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How to Protect Yourself From Fraud and Identity Theft

This is National Consumer Protection Week, so it’s an opportune time to dust off your consumer power skills.

U.S. News & World Report did a consumer protection survey in February and asked approximately 1,500 consumers about their experiences with scams within the past three years. Consumers were also asked if they’re proactive about limiting their exposure to fraud or identity theft.

Here are the results:

— About 23 percent of respondents reported they have been victims of or experienced some type of scam in the past three years.

— Almost 39 percent said that they’ve never taken any preventive measures, such as reviewing credit card statements or checking their credit reports, to protect their personal information.

— More than 66 percent of respondents felt that credit card companies take adequate measures to protect consumers.

— But 64 percent said that credit card companies prioritize profits over consumer protection.

Let’s take a look at the type of scams that are popular right now so you can learn to recognize them and to protect yourself.

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Be on the Lookout for These Scams

Let’s start with the most common type of scam that was reported in the survey: phishing. This scam takes on a variety of forms, and many of them are quite clever.

Phishing emails or texts. Almost 11 percent said they’ve been victimized by this type of scam. Phishing is when someone sends you a fake email or a text in an attempt to get your personal information, such as your Social Security number or your credit card account numbers.

These types of scams are often successful because the email appears authentic. For example, you might get an email from what looks like a well-known brand. Recently, a phishing scam in Ohio involved Netflix. The email appeared to be from Netflix, and the recipients were told that their payment method needed to be updated before they could access the service again.

I don’t know about you, but I’m in the middle of “Grey’s Anatomy,” and I don’t want my Netflix service interrupted. The fraudsters are hoping that you react impulsively and click on the link to fix the “problem.”

But if you click on the link they provide, the scammers use malware or ransomware to download your data. Then it’s used to steal your identity or your hard-earned money. Sometimes, fraudsters do both.

Reality check: No company or financial institution will ever call you and ask you to divulge sensitive personal or financial information. Hang up and report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission.

Romance scams. Valentine’s Day may be over, but romance endures, and apparently it pays really well.

Just last year, people lost $143 million to romance scams, according to the FTC. Social media and dating apps have made it easy for scammers to woo lonely people. This is an emotional ploy designed to get your money. For instance, your new online paramour might ask if you can pay for the airfare so he or she can visit you. Or they might fake an illness and ask for money for life-saving medical care. They usually ask you to send the money via gift cards or a wire transfer.

Reality check: This is a sad reminder that not everyone you meet online is genuine. Don’t ever send money to someone you’ve never met. Not ever.

Third-party data breaches. This is when your information is stolen by hackers who infiltrate a company’s database. A famous (maybe infamous is more apt) third-party breach is the 2017 incident with Equifax. It’s estimated that 143 million U.S. consumers were affected by the Equifax data breach.

Reality check: I hate to sound like an alarmist, but if your data were stolen, you might not know it for years. Sometimes, fraudsters hold on to the data and later sell them on the dark web.

It pays to be alert and proactive — all the time. This is a situation where you should consider having a fraud alert or a credit freeze on your credit report.

Social Security scams. In 2018, the Social Security scam was reported by more than 35,000 people, and the losses totaled around $10 million.

One reason for the scam’s success is that it’s gotten more sophisticated. You’ll get a phone call, and the caller ID shows it’s coming from the Social Security Administration. So, right away, you trust the caller. Then, the fraudster tries to scare you by saying your benefits have been suspended. You need to verify your Social Security number to fix the problem. Once fraudsters have your Social Security number, they’ll use it for identity theft or for other types of fraud.

Reality check: The government and legitimate businesses would never, ever ask you to hand out your Social Security or bank account numbers over the phone. Hang up and report the fraud.

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Things You Can Do Right Now to Protect Yourself

The U.S. News survey showed that around 39 percent of people were not taking steps to protect themselves against fraud. You can’t eliminate the risk of fraud or identity theft, but there are some simple measures you can take to limit your exposure or limit the damage.

— Check your online bank and credit card accounts frequently. I check mine every morning. You want to look for fraudulent purchases. And take note of transactions less than $10. Sometimes, fraudsters make a small purchase to see if it’s a “live” account.

— Set up purchase alerts if that service is offered by your credit card company. This way, you’ll know right away if something is awry.

— Get your free annual credit reports from the three major credit bureaus and check to see if there are any accounts listed that you didn’t open. Checking your online accounts helps you catch fraud on your current accounts. But you have to look at your credit reports to find out if someone has opened a new account in your name.

— Spread out your credit reports by getting a report from each bureau every four months. It’s not a foolproof method, but it does give a glimpse of your credit life over the course of a year.

— When you get an unsolicited email from a company, check for spelling errors. Thieves are often clever, but many of them can’t spell. Another sign is if the email starts with “Hi Dear.” Trust me, no company (or government entity) is going to be that chummy with you.

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Know Your Rights and Be Proactive

I was actually glad to see that a majority of consumers — 64 percent — understand that credit card companies are primarily concerned with making profits. They are not nonprofit companies, so they have shareholders to answer to. It’s not a personal slight, it’s just a reality of the business.

So, as a consumer, it’s up to you to take care of yourself. Be wary of emails from businesses, don’t ever give out sensitive information over the phone or through email and read the fine print on credit card disclosure statements. Empower yourself with knowledge, and you’ll be fine out there.

More from U.S. News

Why Credit Cards Are Safer Than Debit Cards

Virtual Credit Cards Explained

What Is Card-Not-Present Fraud?

How to Protect Yourself From Fraud and Identity Theft originally appeared on usnews.com