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What to Do After You’ve Experienced a Scam

Take these key steps to protect your bank accounts and personal information, and find the support you need

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Illustration: Rob Dobi

Last December, Pat Holden, 76, of El Cajon, California, received what appeared to be an email from Amazon, offering a three-month free membership to the Amazon Prime service, which provides free shipping on eligible items, among other perks.

Holden, a former official with the Better Business Bureau (BBB), normally is wary of such unsolicited pitches. But the high-quality graphics in the email looked authentic, and the offer was attractive.

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“I had just thought about getting Prime,” Holden recalls. “So I jumped on it, which you should never do.”

She filled out and submitted the application, including her credit card number, but when she didn’t receive an email acknowledgment, she became suspicious. When she pulled up the original offer, she saw that it hadn’t come from an Amazon address.

Many of us might begin to panic, but Holden kept her cool. She called Amazon, and confirmed that the offer hadn’t come from the company. “‘You’ve been scammed,’ they told me,” Holden recalls. “ ‘Call your bank.’ And that’s exactly what I did.”

Bank officials agreed to put a hold on any suspicious transactions on her credit card.

Thanks to Holden’s immediate action, she didn’t lose any money to the criminals. Online safety and anti-scam experts wish more Americans would respond to scams just as quickly, as fraud has become an epidemic — increasingly sophisticated and financially devastating.

As soon as you realize you’ve experienced a scam, it’s crucial to take certain steps to prevent money loss and identity theft in its aftermath.

And note that at any point you can contact the free AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline, 877-908-3360, where trained fraud specialists provide support and guidance on what to do next and how to avoid scams in the future.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

What to do in the wake of a scam

1. Immediately cut off communication with the scammer.

You might be tempted to keep corresponding with the criminal, hoping you can persuade them to return your money or that they’ll let slip some information that will help law enforcement catch them. But scam prevention experts say continued communication is unlikely to help. “Don’t engage any further with the scammer under any circumstances,” says Michael Bruemmer, head of Global Data Breach Resolution at credit reporting company Experian and a fraud expert. “There’s nothing good that would come out of that.”

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2. Notify your bank and credit card companies.

Your bank and your credit card company should be your first two calls, says Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network. If scammers already have gained access to your bank account, the bank can change your account number to deny them further access.

Check your recent credit or debit card transactions, and tell your financial institutions if you spot any fraudulent charges, says the Federal Trade Commission (FTC): “Ask them to reverse the transaction and give you your money back.”

Lisa Schifferle, a senior policy analyst in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)’s Office for Older Americans, suggests that you also contact anyone else who’s made a payment to a scammer on your behalf, such as a wire transfer service or gift card company. “Ask them to stop payment, and see if you can get your money back,” Schifferle says. It may be a long shot at best, she says, but is worth a try.

3. Change your passwords.

Darius Kingsley, head of consumer banking practices at JPMorgan Chase & Co., recommends that you change your passwords as a precaution — and don’t stop with just the financial accounts. “You’re better off just going and changing those kind of major passwords, even if it’s a major online retailer or your personal email account,” he says. “I would recommend that you lock those down by changing them very quickly.”

4. Document the scam.

Gather evidence of fraudulent transactions and communications with scammers, and any information that might possibly help to identify the criminals, says Zulfikar Ramzan, chief scientist and executive vice president of product and development at Aura, which offers "an all-in-one online safety solution" to protect against issues such as identity theft and financial fraud. If you have an identity theft insurance policy, amassing this sort of information is especially crucial.

“You want to make sure that you have all of your receipts and all of the documentation in one place,” notes Josh Planos,  vice president of communications and public relations for the BBB. Whatever information you’re able to gather will be a help to investigators, and may even improve your chances of recovering money that you’ve lost. 

5. Report the scam.

Bruemmer recommends filing a police report with your local department to document the scam. You also should report scams to the FTC at The agency shares information with more than 2,800 law enforcement agencies.

6. Protect your credit. 

Schifferle suggests that you download a free copy of your credit report via the government-authorized website, and scrutinize it carefully for anything that doesn’t look right. She says you should also consider placing a fraud alert on your credit report, which forces creditors to take additional steps to verify that the person who wants to open an account is you. Or you can simply put a security freeze on your credit, which prevents new creditors from accessing your file at all, unless you unfreeze it. Here’s a primer on how to do all that.

7. Remain vigilant.  

It’s important to keep a close eye on your financial accounts for signs of intrusion or identity theft over the long term. “You should do a little reconnaissance,” Bruemmer says. “Have you seen strange statements, or have you been getting different bills, or any strange email or mail?” If you signed up for an identity theft protection service or us a free service such as the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), you can seek help from them on how to mitigate the risk. 

8. Share your experience with someone you trust.

Emotional support from a trusted person can be a big help. Also consider joining a support group such as the ReST Program, a joint effort of AARP Fraud Watch Network and Volunteers of America (VOA) that offers small online groups in which members are led in discussion by one or more trained peer facilitators.

9. Try not to blame yourself. 

“Remember that scams are crimes,” Schifferle emphasizes. “Many are perpetrated by organized crime rings. They can and do happen to anyone regardless of age, race, gender or socioeconomic status. So don’t blame yourself.” Too often victims feel ashamed and don’t report these crimes, or try to hide them from loved ones. The more information law enforcement has, the better they can target their investigations and stop the perpetrators.

10. Spread the word about scams.

“Teaching others can not only help you rebuild confidence and trust,” says Schifferle, “but also helps others avoid scams.”

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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.