En español | Among the reasons to be glad 2020 is nearing an end: It was a banner year for scammers. Along with the usual assortment of thefts, COVID-19 fraud ranged from fake product offers and bogus testing ploys to rip-offs involving stimulus checks.
As always, your best defense against fraud is you. While planning your New Year's resolutions, put these to-dos on your list. Some you can do right now, while others are behaviors to adopt. Together they'll help protect you and those you love in the coming year.
Improve your password protection
Many online retailers, financial companies and service providers offer “dual-factor authentication.” (After you successfully enter your name and password, they send you a unique code via text or email that you have to enter before you can get to your account.) Turn it on as part of your account settings. It takes an extra step, but it's a veritable fortress of extra security.
Protect your mail
Informed Delivery is a free service from the U.S. Postal Service in which the agency sends, via email, images of letter-sized mail expected to be delivered to you soon. This is a great way to monitor that nothing is stolen by ID thieves from your mailbox. Visit InformedDelivery.usps.com to sign up.
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Check your credit report
Because of the pandemic, all three major credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — are offering free weekly online reports through April 2021. You will be able to determine if someone is using credit in your name and to fix mistakes. Go to AnnualCreditReport.com.
Filter your phone calls
To help curtail the flood of spam calls, enter all your trusted contacts into your smartphone. This way, when the phone rings, your caller ID will let you know if it's one of them. Do not answer if you don't know the callers; if it's important, they will leave a message. Even better: Research call-blocking apps on your smartphone and talk to your phone company about what it can do for you.
Manage your emails
Start marking as spam any suspicious or unwanted emails that show up in your inbox, so similar messages will be automatically routed to the trash. If your inbox continues to fill with unwanted spam, investigate other email providers.
Ask the Fraud Team
I was trying to call one of the major reporting agencies to put a fraud alert on my credit report, and I accidentally dialed 1-800 instead of 1-888 — and got caught up in another scam. How did this happen?
Scammers will often buy similar phone numbers to legitimate companies and change only one number in the hopes that you “fat-finger” dial, or that you use the wrong toll-free extension, like in your case. Always double- and triple-check a number before calling.
I keep getting text messages on my phone from the Parcel Sorting Center, saying for me to click on a link. But I'm a tad nervous.
Be nervous! That sounds like a package delivery scam. Crooks often will guide you to a nefarious website where they request personal information — like a credit card or Social Security number — to “verify” that a package being delivered is yours. If you're having issues with a package that you legitimately ordered, go directly to the merchant you ordered it from and request a tracking number.
Do a quick Facebook privacy checkup
Click the downward arrow button in the upper right corner of your Facebook page. Then click on Settings & Privacy and Privacy Checkup. This easy-to-use wizard will guide you through settings that will enable you to lock your profile so that only your friends can see it — and scammers will be locked out.
Vet unfamiliar e-retailers
Before purchasing something from a retailer you haven't used before, do a web search for the company's name, followed by the words “scam,” “fraud” and “complaints,” in order to get a fast read on its veracity. Then read other user reviews. Also read the About page on the company's website to find out who owns it and where it's based. It's better to know that the businesses you buy from can help you avoid any fraudulent deals.
Say no to gift cards
Prepaid gift cards have become one of the fastest-growing requested forms of payment from criminals, and they are virtually untraceable. Take the pledge: “I will never, ever, ever buy a gift card for someone I don't know.” Gift cards should only be purchased for family and friends.
Copy all the contents of your wallet today
This is a simple way to protect yourself from identity theft and credit card fraud. If you have copies of the front and back of all ID and credit cards stored in a safe place, you'll have the account numbers and customer service lines instantly available.
Don't send nudes!
This seems so obvious. But there has been a huge increase in extortion scammers who look for people on dating apps. After a few online conversations, when your defenses are down, they ask for nude pics. Once they have them, the extortion starts: Pay me now or I'll post them. Many victims pay and think it will go away. It almost never does.
Stop, breathe, ask
Often, scammers rush their victims and push lots of emotional hot buttons to get you to stop thinking rationally. AARP's anti-fraud experts agree: Never let strangers force you into fast decisions. Pause, calm yourself, and think clearly and critically. Chances are you'll quickly see the situation for what it really is.
Amy Nofziger and Mark Fetterhoff are with AARP's Fraud Watch Network helpline team.
Have questions related to scams? Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network helpline toll-free at 877-908-3360. For the latest fraud news and advice, go to aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork.