I love to find reasons for alliteration and February Fraud Awareness Month has a nice ring to it. I don’t know if it actually is Fraud Awareness Month but with tax season soon upon us and many of us making an extra special effort to pay down debt leftover from the holidays or making financial plans for the future – February seemed like a great time to talk about fraud. We hope you agree. Today we’re offering top tips on how to avoid becoming a victim of fraud and in later blogs we’ll look at planning for your financial future.

Fraudsters are always looking for new and innovative ways to victimize folks and unfortunately, in many respects, technology is making their “job” easier and easier. As well, fraudsters will cast a wide net and are happy to reel in anyone regardless of age; race, sex, or educational background. If you think you can’t become a victim, know that many a person before you felt the exact same way! Around this time last year, an article appeared in a big city newspaper which chronicled the story of a long-time bank employee, fully schooled in scam awareness, who fell victim to a particularly elaborate scheme. Here’s what you need to know so you don’t become a victim!

Always be on alert:

An unexpected call alleging to be from your bank, the IRS or CRA or another government agency is sometimes difficult to spot because technology makes faking a caller ID easy these days. If you receive a call, particularly outside of regular business hours or one where you are being threatened with arrest or similar language, immediately hang up and/or report the call to your local authorities. It may sound obvious but sometimes we get caught off guard, particularly if we are tired or, as we said at the outset, during times like tax season when we might already be concerned about our finances. Remember, the CRA and/or IRS will never call threatening arrest!

When in doubt, call a family member:

If you are on the receiving end of a phone call that just doesn’t sound right, hang up and call a friend or family member. Talk through the scenario and get their opinion. Often, fraudsters will allege they are a distant family member trapped overseas or in a difficult situation and require immediate help. They will press you to wire money and can be very insistent. Don’t let empathy get the better of you – hang up and call to verify the information you are being given.

Financial institutions are your friend:

Once again, if you receive an unsolicited call indicating there is a problem with your credit card or bank account, hang up! Never give out your personal information over the phone, especially banking, credit card information or your personal identification. We received a call not too long ago from a bank who wished to verify a questionable transaction. We politely explained that due to the volume of fraudulent calls we’ve received we would call the bank back personally to verify the call was real. Your financial institution will always understand and accommodate this request. Don’t call the number the caller provides you, (this too could be fake) but rather, call the number on the back of your credit card, or keep the number of the financial institution you deal with on hand for just such situations. Believe it or not, banks want to help you keep your money!

Verify, verify, verify:

Pay attention to local news and reports of whether there has been a recent rise in telemarketing scams in your area. Do an online search of the “registered charity” that is calling or knocking on your door to ask you for money. Never give out your personal information over the phone. If you wish to support your charity of choice, make arrangements with them directly for a one-time annual donation, send post-dated cheques or set up automatic withdrawals from your account by visiting your bank in person to do so.

If it seems “too good to be true” – it is:

A classic fraud scheme involves someone asking you to deposit a cheque for them, taking a certain amount of money for yourself, then to wire the remaining funds somewhere else. The cheque will be fake of course but by the time you figure that out, your money is long gone. The same goes for signing up for “free trials” that require you to pay only the taxes or “you’ve won a prize” but you must pay the upfront shipping costs first. Remember, nothing is ever free!

Wiring funds and/or gift cards:

An immediate red flag should be raised when someone calls asking you to wire money or to go out and purchase a number of prepaid cards. In either scenario, it is almost assuredly a scam and there is virtually no way for you to recover funds lost. Neither the government, your bank or for that matter, any reputable company, will require you to make a payment in this way.

Online opportunities:

As we said earlier, technology makes the job of a fraudster that much easier. Don’t help them! Make sure your computers, tablets and mobile devices are password protected and not with the word “password!” Never click on a link from an unsolicited email, it could automatically download a virus to your computer granting access to a third party. Always delete these types of messages. Never grant a caller access to your computer to “help” you fix a computer glitch or install “free virus scanning software.” Be aware that these types of calls will use generic language like, “There is a problem with your computer,” rather than specifying the brand of computer or software you have installed. Similarly, emails or calls that say “there is a problem with your credit card” but don’t state the card type. Think carefully about your social media profiles and settings. Scammers routinely browse social media to learn more about their intended targets. They can learn more about us in an hour of browsing than some of our lifetime friends already know! Put your settings on private so it’s only your immediate family and friends that can see what you are up to and never post your holiday pics until you return home – even thieves are using Facebook to determine when you’re away – it’s practically an invitation to would-be burglars!

Another simple tip is to watch out for spelling and/or grammatical errors in purportedly official documents. Pay attention also to those that are generically labelled “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam” and don’t use your name.

It might not actually be “Fraud Awareness Month” but consider these tips to be timely advice during a time when many of us are truly more focussed on our finances and therefore, perhaps due to stress or fatigue, more vulnerable. Always feel free to check with your local authorities about current scams that are known to operating in your area and as a general rule of thumb, always ask questions. Real organizations like your bank, the CRA, the IRS and your credit card company will understand. Scammers use high pressure “act now” sales pitches. Don’t fall victim to fraud – hang up the phone and verify, verify, verify!

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