Robert Siciliano Identity Theft Expert
Most people are too smart to fall for a Nigerian 419 scam. But plenty of smart people fell for Bernie Madoff’s investment scams. Madoff was far more subtle than your average scammer. But in this day and age, people ought to be more alert to potential scams than ever before. And yet this wolf in sheep’s clothing was able to bilk so many investors. So it looks like we aren’t as savvy as we should be.
The root of the problem is the sheer number of scams. There are investment seminars, smoke and mirror charities, phishing emails and even text messages. I got a “phext” (phishing text message) from “r.yahoo.com” that said, “changed secret question, log in to update, or text HELP or to end STOP.” Naturally, this raised my suspicions, so I did an online search which led me to a forum discussion of this particular scam. Apparently, any response to this text message would have allowed hackers to access plenty of proprietary data.
A prominent security and privacy researcher emailed me to describe an attempted Craigslist scam:
“Robert, so, I registered on Craigslist and posted our above ground pool for sale. Within minutes got a reply from someone asking some basic questions (most of which could have been answered if they had read the advert). Their reply to my answers raised an immediate red flag. This individual claimed to be from Miami and was willing to write me a check for the full amount, plus shipping charges for their shipping company that would pick up the pool. In other words, I deposit a check (in context it seemed to be either a business or personal check, either way I would have had to wait for it to clear) and when it clears, I keep my asking price and give the difference to the shipping company when they arrive to pick up the pool.
I’ve ceased communication with this individual, but this just stinks to high heaven. First, if it is their own shipping company, why should I have to pay them? Second, no way I’m going to deposit this check into my account and risk having my bank info show up on their statement. Third, why would someone in Miami (above ground pools aren’t all that popular down there, it seems to me) want to pay to have a used above ground pool shipped all the way from New England? Fourth, I’m just nervous about stuff like that anyway.
Ever heard of/encountered that kind of situation before?”
This is an advanced fee scam! Now, since I am obsessively screaming about this stuff all day, I can see this coming from a mile away, as did my friend. But those who are less tuned in to the variety of potential scams might easily fall victim to this type of crime.
Financial troubles are forcing people to seek out new opportunities. When we are searching for jobs or attempting to sell our belongings online, or simply spending more time using social networking sites, we become more susceptible to the latest scams. But the biggest danger is our own egos and our complacency, as we foolishly believe that we are all too smart to become victims.
According to The Wall Street Journal, many scam victims are pretty smart. Three recent studies showed that victims of investment fraud tend to be better educated and have higher incomes than nonvictims, and that most have been investing for a decade or more. Because they are so confident in their own judgment, they fail to seek out professional advice.
Years ago, the Better Business Bureau conducted a test in which they planted a man dressed in normal street clothes outside a store during the holiday season. They gave the man a plastic pumpkin and a bell to ring. He spent twenty minutes ringing the bell, and during that time, people kept dropping money into the pumpkin. When the people were questioned, most believed that they had just donated to the Salvation Army, simply because the man was ringing a bell. Like Pavlov’s dogs, they opened their wallets.
Criminals aren’t any smarter than we are, but they know how to capitalize on our stupidity. You need to take steps to protect your own identity, because while you are smart enough to inform yourself about these issues, you can’t prevent some company from stupidly compromising your sensitive personal data. Prevent new account fraud by getting a credit freeze. Go to ConsumersUnion.org and follow the steps for your particular state. This is an absolutely necessary tool to secure your credit. In most cases, it prevents new accounts from being opened in your name. This makes your Social Security number useless to a potential identity thief. And invest in Intelius Identity Theft Protection. Not all forms of identity theft protection can be prevented, but identity theft protection services can dramatically reduce your risk.
Robert Siciliano, identity theft speaker, discusses various scams on TBS’s Movie and a Makeover.