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With an ever-growing number of identity theft and fraud schemes circulating, keeping your information safe is extremely important—and sometimes challenging. The Federal Trade Commission collected 4.7 million reports of attempted fraud and identity theft in 2020 alone. That's a 47% increase from 2019.
You can help protect yourself from identity theft and fraud by guarding your personal data and looking out for telltale signs of phishing and scams. Here's how to quickly identify a scammer and what to do if you end up on the phone with one.
Signs You're Dealing With a Scammer
The safest way to avoid phishing, fraud and identity theft is to never engage with suspicious callers, email links, mail and texts. Unfortunately, accidentally picking up when a scammer calls can happen to anyone. Scammers may spoof familiar phone numbers to make you believe a neighbor or local business is calling, or they may show up as "Social Security Administration" or another government agency on your caller ID.
Scammers are likely to give themselves away through these telltale scam signs:
- The caller refuses to adequately identify themselves. A legitimate business, agency or lender won't dodge requests for identifying information. For example, a debt collector is required to provide you with their mailing address and phone number if asked. If they won't, they're likely a scammer.
- The contact is unsolicited. It's common for scammers to impersonate government officials and claim to be from the IRS, Medicare or the Social Security Administration. Government agencies won't call you out of the blue and ask for your personal information, so this is a sure sign you're on the phone with a scammer.
- The caller asks for money through suspicious payment methods. Your bank won't call you and tell you to withdraw $5,000 in cash and mail it to them. A legitimate sweepstakes agent won't require you to wire transfer them $20 to claim your $15,000 prize. And it's never wise to send prepaid credit cards or gift cards to anyone you don't know. Asking for money via payment methods that are difficult to stop or trace is a telltale sign of a scammer.
- The caller tells you to act immediately—or else. Threatening to call the police or telling you you'll miss out on money are high-pressure tactics meant to intimidate you into acting before you have time to process the situation. Avoid being victimized by simply hanging up.
- The caller asks for sensitive information. What do your bank, a debt collector, the IRS and an IT specialist have in common? None will call you and ask for your Social Security number. If someone claiming to be from a legitimate organization asks for your sensitive information, they're probably an impersonator. Hang up and dial the customer service line on the organization's official website directly.
What to Do When a Scammer Calls
Scammers take advantage of predictable human behavior to con you out of money or information. They know that it's natural to want to accept a large cash prize, act urgently to help a loved one in an emergency, or to comply with the IRS or law enforcement. But you can protect yourself from identity theft by practicing skepticism and caution before taking action.
First, don't answer the phone. The best action to take when dealing with a scammer is not to engage at all. Fraudsters are after information, and you're giving them a key piece of knowledge by simply picking up the phone: Now they know the number is active. Be wary of answering the call if it's a number you don't recognize.
If you do pick up the phone and realize it's a scammer or robocall, hang up before giving any information.
While you may be tempted to tell a scammer off, they won't be fazed by it. They do this all day, after all. Don't take the conversation any further, since you could end up inadvertently disclosing information or wind up being duped by a convincing fraud.
Report Scams and Protect Your Credit
If you've just gotten off the phone with a scammer and come away unscathed, you can first thank your excellent judgment and caution. Next, report the attempted phishing through the Federal Trade Commission's official reporting site.
If you're worried you may have given the scammer sensitive information, take steps right away to mitigate harm. You can place a fraud alert on your credit report through Experian. The alert warns lenders and creditors that your information may be compromised and asks them to contact you to confirm your identity before issuing any new credit to your name. Experian will share the fraud alert with the other major credit bureaus (Equifax and TransUnion) so it appears on all of your credit reports.
Stay proactive by routinely checking your credit report, whether you suspect fraudulent activity or not. That way you'll be able to catch and address any unusual activity ASAP. You can check your Experian credit report and view your credit score for free. You can also check all your credit reports for free via AnnualCreditReport.com.