Over the past few years, I have had a few clients and family let me know that they have fallen victim to a financial scam. I’ve talked with people who have been hit with an email-based “Geek Squad” scam, a relationship-based scam and a malware-induced “technology support” scam. I am so grateful that they called to let me know. I can give them some help in trying to unwind things but most importantly it puts me on extra alert for any attempted activity around their investment accounts. One important thing to remember when you are working with an advisor; you have a human guardrail (ME!) around your money. Scammers cannot just access your account and take action. Our systems and processes ensure a double layer of authorization and getting past human identity challenges.
As importantly as alerting me to be even more attentive, letting me know about any scam activity allows me to do a little coaching. People are often embarrassed and scared so it is important to know that they are not alone, that this is solvable and that they are the victim. Scams work because they play on our human nature; falling victim to one just means you are human.
I am writing this blog post as a way to help educate and remind you what to look for and how to protect yourself against most of the email, phone and relationship scams that are out there.
Email is the most common tool to initiate a scam. These are often spoofed to look like they come from an actual company by using official logos and other details. They often will alert you to some “problem” about your account and provide a button/link for you to take action. Some classic examples:
- They have noticed some suspicious activity or log-in attempts
- Claim there is a problem with your account or payment information
- Say you must confirm some personal information
- Include a fake invoice
- Want you to make a payment (or “renew” your service)
- Say you are eligible for a refund
- Offer a coupon for free stuff
There are often clues that the email is not real if you look closely – the scammer is counting on you making an assumption that it is real. Fake (phishing) emails often have grammatical or spelling errors, use generic instead of personalized greetings, arrive from an email address not associated with the actual company, etc. Even if the email looks real, it is safest to ALWAYS assume it is a scam. One key way to check is to use your mouse to “float over” the button/link without clicking on it (On your phone/tablet, press and hold on the link). Your email system will often show you the underlying link and it will likely be some weird site not associated with the real company.
DO NOT CLICK THE BUTTON/LINK. This is where the scam is initiated. If you click the link, you are directed to the scammers sites that are built to look like the official sites but immediately push malware or other bad software onto your machine so the scammers can either search for confidential data or take over control.
Another common tactic is to get you to call the scammer to take care of a refund that is due to you or take some other sort of action. Once they have you on the phone, they will direct you to a website where they can download the tools they need as above. Either way, once they have access to your machine, the damage is done.
You are likely bombarded daily with those infuriating empty phone calls. Your phone rings and nobody is there. They are testing lines to find active numbers for their calling databases that are either sold or used for a future scam call. Not much you can do to stop the incoming calls, but the best practice is to not speak and hang up as soon as you know it is an empty call. When you get an actual call with a human or a robocall, your best defense is NOT to engage in any way – please just HANG UP. They will entice you with “Press 2 to opt out/unsubscribe” – this just transfers you to a scammer. Even my mother, when her phone warns her it is a “Scam Likely”, answers and says “Hello Mr Likely, How are you today?”. She is just trying to being funny and waste their time but it just exposes her more to the scammer universe. Best to just HANG UP.
There are a host of common phone-based scams covering car warranties, technical support, social security/IRS, legal/immigration, jury duty, romance, medical products, pain relief products and many more. The best way to avoid being scammed is simply not to respond to any solicitation that comes to you by an unprompted phone call. If you did want to look into a product or service, do your research on the web, ask your community for recommendations and reach out to a company that you have selected. When YOU make the outreach, it is far less likely to be a scam. Also, remember that official parties like Social Security and the IRS will NEVER reach out by phone or email; they always use a physical letter mailed to your home address.
There are also other forms of scams going on that are much longer in nature. Scammers use online personal forums and dating apps to build a personal relationship with you. Once established, they will tell you they have a problem that requires money to solve. Our human nature is to help and after-all this is someone you “know”, right? In truth, these folks are sitting in a basement somewhere building relationships with dozens of people simultaneously, grooming you for the right time to ask for money. These scams are especially harmful because they play with your heart in addition to your wallet; you have been betrayed by someone you thought you could trust. Worse yet, if you give them money there is really no legal recourse since you gave the money willingly when asked. There is no written contract or loan document to fall back on to recoup your money. While these scams are not necessarily easy to avoid if you are active online (people can pose as anyone they want online), your scam-radar should turn on as soon as an online relationship turns to talking about money. You should follow some common advice I always give to clients when “lending” money to family and friends. That advice is to always assume that “loan” is a “gift” and you will never see it again. Would you still want to give the money knowing you’ll never see it again?
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF
The simplest, most effective way to deal with scammers is to NOT deal with scammers. I know this sounds obvious but let me make it more explicit. NEVER click through an email, even if it looks like a genuine email from a company you deal with. Instead, call them directly using a known number or navigate to their official website and handle things from there. THINK TWICE before giving confidential information over the phone unless YOU have initiated the call to the company. If you get a call from someone claiming to be from your credit card company (for example); let them know you will hang up and call the credit card company directly. ALWAYS lookup the official company phone number and do not rely on the number provided in the email. THINK TWICE before you give permission for someone to take over your computer.
Scammers try to create a sense of urgency in order to create confusion and break down your natural defenses. Fear is a powerful motivator so if someone tells you that your computer has been hacked or your credit card was compromised, etc., it is natural to want to solve it. Your best defense is time and patience. Always act with skepticism and never act in the moment. Time is your friend here, don’t let it be the scammers tool. Simply state you will check things out yourself and call back – HANG UP! If you are told that your credit card information is compromised, you can call your credit card company to ask about recent charges and ask if they see anything unusual. Ask them if they just called you; that will tell you immediately whether it was a scam. If someone tells you your computer is hacked, turn it off and take it to a reputable service team to have it checked out. The important point is to disconnect yourself from the scammer as quickly as possible.
If you take the steps outlined here and approach each interaction with a healthy dose of skepticism, you will reduce the chances of falling victim to a scam dramatically. But even if this happens to you or a family member, remember that you are the victim of increasingly sophisticated operations. Reach out to your financial professional for help.
Image by Saidul A Shaari under CC BY 2.0