the FTC simply recommends steering clear of online quizzes. The commission also advises consumers to use random answers for security questions.

“Asked to enter your mother’s maiden name? Say it’s something else: Parmesan or another word you’ll remember,” advises Terri Miller, consumer education specialist at the FTC. “This way, scammers won’t be able to use information they find to steal your identity.”

Marketplace Scams

When buying or selling products on Insta­gram or Facebook Market­place, keep in mind that not every­one who rea­ches out to you has the best intentions.

To avoid being scammed when selling via an online platform, the FTC recommends checking buyers’ profiles, not sharing any codes sent to your phone or email and avoiding accepting online payments from unknown persons.

Likewise, when buying something from an online marketplace, make sure to research the seller diligently. Look at whether the profile is verified, what kind of reviews they have, and the terms and conditions of the purchase.

Gift Card Scams

Regarding gift cards, both Mr. Maxson and Mr. Lee said any mention of payment with gift cards should be a blaring warning alarm.

Ms. Kleinart, who experienced the romance scam, was also initially asked to send money via gift cards, with varied explanations.

“Just don’t pay people with gift cards,” Mr. Maxson said. “No legitimate company or individual is going to ask you to buy large quantities of gift cards and then read the numbers off the cards. That is exclusively a payment method of fraudsters.”

“Let me tell you, the IRS does not accept gift cards,” Mr. Lee said. “But you’d be surprised by the number of people who fall for people calling from ‘fill in the blank agency’ or ‘fill in the blank company’ and who send $500 worth of gift cards.”

Text and Email Scams

In 2022, consumers lost more than $326 million from scam texts alone, according to the FTC.

Emails can be just as misleading. Phishing is a popular type of email scam where scammers send fraudulent emails to deceive people into clicking on unsafe links or revealing personal information. These emails often impersonate trustworthy sources to gain the victim’s trust.

Spear phishing is a more personalized version of phishing, in which scammers target a specific individual and create emails that appear to be from someone they know or trust, such as a friend or co-worker.

In both cases, it is essential to be cautious and not fall for these tricks. Always verify the sender’s email address and double-check if something seems suspicious before taking any action. “I think anyone who has participated in the digital economy has received multiple attempts daily that have some sort of scheme, whether that’s, ‘Your account has been locked’ or ‘Your package delivery is delayed,’” Mr. Lee said. “Again—just take a breath—and verify,” he added.

Mr. Lee urges people never to click an unusual link in a text or email and instead go to the site in question directly or call the number listed on the official site.

“It’ll take 30 or 40 seconds longer, but go ahead and do that because it could save you a lot of money every time,” he said.

Some indications to be extra wary could include an unrecognized sender, unusual wording, or a tell-tale misspelling.

Brand Impersonation Scams

Brand impersonation is a more sophisticated form of phishing where cybercriminals pretend to be a trusted company or brand to deceive people into revealing sensitive information. This scam can take even more diligence to discern.

In 2022, brand impersonation saw a rise in the use of procedurally generated graphics in attacks. This means scammers use HTML and CSS to display logos of well-known companies like Microsoft or Chase in phishing attacks. This makes the threats appear more genuine and helps them bypass image analysis technology. To undiscerning individuals, it would seem as if the email came from the actual company.

To guard against brand impersonation scams, exercise caution with unsolicited emails, calls, or messages. Independently verify the sender’s identity through official sources like the company’s website or customer service. Avoid clicking suspicious links or downloading attachments from unexpected sources, especially if the communication seems unusual or contains misspellings. By following these steps, you can significantly reduce the risk of falling victim to brand impersonation scams and protect your personal information and finances.

Technology Support Scams

These scams involve fraudsters using scare tactics to trick individuals into paying for unnecessary technical support services to fix a non-existent device or software issue. This can lead to high charges or even data theft.

Scammers have employed different tactics, including impersonating well-known brands like McAfee, Norton and Windows Defender. To evade security filters, criminals have used techniques like brand obfuscation, hiding phone numbers, incorporating images, sending emails from reputable domains, and more.

Protect yourself from technology support scams by being cautious of unsolicited contact, whether through phone calls, emails or pop-ups. Verify the caller’s identity by independently confirming it through official customer support channels. Never grant remote access to your device to unverified individuals. Avoid sharing personal information, and do not rush into decisions. Keep your security software up-to-date, and regularly update your device’s operating system software to ensure protection against vulnerabilities.

In the expansive digital world, the risks are ever-present but do not have to be overwhelming. By committing to vigilance, verifying messages and engaging online with caution, we can significantly reduce our vulnerability to scams and continue to enjoy the benefits of our digital age with confidence.

This article contains information from The Associated Press.

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