Guest blog by Jacquelyn Lynn
Author of Online Shopper's Survival Guide
When I was writing my book, Online Shopper’s Survival Guide, one of the most intriguing topics to research was the chapter about staying safe and avoiding scams. The creativity and perseverance of con artists and thieves is absolutely amazing. Their efforts have evolved from simple and crude to extremely sophisticated -- and they are creating a tremendous challenge for the law enforcement agencies that do their best to keep up with this new breed of criminals.
What’s sad and frustrating is that in most cases of online theft or fraud, the victim played a role in the process, either by being careless with her own personal information or by unwittingly cooperating with the criminals. Some victims are driven by greed; they think they really can get a lot of money for very little effort. Others are driven by innocence; they really believe that e-mails from fraudsters are legitimate and they politely answer all the questions. Remember, the “con” in con artist comes from confidence -- the fraudster gains your confidence and makes you believe it’s okay to do what he’s asking.
You are your best defense against online crime. You can protect yourself by always staying in charge of your online activities.
One of the most common online crimes is known as phishing (pronounced fishing). Scammers use a variety of methods to trick you into revealing personal information that they can later use to commit identity theft or other types of fraud. Some phishing efforts are obvious, others are very clever.
Whenever anyone initiates contact with you and starts asking for information, do three things:
Stay in charge.
First, stop. Never reveal personal details, financial data, or other private information that criminals could use to commit crimes. When someone starts asking for information, simply stop and terminate the contact. If the request is legitimate, you can always complete it later.
Of course, if you are making a purchase from an online website, it’s okay to provide your name, address, and payment information -- but that’s all. The e-tailer does not need to know how many children you have, your pets’ names, your birth date, where you were born, or your mother’s maiden name. People often use this type of information to create their passwords and scammers know it.
Second, think. Consider what you’re being asked to provide and why. Do you really think your bank and credit card companies are going to ask you to confirm your account information, including account numbers and passwords, by e-mail? They don’t do that. They already have that information. And if there is a legitimate problem with your account, they will either call you on the phone or send a notice by U.S. mail. If you’re not sure, terminate the online contact, pull out a statement, and call the toll-free number on the statement to find out if there is really a problem with your account.
The same applies to lottery and other contest winnings, and any other offer of riches that seems too good to be true. If you have won a legitimate prize, you won’t be asked to pay anything up front to claim it, nor will you be asked for your bank account number so the money can be deposited directly. Genuine prize organizations write and mail checks. If you didn’t enter the contest, it’s not likely that you won. And a total stranger from Africa, Europe, or anywhere else is not going to offer you a percentage of millions of dollars just to get that money into the U.S. If you get an e-mail like that, just delete it -- before you give out information that will allow your bank account to be depleted.
Third, stay in charge. Maintain control over your internet activities. Don’t answer questions just because someone asks. This rule applies to any situation where you did not initiate the contact. Scammers often start out by asking harmless questions and gradually move up to the requests that will gain them the information they’re really seeking. They’ll make you feel comfortable -- or, conversely, they make you believe that if you don’t provide them with the details they want, your accounts will be shut down and you’ll suffer some horrible result. Don’t let a threatening e-mail intimidate you into giving out personal information. The reality is that if you do provide them with the information they want, you’re going to end up being a victim of some sort of crime.
Scammers are smart but you can outwit them if you just stop, think, and stay in charge.