A common quip among financial professionals is, “It’s not what you make, but what you keep that matters.” Typically, this phrase is used to call savers’ attention to the impact of taxes, fees and other charges which can erode hard-earned investment returns.
However, there’s a new pocket-picker on the loose which all savers need to be on the lookout for: financial fraud. With continued advancements in technology, financial fraud is on the rise as hackers are becoming more sophisticated and finding more avenues to access confidential information (e.g., email and text messaging phishing).
In fact, according to a recent D.A. Davidson survey, one in five Americans (22%) has personally been a victim of financial fraud, and nearly one-quarter of Americans (24%) have had a loved one who has been a victim.
Because of the prevalence of financial fraud, it is critical that individuals be both vigilant and knowledgeable about taking measures to better protect themselves. One errant mouse click could potentially cause a time-consuming and expensive mistake which could take weeks if not months to repair.
So why are so many individuals falling victim to financial fraud? Certainly, part of the reason is the increasing level of sophistication of these attacks. Emails purporting to be password reset notifications often contain actual logos and language from the supposed company, giving the semblance of legitimacy and authenticity when in reality, they are just facades for scammers to steal valuable usernames and passwords. Some of these emails even attempt to install malware or ransomware onto devices and hold the individual captive until they pay a ransom which may or may not even guarantee the return of their identity or removal of the malware.
Other common frauds involve alleged calls from the IRS, scammers attempting to impersonate a friend or family member who is stuck in a foreign jail or being held at the border, unexpected calls from the bank stating that your account was hacked and you need to open a new account right away to safeguard your assets, etc. The variety and range of fraudulent attempts are many, so it is truly critical that individuals take all realistic precautions they can to stay a step ahead of these criminals.
One of the best actions savers can take is to work with a trusted financial adviser. The adviser and their firm can help to act as a gatekeeper to safeguard your assets. While you might be encountering an unexpected “request for information” for the first time, chances are that the adviser and their firm have previously seen these same fraudulent attempts with other clients. In addition, savers can also add a “trusted contact” to their accounts giving the adviser another point of contact should they suspect unusual activity or undue influence from another individual, especially among seniors who are especially vulnerable.
Beyond these important steps, there are also many preventive actions that consumers can take on their own. Step one should be “stop and think.” With all consumers being aware of the need to protect their privacy, receiving alarming emails or text messages like this can prompt a sense of urgency to act, and it is this very “act first, think later” impulse that can create the vulnerability. Scammers take advantage of this and try to dupe the user into taking action right away rather than stopping to ask important questions like:
- Does this message or request make sense?
- Is the URL or email address legitimate for the organization presented?
- How did this individual get my cellphone number to call or text in the first place?
Pausing before acting can provide the consumer with just enough time to reflect and think. For example, if the message said that your Netflix account was temporarily suspended, rather than clicking on an email link or text, visit the provider’s website or mobile app to check the status of your account directly rather than through the emailed link.
Further, now that so many of us are ordering online these days, there are some additional safeguards we should take. First, never update credit card or personal information or passwords from a link in an email. Rather, go directly to the provider’s website and update there. Also, use “continue as guest” when buying online rather than allowing your credit card information to be stored indefinitely on their systems.
Additional practical steps consumers can take include:
- Password protecting devices—phones, computers, tablets, etc. and using two-factor authentication.
- Checking bank and credit card statements closely every month for unrecognized and possible fraudulent activity.
- Shredding all bills and bank statements.
- Checking free credit reports annually to see if unrecognized revolving credit accounts exist in your name.
- Considering a subscription to a credit monitoring service.
The ease and convenience which technology affords is a wonderful benefit of our information age, but consumers need to adopt extra safeguards to protect themselves as data thieves are increasingly finding ways to exploit technology to their own benefit.