Consumer fraud is everywhere, and there are many more ways for scammers to perpetrate it than there were in the past. A couple of decades ago, scam artists largely relied on the U.S. mail, sending out unsolicited notices and convincing the unwary to part with their hard-earned cash. These days, scammers also have the Internet, social media and smatphones at their disposal. That can make detecting fraud harder, but there are things consumers can do to protect themselves.
- Check out the online reputation of any new business before making a purchase or entering into an agreement. A simple search engine query can reveal a great deal.
- Record the number from your caller ID or cell phone log any time you receive an unsolicited phone call. Google the number and see what comes up. If there are consumer complaints about the company associated with the number, they will be revealed in the search results.
- Always write down the name of the representative you talk to when calling a company. Get the full name of the representative if possible, along with the legal name of the business and their physical address.
- Keep your important financial documents in a safe place at home. A locking fireproof safe is the best choice. If a safe is not available, choose a location where a burglar would be unlikely to look.
- Invest in a crosscut shredder and use it for all sensitive mail. Shred all your bank statements, brokerage forms and other correspondence that contains your Social Security number or account numbers.
- Be careful what you carry with you. Your Social Security card belongs in your safe at home, not in your wallet.
- Watch out for scammers that claim you won a prize but need to pre-pay the taxes. Taxes for lottery winnings and prizes do not work that way.
- Be careful when pre-paying for home repairs. A legitimate contractor may ask for a small amount up front, but asking for full payment before the work begins is big red flag.
- Never automatically hit redial when you miss a call. Some scammers use this strategy to run up high charges on your phone bill. Always research the number first.
- Be wary of unsolicited investment advice. Scammers routinely cold call people to drum up new business.
- If you suspect fraud, contact your local police department and your state’s consumer protection agency.
Protecting yourself from fraud is an ongoing process. It is easy to let your guard down and fall victim to a less than ethical business or individual. Knowing the warning signs of fraud and acting accordingly is the best way to keep yourself – and your money – safe.