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Avoiding Financial Fraud

The truth is… Fraud perpetrators are predators. They do not normally just wait around passively for the victim to happen by and become ensnared in their web. Instead, they will actively seek out a victim. Sometimes contact with a potential victim is random and other times likely candidates are selected after moderate research has identified a particularly choice target. So, in thinking of these criminals as predators, it is then your job to avoid becoming their prey.

But what are the simple cautions you should observe in avoiding financial predators? Con artists relish the opportunity offered up by an unsuspecting victim, so paying attention and maintaining general vigilance and a healthy skepticism is paramount. Beyond simply noticing what is transpiring around you, it is important to apply logic. When confronted by an unexpected offer, ask some basic questions… "How could I win a lottery I never played?" "Why would a Nigerian or some deposed royalty contact me, of all people, to ‘help' him in a financial transaction?" Why would I be sought out to be a "secret shopper" for a company I've never done business with?" "Is that really my grandson – as he claims to be – calling me from a Mexican prison and requesting a wire transfer of bail money (oh, and don't tell mom and dad)?".

The sheer number and variety of scams in circulation is stunning and those of us in the financial services sector hear of new scams, and new variations of old scams, virtually every day. We cannot possibly warn you of all of them, though we can help you hone your "scam detection radar" by helping you spot traits common in many scams.

Politicians are famous for winning voter support by appealing to emotion rather than the facts. They often "frame" an issue in emotional terms realizing that winning hearts is more profitable than winning minds. Coincidentally or not, con artists often use similar emotional hooks to bring the intended victim to view the world in terms that support their cause. If they can get the unwary to dream of how to spend the promised windfall, or believe in their fantastic tale, then they have a better shot at reeling in the prize. It is important to keep logic rather than emotion or wishful thinking in control of your decision making. By all means, avoid the temptation to panic and act rashly. Ask questions - lots of questions - anytime you feel pressured or unsure.

Finally, avoid inviting trouble by actively controlling your environment. This advice is multi-faceted and requires effort and attention. Whether a thief has designs on your money or on making off with your identity, the less you give a thief to work with, the better protected you will be. Examples of controlling your environment include simple actions such as shredding sensitive documents when no longer needed, locking or closely monitoring your mailbox, not sharing sensitive information such as birth dates on your social media profiles, keeping important information secured – even in your own home, keeping passwords complex in nature and PIN numbers secret, maintaining up-to-date anti-virus and anti-malware software on your internet connected devices, registering with the "National Do Not Call Registry" (www.DoNotCall.gov or 1-888-382-1222), periodically monitoring your credit report, setting device access codes on all internet connected devices, and refusing to respond to unsolicited email.

All of these actions reduce your exposure to risk. And while criminals may be ethically challenged, few are lazy. Most are willing to expend some effort if they suspect the payoff will be worthwhile. Your mission is to become an unattractive target. If the criminal realizes you are just too much trouble, then most are likely to pass you over.

Credit Reports

One of the best ways to assure that you are not suffering, unknowingly, from financial fraud is to keep tabs on your Credit Report. The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 (an amendment to the Fair Credit Reporting Act), allows consumers to request a free credit report once every twelve months from each of the three nationwide consumer credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). These credit reporting agencies, along with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), set up the website, www.AnnualCreditReport.com to provide a one stop location for consumers to gain access to these reports. Note: do not be fooled by the website: www.FreeCreditReport.com which, despite its name, actually charges a fee for the service and is not affiliated with the FTC. For those wishing to request their free credit report via telephone, the number is: 1-877-322-8228.

A periodic review of your credit report should help identify credit-related fraud, by making it clear if there are any loans in your record for which you were not an applicant, or if the amounts reported owed to your creditors appear to be inaccurate. A review of the details of your report will also allow you to assess what your creditors are reporting about your payment history. Such a review will allow you the opportunity to clear up any incorrect information. Sometimes, inaccurate information can negatively affect your credit score, and consequently, the interest rates you pay for credit. Any incorrect information can be disputed with the credit reporting agency in question.

Since consumers are permitted one free report from each agency every twelve months, some consumers debate the wisdom of obtaining all three at once, or spreading them out over the twelve month period. Consumers considering a major purchase sometimes will obtain all three credit reports at once to confirm that there is no incorrect information contained in any of the reports which might negatively impact their perceived creditworthiness, and thus the rates they might be offered for credit. If no major purchases are contemplated, spreading out access to these reports may give the consumer a more timely view of inaccuracies or fraud, allowing for quicker corrective action. This is a judgement call based on the needs of the individual. Credit reports may be delivered immediately online, or the requestor may request to have the report delivered via U.S. Mail.

Additional credit-related services, offered for a fee, directly through the three credit reporting agencies, include credit alerts, credit monitoring, report security freeze, and your credit score (a score generated based on your credit activity, repayment history, etc. and often used to determine your creditworthiness and the loan rates you are likely to be offered when applying for credit). If you desire credit reports from any of the three credit agencies beyond the one free report each year, additional reports are available for a fee. For details on these paid services, please contact the credit reporting agencies. 

National Do Not Call Registry

The National Do Not Call Registry is an important tool for those wishing to avoid financial fraud (and simple annoyance). 

This program, administered by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), allows any private citizen to place their land line and/or cell phone numbers on an "out of bounds" list for unsolicited commercial telephone contact.

Telephone numbers may be registered in one of two ways. You may call 1-888-382-1222 to access an automated system. While using this method, you must be calling from the number you wish to register. Alternately, you may register online at www.DoNotCall.gov. This method allows you to register up to three phone numbers at a time. Since the elderly, as a category, have been shown to be at the greatest risk of phone-based fraud, registering the numbers of elderly loved ones can be a good tool to avoid unnecessary risk. Of course, not all criminals abide by such lists, but in listing a phone number, you can be suspicious that any calls that do come through, are of fraudulent intent.

Once you register for this service, all commercial outbound telemarketers are required to delete your phone number from their call logs within 31 days. Your registration will not expire; however, you may choose to reverse your registration at any time. There are some limitations. For instance, only residential phone numbers are eligible for registration, and certain entities such as political and charitable organizations, as well as telephone surveyors, are not required to abide by your registration. In addition, businesses with which you have or had a business relationship, may continue to contact you for up to 18 months after your last business transactions with them.

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