How to Protect Yourself from Scams
(And What to Do If You’re the Victim of One)
“Hello. This is Michael from the IRS. I’m calling to inform you that you owe $15,000 in back taxes. This is your last notification.”
“What do you mean I owe $15,000? What do I do?”
Does this exchange sound familiar? You’ve probably received a call like this at some point in the past few years. These calls are phone scams from people seeking to steal your money. I’ve received them in the past and just last week, a co-worker of mine received one.
You may be wondering who falls for these scams. I often think of elderly people falling prey to scams because they’re not as familiar with technology and modern business practices, but people of all ages can easily be swindled. These callers make severe threats to the recipients, such as jail time or seizing their property. This can cause anyone to panic.
For my co-worker, the call scared her enough that she was nearly in tears at work the next day. The caller told her that she owed thousands of dollars and that the IRS would seize her assets. Fortunately, he also told her to speak to her manager. She finally calmed down once she spoke to our manager, who advised her that the call was a scam and that she had nothing to worry about.
My co-workers and I spent much of our passing conversation that day discussing these types of scams and how to protect yourself from them.
Signs of a scam
1) Recognize that they come in multiple forms
Scammers don’t just stick to the phone. They know all sorts of methods to try to separate people from their money.
Email – The Nigerian prince email is one of the most well-known email scams. Someone claiming to be a prince from Nigeria requests for you to send him money so that he can transfer thousands or millions of dollars out of his country. He needs to use a foreign bank account to complete the transaction. In return, he’ll pay you back many times over.
Calls – Lots of phone-based scams exist. In one called the “Can You Hear Me?” scam, the caller asks a question such as “can you hear me?” or anything to which you’d likely say yes. Your answer is recorded and used in other ways to authorize money transfers, purchases, and so forth. Scammers have gotten smarter over time and now use additional tactics such as using phone numbers from your own area code so that calls seem legitimate.
Text – Scammers will text you stating that they are a bank and ask for information such as your pin number. They may say that your account has been hacked or that you need to click on a link to a website, where you’re asked to enter more personal information.
2) You’re asked for personal information
Scammers will often ask you for personal information such as bank account numbers, pin numbers, and your social security number. They may ask you if you own your home and who lives in your household. They may already have some information about you such as your name and address that make you think they are legitimate. Don’t give them any more of your information.
3) Communication is in poor English
Many scams come out of foreign countries and the language used is not typical colloquial or business English. Although their message can be understood, their grammar and word choice is usual. Their speech may be heavily accented and difficult to understand.
4) You’re asked to send money
One major giveaway that you’re facing a scam is that you’re asked to send money immediately. In my co-worker’s case, they asked her to send money in the form of gift cards. If you really owed money to the IRS, they would contact you by mail first and work out a payment plan with you. Be wary of anyone who asks you to part with your money quickly.
What to do when you encounter a scam
1) Ignore it
Screen your calls and ignore ones that you don’t know. If you do answer and encounter a phone scammer, hang up and block the number. For emails that are scams, mark them as spam and delete them. It’s best not to engage with scammers as then they will realize that you have a working phone number or email address and attempt to contact your further. Don’t click on links in unfamiliar text messages or emails either.
2) Report it to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration
If you do engage with a scammer who asks you for money, you can report it to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA). The IRS and other government agencies do keep track of scams and make efforts to warn the public about them and shut them down.
3) Ask for a callback number
If you’re unsure whether you’ve encountered a scam, ask the person for their information and a callback number. Then research their information online. You can also contact the IRS, your bank, or whatever company they say they are from and verify their information.
What to do if you’ve been scammed
1) Report it to multiple agencies immediately
Your credit card company
The Social Security Administration
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (see above)
2) Contact the credit bureaus to set up fraud alerts
When you set up a fraud alert, the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) put an extra layer of protection on your account. You’ll get notification when anyone tries to obtain your credit report.
3) Monitor your accounts
Check your bank accounts and credit card statements regularly for unauthorized charges.
When I think about the calls that my co-worker and I have received, I can’t believe that people would engage in such activities knowing that have the potential to ruin people’s lives. Do they know that they’re attempting to cheat people out of their money? Do these people have consciences?
I’m not so naive about these things though. If there is money to be made in scamming people, there's no doubt that there are people out there doing it. These scams are ever-evolving and I don’t expect that they’ll disappear anytime soon. The best thing you can do is to protect yourself and spread awareness of them to others so that they can protect themselves as well.
Have you received calls from people pretending to be the IRS? What other scams have you heard of or encountered yourself? What else do you think people can do to protect themselves?