Global credit card fraud was predicted to reach $43.8 billion in 2018, according to a study by the Nilson Report. Although artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other security innovations being implemented by financial institutions and credit card companies are helping to reduce fraud on all fronts, one of the best weapons in this fight is an informed and vigilant consumer.
Here are the most common scams that caught people by surprise last summer — and that you should watch out for all year long.
1. Gift Cards, Secret Shoppers, and the Allure of Fake Offers
This scam works as follows: Consumers are drawn in by a phony email or social media post to become a mystery shopper in exchange for some form of financial gain.
When a consumer agrees to participate, the fraudster seals the deal by delivering a large counterfeit check.
The criminal then asks the consumer to deposit the check and purchase gift cards with the funds, keeping a small portion of the proceeds as compensation for being the secret shopper.
The victim is asked to email photographs of the gift cards, front and back. This way, the criminal can use them immediately, before the counterfeit check has a chance to bounce.
2. “You Can Never Be Too Rich or Too Thin” and Other Email Scams
Some consumers are attracted to “get rich” and “get thin” offers. Unfortunately, an age-old diet scam has surfaced again, targeting consumers with spam emails. When an unwitting consumer signs up for the “self-improvement” deal, that individual agrees to recurring billing for the proposed service.
3. Counterfeit Money Orders
Fake money orders are frequently used for online purchases from websites like Craigslist. The problem is that high-quality counterfeit money orders are hard to distinguish from the real thing.
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4. “MSN” Help Desk Fraud
This form of fraud is usually directed at the elderly. A criminal calls unsuspecting consumers and warns that their PC — however seldom used — is riddled with viruses. The fake technician offers to assist, and then dispatches the victims to a local big-box store to buy prepaid gift cards to give as payment for the tech support services.
5. Card Cracking
This rip-off scheme typically victimizes younger consumers. A fraudster reaches out to a young person via social media and convinces the potential victim that they can both benefit by helping each other out. The criminal promises that the young account holder will receive a small sum — $100 or so — as compensation for cooperating.
The victim then gives the fraudster access to his or her online banking credentials so the criminal can deposit counterfeit checks into the account.
The criminal also typically requires the usage of the account holder’s debit card. In some cases, he or she even accompanies the co-conspirator to an ATM to perform withdrawals against the counterfeit checks. This scam is especially troubling if the account holder is a minor in the company of an adult criminal.
6. Direct-Mail Scams
Bogus but official-looking letters are delivered every day to random consumers with stern requests for Social Security numbers and other personally identifiable information.
Some of these letters are printed on what looks like big-bank letterhead. And in all cases, there is at least one form that the consumer is asked to fill out and return.
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How to Prevent Fraud
1. Protect your Identity
Don't share personal information such as your PINs (personal identification numbers), Social Security number, date of birth, or any kind of banking or credit card details.
“Omit any information that, when pieced together, could give a scammer the ability to gain valuable information about your financial life,” says Justin Lavelle, CCO for Been Verified, a leading source of online background checks and contact information.
“For instance, sharing the state of your birth can ease the process of obtaining your Social Security number,” he continues. “Sites like Facebook offer privacy settings that limit who can see this type of data, but it’s better to play it safe and leave personal information out of your profile altogether.”
2. Avoid Open Wi-Fi
Most people know to avoid the open Wi-Fi at Starbucks or on public transit, but any shared Wi-Fi networks should be avoided whenever possible.
“Anytime you use a shared Wi-Fi network in any public spot, it’s easy for someone to intercept your data and monitor what you’re doing,” Lavelle says.
“They know what sites you’re visiting, your account passwords, emails, and more.”
3. Use a VPN
A VPN, or a virtual private network, creates a secure encrypted tunnel between your computer and the VPN server, essentially making it gibberish to anyone who may intercept your internet or mobile device usage information. It will protect your information from your internet service provider, the government, and potential hackers.
4. Fine-Tune Privacy Settings
Limit the amount of information that is available publicly on social media.
“Don’t just accept the default for who can see what type of information about you,” Lavelle says. “Check out settings, configuration, and privacy sections to see what protections are available.”
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5. Limit Job History
This may sound out there, but it may be prudent to limit what job history is available to the public on sites like Facebook and LinkedIn.
“Having a full work history can be used to complete a loan application and provide tools for guessing PINs and passwords,” Lavelle explains. “This is also good practice for recruiters and sales professionals who need to keep their network contacts confidential so competitors don’t steal clients.”
6. Don’t Advertise Travel Plans
This is a good idea for homeowners especially, as you are basically advertising that your house will be empty.
“That also means you should limit posting the same activities at the same time on a daily basis,” Lavelle warns.
“Posts such as ‘off for my daily Starbuck’s run’ or ‘can’t wait for my Thursday night fitness class’ don’t contribute much to your social media content anyhow, but those with ill intentions are able to put together your lifestyle patterns and know when you are away from home.”
7. Don’t Accept Every “Add”
Social media should be about quality, not quantity. Don’t accept friend or follow requests from strangers who seem to have come out of nowhere and you have no mutuals with.
8. Don’t Go Check-in Crazy
Checking in at the same business (or any business) when you're out and about creates an easy trail for creeps or potential robbers to track your movements.
“Use check-ins sparingly, like if you’re with a group or for a special occasion,” Lavelle says. “Logging everywhere you go makes it easy for stalkers to track you (and find out how often you’re not home).”
9. Limit Geotags
It’s tempting to flex and post where you’re having drinks or dinner all the time, but this can be risky if you have a public profile.
“Photos can be lifted and used for any purpose the lifter chooses,” Lavelle says. “Tagging photos can make your photos available to a larger group than intended.”
What to Do If You’ve Been Scammed
The most important thing that every consumer needs to do is to monitor for unusual transactions on their individual credit card and checking accounts. If you notice any unfamiliar transactions, report them directly to the card issuer.
Many card issuers today offer online card alerts that deliver warnings to the card issuer when anomalous activity occurs. Quite a few card issuers also offer controls that enable cardholders to turn their cards on and off at will.
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Additional reporting by Jazmin Rosa.