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Are You Scam-Bait? During Corona Fraud Artists Are Busier Than Ever

With data breaches and online scams on the rise, here’s what you need to do to protect yourself right now.

Picture this: You get an email from an unknown sender promising an additional set of unemployment benefits from your recent job loss. Your ears perk up. The layoff has left you strapped for cash in recent months. Without thinking twice, you respond with the information the sender requested. Days pass with no other correspondence, until your bank calls to notify you there has been unusual activity in your account, and you find yourself hundreds — maybe even thousands — of dollars short.

You just fell victim to a data scam — and one that is especially popular right now, says Jim Van Dyke, founder and CEO of Breach Clarity. While there are plenty of ways for hackers to breach security systems, gather information, and then sell it for profit on the Dark Web, experts have seen a sudden uptick in Covid-related phishing scams as a way to grab valuable personal information right now. Why? Because hackers prey on the weak. They target groups who are likely to respond to “too good to be true offers,” like people who are desperate for help in some way — whether that be making ends meet or securing some hard-to-find PPE.

Don’t be ashamed if you’ve fallen victim to one of these scams. To make their pitches all the more believable, hackers will gather bits of information about you — perhaps pieces that were acquired through a data breach of a larger company — and weave those facts into their personal message to you. Many think, “if this company already has some of my personal information, they must be trustworthy,” notes Van Dyke.

Don’t let that be you. Instead, get out in front of the problem, because, Van Dyke adds, “you can’t get your money back once it’s stolen, so you have to prevent it from happening to begin with.”

Be skeptical. It was probably your Grandma who told you that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Channel her. If someone offers free money, the chance to make big bucks working from home, or some other tantalizing tidbit, pause. Then, make a phone call or use Google to research the company or sender of the email. Do not — I repeat, do not — click the link in the email or text. Instead, conduct an outbound search or place and outbound call and see where that takes you. Any feeling of doubt about the legitimacy of the company should be listened to. Be sure to report the message as spam and send it to the trash.

Limit the amount of information you give to people. Whenever someone is asking you to provide information about yourself, question them, says Frank Abagnale, AARP Ambassador to the FraudWatch Network. Unless the person asking can prove it is absolutely necessary, and that it will be held in a secure system, you probably do not need to shell out all of the facts. Keep as much as you can private because the more you have out there, the more vulnerable you are.

Check your credit report. In normal times, you should be checking once a year. Van Dyke recommends setting a calendar reminder every four months so you remember to perform your credit checkups. But during the coronavirus pandemic, all three credit bureaus are offering a free credit report weekly. Many banks and credit unions are now offering free credit scores and reports – you can even check them daily! Check that to make sure your score hasn’t dropped significantly for no good reason. Also, be sure you are actually opening and/or reading your bank and credit card statements every month.

Activate transaction alerts. Many major banks and credit unions offer alert options so customers can be notified every time their card is swiped. Take advantage of these, says Van Dyke. You can personalize notifications, so you’re nudged when certain purchases are made. Or, you can be extra cautious and turn on alerts for all purchases. Why does this work? Because if something you didn’t authorize is paid for, you can handle it right away, as opposed to waiting for your next bill by which time the problem may have gotten worse.

With Rebecca Cohen

Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky