A Guide to Protecting Yourself From Fraud
15 ways to prevent identity theft and protect your personal data
Secure Your Paperwork
En español | 1. Opt for electronic statements. Thieves can steal bank account statements, bills and other documents from your home mailbox. Instead, says Paige Hanson, chief of identity education at Norton LifeLock, choose electronic statements that get delivered via email or directly into your online banking account. Bonus: You may be able to avoid paper statement fees or get billing discounts by going electronic.
2. Keep a shredder handy. Shred all bills and financial documents to keep thieves from fishing them out of your trash. Hanson recommends using a cross-cut shredder, which cuts the paper into smaller pieces than a strip-cut shredder.
Keep your personal information safe
3. Freeze your credit report. This keeps creditors and others from “running credit” on you, protecting you from scammers who try to use your information to set up phony accounts. It’s now free, but you need to contact three credit reporting bureaus: Equifax, Experian and Transunion. You can always unfreeze it temporarily to allow legitimate access to your credit, such as when you apply for a loan.
4. Stop entering sweepstakes. You may be enticed by the vacation prize at the mall kiosk, but before you enter personal details on the form, ask, “What are you going to do with it?” advises Amy Nofziger, director of AARP’s Fraud Watch Network helpline.
5. Stop giving out your Social Security number. Some businesses, such as banks, credit agencies and government agencies, legitimately need your Social Security number for reporting purposes. But that’s about it. “I often hear this question, ‘If my doctor doesn’t need my SSN, why are they asking for it?’ ” Nofziger says. “I have been to many new doctors, and I have never once been asked for the SSN after I left the question blank on the form.”
Guard your money
6. Use a credit card whenever possible, not a debit card. If you have a problem, you'll be covered if you use a credit card, but not as much for a debit card, says Frank Abagnale, AARP Fraud Watch Network ambassador. But be sure that you can pay the credit card balance in full every month. Do not trade deeper debt for an incremental improvement in security.
7. Better yet, use mobile payments. Setting up payments from your phone — to use at retailers that accept Apple Pay or Google Pay — can help protect you from fraud. “You don’t swipe cards that could be compromised by skimmers or expose your card numbers and security codes at the point of sale,” says Rod Griffin, director of consumer education at Experian. These mobile payments are linked to a debit card or credit card, so the money comes from the same account.
Watch out for scam calls
8. Add your name to the Do Not Call Registry. “While it may not block all calls, it can help reduce the number of unwanted calls,” Griffin says. Call the FTC toll-free at 888-382-1222 from the phone you want to register, or go to donotcall.gov.
9. Don’t answer calls from numbers you don’t recognize. The best way to do this is to adjust the Do Not Disturb setting on your phone so that only calls from people on your contacts list will even ring. Everyone else will go straight to voicemail. If it’s important, they’ll leave a message.
10. Be prepared to hang up. If you do answer and hear a robocall, don’t say anything — just hang up. Do not respond to questions, especially those answered with a “yes,” as your response could be recorded and used by someone else to authorize fraudulent charges over the telephone, Hanson says. And don’t hit a button when prompted to stop getting calls. That could lead to more calls. “Scammers often use this trick to identify potential targets,” Hanson says.
Protect yourself online
11. Be wary of public Wi-Fi. Scammers can tap into public Wi-Fi accounts and access information you receive and send. “Using your phone’s cellular data rather than public Wi-Fi is the best way to prevent this,” says Sarah Hofmann, public information officer for the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. If you’re using a laptop, you should be able to use your cellphone as a personal hot spot for internet access. If you must use public Wi-Fi, at least install a virtual private network (VPN) on your devices. VPN services such as Hotspot Shield, NordVPN or CyberGhost will encrypt your data.
12. Watch what you share on social media. Scammers can find a lot about you on social media, says Rebecca Herold, CEO of the Privacy Professor. “To protect yourself, don’t share your phone number, your home address, anything related to your work, payment information, relationship status, health information, birthday or Social Security number. Yes, I’ve seen people do this!” Herold says.
13. Don’t reveal your location. Posting photos in real time of your restaurant meal or hike reveals to the world you aren’t home — and won’t be for a while. Similarly, wait until the vacation is over before sharing your stories and images.
Stay updated on the latest scams
14. Don’t fall prey to fear-based scams. AARP’s Fraud Watch Network helpline has been receiving calls lately from people who have gotten emails that threaten to broadcast evidence that they view pornography online. In some cases, the emails contain the person’s email password, obtained from a data breach, making it even more frightening. “Even though most of our callers said they have never visited these websites, they said they were close to sending money just to avoid any further harassment,” Nofziger says.
15. Don’t respond to scam-recovery pitches. These are called reload scams: The scammers know you’ve been a victim (at their hand), and to get more money from you, they will make an offer to help you recover your money, Nofziger says. Do not respond. In general, “pay attention to red flags and your gut if you get an email or request that seems suspicious or out of the ordinary,” she says.
What to Do if You’ve Been Scammed
If you’ve fallen prey to fraud, take action quickly. “With the right combination of information, scammers can open credit cards in your name, set up fake PayPal accounts and cause other financial trouble,” says Christine Durst, founder of CelebriCheck.
- Notify your bank and your credit card company.
- Contact the Social Security Administration about potential identity theft.
- Call one of the credit-reporting agencies (Equifax, TransUnion or Experian) to place a fraud alert on your file.
AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free Watchdog Alerts, review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.