Most New Year’s resolutions are long buried by Groundhog Day. For easier and long-lasting self-improvement, consider these seven ways to shore up your defenses against several scams that are expected to keep popping up this year.
1. Back up your computer files
Last year brought bad news about ransomware, a type of malware that seizes computers and makes files unreadable. With more than 100 new types of ransomware, attacks have tripled from 2015 levels, and the average ransom demand to retrieve the hijacked data more than tripled, to $1,077. This year experts predict a worse ransomware rampage.
For as little as $5, you can purchase a USB thumb drive (even better, about $50 for a 1-terabyte unit that holds thousands of photos) to store important data off your computer. So if (or when) you’re hit with ransomware, you'll have external copies of your files — and no temptation to pay. Just be sure to physically disconnect the device from your computer after backing it up; otherwise, ransomware could infect it. A secure Cloud service also works.
2. File your taxes early
In recent years, billions of dollars in fraudulent tax refunds have been claimed by scammers. Many of them use e-file services to pose as consumers during tax season, and if you are one of those targeted, you won’t find out until you try to file your return. This year it’s even more important to file your return before swindlers submit one pretending to be you. Why? Because of the Equifax breach last year in which the Social Security numbers (SSN) of millions of Americans were compromised, refund-seeking cheats may already have your necessary nine digits.
3. Mind your mail
In thecoming weeks, identity thieves have a once-a-year opportunity to snag sensitive data, including SSNs, by stealing from mailboxes tax-filing documents like W-2s from employers, banks and financial firms. If you or a neighbor can’t quickly retrieve your mail, consider a locking mailbox or have your mail held at the post office for pickup. To keep tabs on expected tax documents, a free USPS service called Informed Delivery sends recipients a digital image of incoming letter-sized envelopes. If you don’t receive expected tax documents by mid-February, call the sender to ask why. (Click here for other ways to protect your SSN.)
4. Monitor your existing accounts
A security freeze on your credit report prevents fraudsters from opening new financial accounts in your name. But a freeze does nothing to prevent someone from accessing your existing banking, credit card and retirement savings accounts. That’s on you. The easiest way? Set up free alerts with your financial institution, so you’ll be notified when a transaction occurs. If you don’t want to be contacted for each action, consider requesting a “Card Not Present” alert on credit cards, so you'll know when charges are made by phone or online; you can also ask the bank to notify you when withdrawals are made from your accounts. Even with alerts, take a few minutes (ideally, each day ) to review all your financial accounts online, or closely read mailed statements and quickly report problems.
5. Build better passwords
You know you should use a different password for every account – each at least eight characters and with a different jumble of letters, symbols and numbers. Do you follow this advice? Probably not. A password manager can create, retrieve and track passwords for all your accounts, plus protect PINs, credit card CVV codes and other vital information. You need to set up only one original and memorable master password. Some password managers are free, but expect to pay up to $50 a year for features such as two-factor authentication, cloud storage of passwords, and multidevice use.
6. Keep your guard up on the phone
You can’t trust caller ID these days. Con artists know that you are screening your calls, so they have a work-around to fool you into picking up the phone. They can spoof any number and name so that a call can appear to originate from a government agency, utility provider, bank or tech company, or a neighbor. They can even rig it to display your own phone number. Thankfully, apps such as Hiya, Truecaller, Nomorobo and PrivacyStar block many scam calls, although some work only in tandem with specific carriers and types of phone service.
But when answering bogus calls that do get through, don’t speak; if you hear seconds of dead silence, that probably means it’s a robocall, which uses voice-activated technology to transfer you to the scammers’ call center or to trigger a message. If you do speak, say nothing of value — don’t even confirm your name. The tricksters may be trying to get more details about you to add to what they’ve already gleaned from public directories.
7. Ignore phony pop-up virus alerts
As tech support scammers make headlines for calls warning that your computer has a dangerous virus, a more convincing con is making strides — pop-ups on your screen with a similar threat. These messages look like alerts from respected computer companies and security software providers, but they are sent by swindlers intent on luring you into paying for phony repairs. What’s more, the scammers may be able to gain remote access to your computer. When a pop-up warning appears, don’t download anything; don’t call the “help” number it provides; don’t even click the upper-right-corner X, as that could unleash malware or more pop-ups. Instead, immediately log out, restart and run a full scan of your security software.