Inbox: "You owe the Internal Revenue Service thousands of dollars in back taxes, and if you don't send us a check and a copy of your ID, you'll be thrown in jail."
Emails like this aren't legitimate and are just one example of the many types of scams fraudsters use to try to get their hands on your personal information. Identity theft is no joke—each year, many Americans get fooled into giving their personal information to fraudsters. Between phishing scams, phone scams and other types of theft, 14.4 million Americans were affected by some type of identity fraud in 2018, according to Javelin Research.
Knowing how to identify and protect against popular scams is a great first step to making sure fraudsters can't easily access your personal information. As April Fool's Day rolls around, here are a few popular fraudster tricks to look out for and information on how to protect against them.
1. IRS Scams
If you receive a shady call from someone claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service, be careful. With these scams, tricksters pose—over the phone and in email—as the IRS and demand money or sensitive personal information, all while threatening arrest. As this type of scam has gained popularity, the IRS has warned consumers that it will never reach out using phone, email, text message or social media to request sensitive personal information. The IRS only contacts consumers via U.S. mail when there is a tax issue. If you receive a suspicious call or email from someone claiming to be from the IRS, make sure not to reply or give them any personal information. You can find more information about what to do if you receive one of these fraudulent calls or emails on the IRS' website.
2. 419 Scam
Also known as the Nigerian Prince scam, the 419 scam is a well-known and sophisticated fraud that has been fooling people around the world for years. The specifics of each fraud vary, but the scams typically involve an email from a self-proclaimed prince or government official offering millions of dollars in exchange for your help getting the money out of their country. After the victims turn over personal records and banking information, fraudsters use the information to impersonate them and steal their money. This type of scam can make you believe that you got lucky and will soon be rich, but typically ends with your money disappearing. Just remember: If you get a random email offering you millions of dollars, the offer is probably too good to be true.
3. Shimming and Skimming
Skimming and shimming are scams where thieves attach small devices to credit card readers in an attempt to capture and re-use your card information. Skimming has been around for some time and involves a fraudster installing a device onto a credit card reader to capture your card information when you swipe. Many of these skimming devices—which are commonly installed on gas pumps—will look exactly like normal card readers, making it difficult to know when your information is being stolen. Shimming is similar to skimming, but is used specifically to target chip-enabled cards and chip readers. To avoid having your card information skimmed or shimmed, consider using contactless payment methods like Apply Pay or Google Pay, as these devices cannot capture your information transmitted through this method. Also look out for shady-looking card readers, and whenever in doubt, bring it to a merchant's attention or choose an alternative payment method. Check out this guide from the Federal Trade Commission on how to spot these devices and what to do if you come across one.
4. Malware Tricks
Malware is software that a fraudster can install on your electronic devices to get their hands on your personal information. Once your device is infected, the tricksters will steal whatever they can get—such as personal records, credit card numbers and other sensitive information—and you may never know that it's happening. Scammers typically install malware through some type of trickery, like an email or social media message with a downloadable attachment or link. It's best not to open attachments or links in emails from unknown senders, and periodically run checks on your devices to make sure they haven't been infected. If you suspect something has been installed on your device, do not input any personal information until you've had the device checked out. Refer to this guide to learn how to deal with suspected malware on your device.
5. Veteran Scams
These scams target elderly American veterans, and are focused on tricking them out of their pensions or savings. According to AARP, 16% of veterans have been a victim of identity theft, as opposed to 8% of the general public. Fraudsters will entice veterans with pension advances or buyouts and will sometimes try to persuade them to donate to charity, only to then take their victims' identities and money and run. If you're a veteran, be cautious of anyone asking you for money over the phone, in the mail or through email. And make sure to verify the identity of any person or company offering to help you cash out your hard-earned pension. You can check to see whether an individual or organization is accredited by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs by doing an accreditation search, and you can find out more information about pension scams and how to spot them on the VA's site.
If you think some of your personal information has been compromised, or you want to find out if any fraudulent accounts have been opened in your name, get a free copy of your credit reports and scores to find out what appears in your credit file. Even if no new accounts have been opened in your name, you can also consider running a free dark web scan to see if any of your personal information is floating around the dark web.
Another way to protect against any fraudulent accounts being opened in your name is to freeze your credit reports, which will prevent lenders from pulling a copy of your credit report. Experian also offers CreditLock, which allows you to lock and unlock your Experian credit report in real time.
The bottom line: Be vigilant with your personal information to ensure you're not a victim of fraud by scammers trying to trick you out of your hard-earned money. In April and always, don't be a fool when it comes to guarding your finances.