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Now, no one wants to have their personal information compromised in any way. Even if you don't have anything worth stealing, it's still good to be aware of potential scams out there. So, how do you protect yourself while also enjoying all the internet has to offer?
Before doing anything, the most important thing to ask yourself before responding to any email, phone, or even social media solicitation is the following question:
Is there a reason for this person to be contacting you?
If you don't actually know this person, and you never signed up for this service, and there's no reason for these people to have your information, it's pretty safe to ignore it (unless you have a lot of time to burn, like this guy). If it's really important, they'll try to talk to you again later.
Now, let's pretend your memory isn't what it used to be, or that you have so much going on it's just hard to keep track of what's real and what's not. It is possible that whoever is emailing or calling you is a real person with a genuine matter that needs to be addressed, so you should ask the following questions:
If you don't know them, do they know you?
If they refer to you as "Valued customer," or something else that's generic, it's safe to assume they have no connection to you. If you go by several names, and they call you the wrong name, that is also a clear red flag. My parents had a friend, named Jay, who always knew to be suspicious of anyone who called him on the phone and asked for "Wilbur." Wilbur was his legal name on all of his records, but since he never introduced himself as Wilbur, it was pretty easy for him to keep track. I realize that's not an option for most of us who don't have pseudonyms.
Would this specific person be calling you for this specific reason?
If Amazon calls you to say you've over-drafted $700 on your last purchase, it can sound scary, but ask yourself: Would Amazon call you about your overdraft? They aren't your bank, they aren't a credit bureau, they aren't debt collectors, and they have no reason to know anything about your finances beyond whether or not the card you used for a transaction can actually be used for that transaction. If someone from a company contacts you about a matter they don't normally deal with, it's a red flag.
If this is your second, third, or final warning, where and when was your first warning?
If these people really do have a reason to communicate with you, they would have at least given you a first warning. Do you even know what you're being warned about? If you do a quick check and can't find a first warning in either your email or snail mail, this probably isn't a real threat.
Have they chosen a new method of communication?
If this company always calls, but they chose to email you this time, it could be suspicious if you weren't expecting that email. If they normally email you and they choose to call you, however, there's less of a chance of something unsavory happening.
Have you done a search via Google or Snopes?
If you type in a company's name into Google and the autocomplete feature offers words like, "scam," it's a safe bet to assume it's a scam. If the word doesn't pop up, but you type in "[Company Name] scam," and you do get some results, they are worth reading. Snopes, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Better Business Bureau are also worth looking at.
This is pretty comprehensive, but just to make sure I have my basis covered, let's look at specific modes of communication.
Does their language seem off to you?
If they are using incorrect grammar, it can be a giveaway. I personally enjoy when the grammar is correct, but they use words a native English speaker wouldn't string together, like, "Buy our chicken! It is generous and isolated."
Do the graphics seem off to you?
If they are supposed to have a logo, but they don't, it's a red flag. If they have a logo, but it's really pixelated, or the proportions are just off, it's a red flag. If the entire message is a picture of some text, it's a red flag.
Can you unsubscribe?
This is a tough one. Some scams won't let you unsubscribe from their emails, and other companies will just subscribe you to a different list if you unsubscribe from that first list.
Does the sender's email address seem off?
Check the sender's email address. Sometimes, the email will be something obviously fake like, email@example.com. There's no way that thing came from Facebook, Chase, or anything you actually use. Scammers often use either a subtle differences to try to trick you, like the difference between firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Since the real IRS is a government website, the real IRS would only use .gov in their email. If you know what the real url of a website ends with (.com, .net, .org, .edu, .gov, etc.), and this email ends with ANYTHING ELSE, it's a red flag.
What information do they want from you?
Legitimate companies don't ask for sensitive information via email, so never email your social security number, your mother's maiden name, your bank account and routing numbers, etc.
Did they send you an unsolicited document?
It's pretty suspicious, like leaving a bag unattended at the airport. Be safe and assume it's a virus.
Does it include links?
An email with links to click on is actually pretty common, but if you are suspicious of an email: don't click on any links. If they are pretending to be a legitimate company and you really want to check your account to make sure it's safe, type the correct url of the company into your web browser and log into your account. If both the suspicious email and the legitimate website say the same thing, then it was a legitimate email! If they say different things, then you know that the email was false, and you can promptly tell someone at the company that there's a scam to be aware of.
A lot of what falls under a suspicious email also falls under a suspicious Facebook account, Instagram account, etc. In addition to suspicious links, documents, and language, here are some other red flags:
Is it a 20-something woman who is basically wearing no clothes?
She's probably not a real person, especially if she has the other red flags on this list.
How many friends/followers does this person have?
Less than 50 friends can be suspicious, and having less than 50 followers while following 1000+ people is even more suspicious. Many people have a follower to following ratio between 1:1 and 1:2, and many people are trying to grow a fan base so that they have more followers than people they are actively following. For those of you want actual numbers, the average Facebook user has 338 Facebook friends, and the Dunbar Number is 150.
Does this account have any history?
They say that history repeats itself, which is why you should look at a profile's timeline. If there are several posts advocating for a product, a service, a specific website, etc., you can probably bet that you'll be seeing more of the same. Obviously, we all post at different rates, ranging from, "posting exactly once, just because," to posting several times per day. If this person has very few posts, and exactly zero of those posts look like a regular human living a normal life, that's a huge red flag.
Any one of these things I've listed is suspicious, but several of them together are impossible to legitimately explain. Still, there's one question left.
Phone Calls and Text Messaging
Did they leave a message?
If it wasn't important enough to leave a message, don't worry about it. Ever.
Did you pick up anyway?
Ask if there's a phone number you can call back later. If not, that's your hint. If there is, you can do a Google search for that phone number and see if anything pops up.
Another option is to answer the phone by saying, "Hello, I don't need a contractor." Most people just opt to screen their calls, though.
Can you get a word in edgewise?
If it's a recording that says anything besides when your next appointment is, be alert.
How Do You Protect Yourself?
The good news is that a large part of protecting yourself from email phishing and other online scams is that common sense takes care of so many problems. Pretty much:
Thanks for reading, and I'll see you on the internet!