Scam season: Open your heart, but beware the shoulder surfers

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Frank Schultz
Wednesday, December 11, 2013

JANESVILLE--It's the time of year when we like to open our hearts, but too much openness can drain your wallet.

Janesville police officer Chad Sullivan said older Janesvillians have grown up in a quiet city and have never encountered fraud, so when someone calls and claims to be a grandson in trouble in Mexico, the older resident gives the caller the benefit of the doubt.

“People are too nice,” Sullivan said.

And they end up losing their savings.

Sullivan sits near the window in the police department lobby and hears it every day: “Is this check I got in the mail legitimate?"

The check might be from someone asking the person to be a “secret shopper,” or it could be a bogus lottery prize. A common scam in Janesville involves a Craig's List deal.

In all of these cases, the sender asks for the receiver to cash the check and send some of the money back. The check is bogus, of course.

Tip: If someone sends you a check and asks you to send some of the money back, it's a scam.

“How can anyone fall for that?” Sullivan asked in an exasperated voice. “Don't fall for that!”

Sullivan was on hand for a presentation by Shawn Diaz of the state Office of Privacy Protection at the Janesville Senior Center on Wednesday. About 25 seniors attended.

Identity thieves and scammers often target seniors, but everyone is at risk from the fastest-growing crime in the country, Diaz said.

Young adults are frequent targets because they tend to be freer with their personal information, Diaz said. Children are good targets for thieves who use their Social Security numbers to set up fake identities.

The “grandparent scam” is popular. That's when someone poses as a nephew or granddaughter traveling abroad who is in desperate need of money to get out of trouble.

Tip: if the caller pleads for the grandparent or aunt to keep the situation a secret, that's a giveaway that this is a scam.

Sullivan said so many people lose money to these phone, mail or online confidence scams that police can't keep up. And because so many scams originate in other countries, police often can do little.

The best police can do is educate people to protect themselves, Sullivan said.

Diaz warned about the many ways that identity thieves get their hands on personal information. A big one is at a store counter, bank or clinic—anywhere that people are asked for phone numbers, Social Security numbers and the like.

“Shoulder surfers” lurk at such places to pick up information. Some don't even have to hear it. They use a cellphone to take a photo of a document you are filling out, Diaz said.

Tip: If asked for personal information in a place where someone could overhear, ask to write it down and expect people to look at you as if you're crazy, Diaz said.

Scammers also go through trash, so shred documents, including magazine covers, credit-card offers and the like, Diaz recommended.

“We do things every day we don't think about that could expose us to the thieves,” Diaz said.

A common scam: You used your credit card at the store, and you get a call when you get home. Your credit card didn't clear, the caller says, and the store needs your number to process your purchase.

These people are good at making you believe they are who they say they are, Diaz said, but just hang up. Find the store's number and call it and ask if there was a problem. Never give your credit card number.

“I don't want to scare you into never opening your mouth or your checkbook or your wallet. I just want to make you aware,” Diaz said.

Tip: Use your credit card, not your debit card, for most purchases. Banks require that you report someone misusing your debit card within two business days. After that, you could be on the hook for the full amount. Credit cards give you 60 days.

Scammers also lurk on social media sites. Use the most restrictive settings, and don't give out a lot of information about yourself on Twitter or Facebook, Diaz advised.

At times of emergencies or tragedies, such as a destructive hurricane, people ask for donations online or in emails, Diaz said. Don't contribute until you make sure it's a legitimate charity.

Scammers are adept at decoding online passwords, so don't use your mother's maiden name or birthdate, Diaz advised. Instead, think of a phrase that only you would think of, and then tweak the phrase with a capital letter or number thrown in at random.

Don't carry your passwords around with you, and don't use the “remember password” option online.

Often, an identity thief has gotten your information, and you won't find out about it before the thief applies for credit cards or loans in your name, Diaz said.

Tip: Check your credit report at least once a year. Look for addresses and names that don't belong to you and other information that's incorrect—all signs someone might have hijacked your identity.

A woman asked Diaz about automated check-in screens that some businesses use. They are safe, as long as no one can see the information you enter, Diaz said.

A man told the gathering he discovered after his longtime wife died that she had credit cards in his name. If a loved one dies, get that person's credit report, the man said.

It's common that someone you know is the source of identity theft, Diaz said, so don't leave bills or other documents out where guests can see them.

A man asked about leaving mail in your box at home to be picked up by a carrier. Diaz advised against leaving bill payments or similar documents in your house's mailbox. Use the blue Postal Service boxes, he said.

Tip: If someone seems in a rush to get you to give out information, it's probably a scam.

“If it seems too good to be true, it's too good to be true,” Sullivan said. “We can't say that enough.”

Last updated: 3:57 pm Wednesday, December 11, 2013

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