Of course you would never give a stranger your credit card number, let alone your checking account number—until you receive a call from someone telling you that your electricity will be shut off if you don’t pay your bill immediately…or you receive a letter from an attorney saying that you may have inherited some money and for a modest fee he/she will help you get what is rightfully yours…or your computer screen suddenly goes haywire with all sorts of messages saying that your computer has been hacked, but if you call this number, “We can fix it.”

Now you are feeling confused and fearful—and you want to do the right thing—so you might comply with the nice person offering to fix everything for you…and wham!! Good-bye privacy, hello financial thievery or worse—identity theft.

You think you’re too smart to be fooled? Think again. Last week, I received a panicked call from someone who shall remain nameless who said, “I think I did something stupid.” She is someone who is generally very buttoned up when it comes to her money management and attention to detail. But when she clicked on a link while searching for a recipe online, her computer screen “went crazy.” She thought that it had been overtaken by hackers, so she called the phone number that popped up on the screen and gave someone her checking account number so that he could “fix” the problem. She was right about one thing—her screen had been overtaken by hackers.

I still cringe with embarrassment when I think about the time many years ago when I was walking to New York City’s Penn Station. A “nice” man started chatting with me…he said he was going to the train, too, and that he could purchase our tickets at a place that gives discounts. So I naively handed him my $35 (at the time, I was earning $13,000/year, so $35 was a lot of money to me) and stood on that sidewalk for at least 15 minutes before I realized what I fool I was. What on earth was I thinking?

It sounds so obviously crazy, and yet millions of people fall for these and other scams every day.

Interestingly, it is not just older people who are the victims. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), “Younger people reported losing money to fraud more often than older people. Let that sink in. It’s what the data have been telling us for a while, but it’s hard for people to grasp. Last year, of those people who reported fraud and their age, 43% of people in their 20s reported a loss to that fraud, while only 15% of people in their 70s did.” This may be a data anomaly—perhaps younger people are more likely to report a scam than oldsters. But it doesn’t matter, because we all need to realize that people of all ages and abilities fall victim to phone, e-mail and mail fraud.

The list of scams is endless. They are so believable, yet incredibly ridiculous, all at the same time. And mind you, fraudsters are getting better all the time, especially in e-mail. Scam e-mails replicate companies’ logos and come from e-mail addresses that look like the real deal—unless you look closely at the actual e-mail address and see that it doesn’t come from the proper company domain.

How to protect yourself? With so many versions of scams, the list of ways to be fooled are endless, but here are a few rules of thumb…

  1. If someone calls out of the blue to tell you there’s a problem with your home security system, cable, utilities, taxes, bank account—pretty much anything, do not give him/her any information. Hang up, call the company directly and ask if there is any issue with your account. Don’t ask the caller for his phone number. It is likely fraudulent. Call the posted number for whatever company is being represented.
  2. Remember that the IRS never contacts you by phone or e-mail to tell you that you owe back taxes and that it requires a payment right way. The IRS uses only the postal system. Do not provide any information during the call, and don’t respond to the e-mail. Instead, call the IRS directly and ask if there is a problem.
  3. Do not respond to a letter or e-mail from a bank asking you to verify or update account information. Call the bank directly.
  4. If you receive an e-mail from a friend or acquaintance that uses generic text like, “I thought you’d be interested” along with a link or attachment, do not click on the link or open the attachment. This is how scammers infect your computer with a virus that can access your personal information. Look at the e-mail address to see if it’s really from that person or a spoofed address. E-mail or call your friend to double-check that he actually sent you a link to look at. If someone you know is sending a link or attachment, typically there will be a personalized message—not awkward, brief, impersonal language. I sometimes get e-mails at the office about voice messages that are being sent to me—again, they’re fraudulent.
  5. If you get a phone call or e-mail soliciting a charitable donation, don’t give out any financial information. If it is an e-mail, do not click on the link to donate. If the pitch seems interesting, then do your own research to confirm the organization’s legitimacy. You can do that by contacting your State Consumer Protection Office or by checking the organization’s nonprofit status at http://apps.irs.gov/app/eos/. If you choose to donate, do so at the charity’s master website or via the phone number listed on the website. A popular thing now is for people to post on Facebook about charitable programs that they want to support or to request donations in honor of their birthday, etc.  As much as I’d like to support my friends’ activities, I don’t donate directly through Facebook. If I am interested, I go to the charity’s website. In this case, it’s not about fraud necessarily—I simply don’t want Facebook having that piece of my personal information and activities.
  6. If you click on a link while surfing the web and your screen suddenly goes haywire, turn off your computer immediately—that may prevent a virus or other hacking tool from being placed in your computer. You want to cut off their access to your computer ASAP. The Consumer Information page on the FTC site is a great resource on how to recognize and report tech-support scams. After that, you will need to change all your passwords on your computer as well as for any websites or institutions (health care, financial) with whom you deal.

For more information on the types of scams and how to protect yourself, go to USA.gov. You’ll notice that the advice is the same in almost every case. Shut up…don’t share…take control by contacting the real provider to check if there is a problem. And for goodness’ sake, don’t give anyone any personal information if you don’t know who they are and/or if they are legitimate.

And if you think that you have been scammed: Don’t phone a friend to share your fears. Scammers act fast. Instead, get on the phone immediately with your bank and/or credit card company to report the fraud and lock your accounts. Depending on what happened, you may also want to freeze your credit by contacting each of the credit bureaus directly—ExperianEquifax…and TransUnion.

It’s really quite sad that we all have to be on such high alert for the many people who spend their energies stealing and destroying lives. It would be nice if there weren’t bad apples in the world, and it’s sad that it’s the good apples who are most likely to be the victims of scams. Don’t stop being good—but in the words of Ronald Reagan (who was actually quoting a Russian proverb) “Trust, but verify.”

Sarah Hiner, president and CEO of Bottom Line Inc., is passionate about giving people the tools and knowledge they need to be in control of their lives in areas such as living a healthier life, the challenges of the health-care system, commonsense financial advice and creating great relationships. She appears often on national radio and hosts the Bottom Line Advocator Podcast,  where she interviews leading experts to help people be their own best advocates in all areas of life.