How to Spot a Scam: 8 Warning Signs

Spot a Scam

Even in a time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, our world is more connected than ever. From email to phone calls, text messages, and postal mail, you have lots of ways to connect with friends, family, and the businesses you trust.

Unfortunately, these methods of communication also create opportunities for scam artists looking to steal your hard-earned money or access sensitive financial information. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission received nearly 1.7 million reports of fraud.

Victims of scams can be tricked out of large sums of money, experience unauthorized transactions on their credit or debit card, or have their credit damaged as a result of identify theft. A scam can take a major toll on both your financial security and your peace of mind.

At USE Credit Union, we’re committed to helping our members protect themselves—and their money—from fraud and identity theft. That’s why we want you to know about these eight warning signs of a potential scam.

1. Account Update Requests
Beware of any email asking you to update your account information and providing a link to do so. This could be a phishing email. In this common cybercrime, scammers send a message impersonating a familiar business or organization to trick you into providing your account login or other sensitive information.

To be convincing, the email may have the logo and other identifying characteristics of a business you know, but if you click the provided link (Don’t!) it may lead you to a dummy site designed to steal your account information.

Telltale signs of a phishing attack include a sender’s email domain that’s slightly off (such as @netfl1x.com instead of @netflix.com), as well as impersonal language, strange grammar, and typos. Learn more about phishing scams here.

2. Surprise Phone Calls
By some estimates, nearly 50% of all calls to cell phones are scams. Many of us have firsthand experience receiving robocalls or other scam calls, and we think twice before answering calls from phone numbers we don’t recognize. So scammers have adapted.

More and more, they’re using spoofing technology to rig your phone’s caller ID to show a fake name and phone number. Caller ID spoofing lets criminals pose as a trusted business, a government agency, or a phone number that’s right in your neighborhood, so you’ll be more likely to answer. Don’t automatically trust your phone’s caller ID. If you answer, and the caller seems suspicious or tries to pressure you into providing any information, hang up right away.

3. False Communications About COVID-19
Scammers often prey on people’s fears by capitalizing on a recent crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. While you may be contacted by a legitimate contact tracer or receive communications from an official agency, the FTC reminds us to be on the lookout for coronavirus scams. These include phishing emails designed to look like they’re from the CDC or WHO, people offering COVID-19 test kits or vaccinations, and text messages and emails promising a stimulus check from the government.

4. Suspicious Charities
There are lots of great nonprofits worth supporting. Be sure you’re donating to one of them, and not to a fictitious charity or a scam artist pretending to represent a real charity.

If someone asks you to make a donation with cash or gift cards, don’t donate. These hard-to-track payment methods are preferred by scammers. Also, don’t be pressured to give immediately. It’s often a good idea to first research an organization with a website like Charity Navigator.

5. Phone Calls From the IRS
Imposters claiming to be IRS officials have called many people for supposed “verification purposes,” which they claim is necessary to process the individual’s tax return or issue a tax refund. The real goal is to steal sensitive information like Social Security numbers and banking details.

An even scarier version of an IRS imposter scam involves a criminal threatening their target over alleged “back taxes.” They’ll demand immediate payment via gift cards or another untraceable payment type.

According to the IRS: “When the IRS needs to contact a taxpayer, the first contact is normally by letter delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. The IRS doesn’t normally initiate contact with taxpayers by email, nor does it send text messages or contact through social media channels.” The do make phone calls, but not often, so if you receive a call consider telling the caller you will have to call back, then visit the official IRS site and call the phone number listed to confirm if the call you received was legitimate or not.

6. Phone Calls From Medicare
If you’re one of the millions of Americans who rely on Medicare benefits, you know how important this program is for managing your healthcare costs. So if someone from Medicare calls you, claiming you’ll lose these benefits unless you update your Medicare card or provide some information over the phone, you might be scared enough to comply. But this is a Medicare scam designed to trick you into providing personal information like your Medicare number, which can be used to commit medical identity theft.

You will never receive a call from a real Medicare employee unless you first contacted them.

7. Oversized or Loose Card Readers
You probably don’t think twice before swiping your card at checkout. But especially when using a gas pump or ATM, it may be worth giving the card reader a closer look. That’s because thieves may tamper with card readers in such locations by attaching a card skimmer, which is a small device designed to steal payment information from the magnetic stripe on your card. Look for loose or unusually thick parts on the card reader or keypad and don’t use any card reader or ATM that looks suspicious.
When possible, use your card in a more secure way, such as by making contactless payments with your phone’s mobile wallet app or using your card’s chip rather than swiping.

8. An Urgent Request From a “Friend in Need”
These days, it’s easier than ever for imposters to pose as someone you know by learning details about them that are publicly available on social media. The criminal then uses this information to commit a “Friend in Need” scam: They send an email or text message, pretending to be your “friend,” claiming that they were traveling out of the country, got sick or were robbed, and need you to send money. If you receive such an urgent message, first confirm it’s actually your friend who contacted you.

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