E-mail and the Internet have become part of our daily lives. The convenience of shopping, banking, paying bills, and communicating electronically has saved us time and hassle. Unfortunately, it has also opened a door for new and continually developing criminal activity. With the increase in on-line personal business transactions has come an increase in identity theft and other types of consumer fraud.
Many consumers are tricked into divulging their personal information by thieves posing as legitimate companies or government agencies. This new brand of criminal sends emails that appear to be from the victim's financial institution, or other trusted source. The emails stress the urgency of providing personal information such as credit card numbers, checking account information, Social Security numbers, passwords, and other sensitive personal information, and link to fraudulent websites for collecting the information. Because the technology they use is so sophisticated, many consumers have no idea they've been victimized until it's too late. The thieves then create entirely new identities using the victim's personal information- leaving the consumer to pay the price.
Avoiding Phishing Scams
While phishing scams are becoming more prevalent and sophisticated all the time, there are steps you can take to avoid being victimized:
- Any email with urgent requests for personal financial information should be a red flag. Many emails from phishers include upsetting or exciting statements in their emails to get people to react immediately.
- Don't use the links in an email to get to any web page, if you suspect the message might not be authentic. Instead, call the company on the telephone, or log onto the website directly by typing in the company's web address in your browser.
- Do not fill out forms in email messages. Only communicate information such as credit card numbers or account information via a secure website or the telephone- and only when you initiate the contact. Look for the lock icon on the browser's status bar and look for the URL to read "https" vs. "http".
- Regularly check your checking, credit and debit card statements to ensure that all transactions are legitimate. If anything is suspicious, contact your financial institution and all card issuers.
- Ensure that your web browser is up-to-date and timely security patches are applied.
If You've Been Phished
If you have shared your personal information with a thief, there are steps you can take to minimize the damage.
- If you have shared your credit card, debit/ATM card, or checking account information, contact the financial institution immediately. Even if there has been no activity yet, cancel the account and open a new one.
- If you have downloaded a virus that is stealing your information, be sure to install and update anti-virus and anti-spyware software. Change your passwords and check all of your online accounts for suspicious activity.
- If thieves have accessed your personal information such as your name, Social Security number, credit card numbers etc., report the theft to the 3 major credit bureaus and place a fraud alert on your file. Notify your financial institution, the local police, the Social Security Administration and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Other Email Scams
Phishing isn't the only email scam. There are lots of disreputable people preying on consumers in many inventive ways. According to the federal government, the most common scam offers likely to arrive by email are:
- Chain letters – Not only are chain letters annoying, if they involve money or valuable items and promise big returns, they are illegal.
- Work-At-Home Schemes – Work-at-home schemes have cost consumers thousands of dollars. Many don't deliver on their promises or disclose all of the required up-front costs involved with the new "opportunity".
- Weight Loss – Programs or products that promote easy or effortless long-term weight loss - at a price - rarely work and can cause you harm in the process.
- Credit Repair – There is no legal way to remove accurate and timely information from your credit report. Making consistent payments over time is the best way to improve your credit report.
- Advance Fee Loans – Be wary of promises to provide a loan for a fee, regardless of your past credit history. Legitimate financial institutions don't issue credit cards without first checking your credit.
- Adult Entertainment – Adult entertainment sites that claim to offer content for free may disconnect your Internet connection and reconnect to an international long distance phone number, at exorbitant rates. Be skeptical when you see opportunities to view "free" content on the web.
Credit Reporting Bureaus
To order a credit report call: (800) 685-1111
To report fraud call: (888) 766-0008
Equifax Credit Information Services, Inc, P.O. Box 105069, Atlanta, GA 30374
To order a credit report call: (888) 524-3606
To report fraud call: (888) 397-3742
Experian, P.O. Box 2104, Allen, TX 75013-2104
To order a credit report call: (800) 888-4213
To report fraud call: (800) 680-7289
TransUnion LLC, Consumer Disclosure Center, P.O. Box 1000, Chester, PA 19022
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
The CFPB oversees the operation of the credit bureaus and maintains a database of identity theft cases used by law enforcement agencies for investigations.
- U.S. Social Security Administration
To report fraud call: (800) 269-0271