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Yes, it’s a scam: Simple tips to help you spot online fraud

Here’s how to protect your family members and yourself from scams

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Nobody is immune to scams. Criminals are constantly changing them to fit the latest headlines, target our insecurities and slip through even the most well-honed BS detectors.

That means everyone, young and old, can benefit from a refresher on how to spot a text, phone or online scam and what to do next. Because the scams themselves change so fast, it’s also important to keep up on what the latest techniques and topics are so you aren’t caught off guard by a fake-romance text while you are on high alert for robocalls.

We’re including a printable guide to put next to your child or parent’s computer, or to keep handy as a reminder for yourself.

Have ‘the talk’ with family members

Do not assume people in your life know how to recognize or respond to scams. Even teenagers, whom we often assume know the most about the internet, are vulnerable. Make sure your family members know they can come to you anytime to gut-check a suspicious direct message or phone call. There’s a lot of shame and embarrassment associated with “falling” for a scam, but this type of deceit is like any other crime and is not the fault of the victim.

Change these settings to minimize scam risks

Make it significantly harder for cybercriminals to target you or family members by changing basic settings. Not everyone will need or want all of these protections.

Make social media private: Set your Facebook, Twitter and other social media profiles to private. If you need a public facing profile, remove information such as your location information and contact information.

Facebook: Limit who can see your friend list or find your profile. A common scam involves creating a fake profile of a real person you know, then messaging you to ask for money. In Facebook, go to Settings & Privacy → Followers and Public Content → select “Who can see the people, pages and lists you follow?” Select Friends or Only Me.

Messenger: Tap your profile photo and select Privacy → Message Delivery. Under Other People, click on Others on Facebook and select Don’t Receive Request. Do the same for Others on Instagram. Under the Potential Connections section, set the categories to Don’t Receive Requests or Message Requests to limit how many tentative connections are able to message you directly.

WhatsApp: Go to Settings → Account → Privacy and limit who can add you to groups and who can see information like your status and personal information.

Phone contacts: Make sure known contacts are added to the phone’s address books so it’s easier to ignore unknown numbers. Next, send unknown callers to voice mail. If it’s important, they’ll leave a message. On an iPhone, go to Settings → Phone → Silence Unknown Callers. This will send anyone you’ve never communicated with straight to voice mail. On an Android device, open the Phone app, locate the menu button (it looks like three dots), tap that, then Settings. Most phones will have options for blocking numbers and caller ID/spam protection in there, although they often go by different names. (If you’re using voice mail to screen calls, make sure the outgoing message is set up and that your inbox isn’t full.)

Maximize your privacy: Most devices and apps have privacy settings you should turn on. Check out our Privacy Reset Guide.

Improve your security: To make sure all of your accounts are as secure as possible, read our Security Reset Guide.

Know the latest scams

Scammers love to use current events, whether it’s the pandemic or aid for Ukraine. For example, within 24 hours of President Biden’s announcing a program to forgive some student loans, the Federal Trade Commission released a warning about student loan scams.

Knowing what new scams are trending also will help you quickly spot shady activity. You can get updates about the latest scams at sites including Fraud.org. The FTC does a great job of releasing timely consumer alerts, and the AARP’s fraud site is also flush with resources.

Assume that people or companies aren’t who they say they are

It’s easy to imitate a real person or organization. Make it your first instinct to ask yourself: Are they who they claim to be? If you have any doubt, go to the next step.

Verify everything using a different channel

To confirm a person or a company is what it claims to be, you need to look for a different contact method. Don’t trust any contact information included in the original message; instead, find the best way to reach the company entirely on your own, such as looking up and using an official customer service number on a company’s website. If you’re unsure, ask a friend or family member. If you don’t have someone you can call, AARP has a number anyone can call to ask about a possible scam: 877-908-3360.

“Verify, validate, check. If you got a Facebook message, text the person. Got a phone call? Call the bank,” says Caroline Wong, the chief strategy officer at the cybersecurity company Cobalt. “Figure out a different channel from whatever channel you go the message in.”

Don’t reply, don’t click links, don’t answer the call

Do not engage with possible scams, even if you’re curious. That includes not clicking links from contacts you don’t know. Got a text claiming to be from UPS about a package? Go to the official UPS site instead.

Research the sender’s phone number, email or URLs

Look for any details that will tell you a message is fake, and Google it if you’re unsure. This includes an email address that doesn’t have the right domain (like a message claiming to be from Apple but is not from Apple.com), a link that goes someplace it shouldn’t or a phone number you’ve never seen. On social media or messaging apps, click through to profiles to see whether they were recently created and appear real.

Worried about being rude? Have a script

If you don’t feel comfortable simply hanging up on a stranger or consider doing so to be rude, have a refusal script ready to go, says Amy Nofziger, AARP’s director of fraud victim support. It can be as simple as, “I don’t do business over the phone, thanks for calling.”

Memorize signs that something is a scam

You didn’t initiate the conversation: If a text, direct message, email or call comes out of the blue, it’s far more likely to be a scam.

You won something: Sorry, you did not actually win anything. Skip messages that say you’ve won money or prizes or are getting a refund.

You are panicked: Criminals want to make you think there’s an emergency. If they can get you to act without slowing down and thinking critically, there’s a better chance they’ll succeed. Look for signs in yourself such as a fast heartbeat or sweaty palms.

“Scammers want to create a sense of urgency. They want to get you to act, to use that animal fight-or-flight part of your brain,” says John Breyault, a vice president at the advocacy group the National Consumers League and the director of Fraud.org.

It involves fast payment methods: “Criminals like their money fast, quick and untraceable,” said AARP’s Nofziger. Peer-to-peer payment apps are a current favorite, because they allow money to be transferred instantly without leaving much of a trail, says Nofziger.

If a stranger asks you to pay them (or offers to pay you) in the following ways, it’s likely to be a scam: Peer-to-peer apps such as Venmo, Cash App, Zelle, wire transfer, prepaid gift cards, cryptocurrency or cash. Don’t share your credit card number, either, unless you’ve confirmed through a second form of contact that the matter is legitimate.

There are payment complications: If someone says you owe money, or claims they’re having issue with a transaction to or from you, investigate. In one popular Facebook Marketplace scam, criminals will offer to pay over an app like Zelle, say there’s a problem, then ask for your email address so they can send a fake email and get your info.

They want information: Not all scammers want money; some are trying to get your address, log-ins and passwords, or your Social Security number.

“At the end of the day, scammers are after money or information they can turn into money,” Breyault says.

Something doesn’t feel right: Your gut is your best tool for avoiding scams. If something feels off, ask a family member, call the AARP hotline, or find another form of contact on your own and reach out to confirm whether the overture is legitimate.

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