Thursday, February 22, 2024

Fighting Fraud

Last week, the talk of the Internet was an essay called "The Day I Put $50,000 in a Shoe Box and Handed It to a Stranger." The Cut's financial-advice columnist Charlotte Cowles details the elaborate telephone scam that led her to withdraw five figures of savings and surrender the cash to someone she believed to be an undercover CIA agent. Social media chatter debated whether Cowles's predicament was the relatable reaction of a frazzled mom who had been targeted by experienced con artists, or the public admission of a surprising lapse in common sense.

However one may feel about Cowles's particular experience, one thing is certain: she is hardly alone in falling for a scam. Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission estimated that American consumers lost more than $10 billion to fraud in 2023. While almost half of these losses came from investment fraud, imposter scams (like the one Cowles faced) represented nearly $3 billion of this figure. The FTC news release details some of the steps the Commission is taking to combat fraud, including finalizing a proposed rule on increased enforcement mechanisms for impersonation scams. But there are other actions that consumers can take to better understand common scams and avoid being victimized.

Awareness is the consumer's sharpest weapon in this battle. The most common scams can be categorized into general themes, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau provides a helpful list, alongside guidance about what to do if you encounter one. The FTC's Consumer Advice section provides news alerts and other helpful content on common scams; check out How to Avoid a Scam for a succinct guide to spotting a fraudster. (This page identifies four signs of a scam that are helpful to remember: PRETENDING to be a recognized business or other organization; claiming the target has either a serious legal PROBLEM or a PRIZE to be claimed; PRESSURING the target to act quickly; and demanding PAYMENT in a highly specific way, like cryptocurrency or gift cards. The advice given for avoiding scams – including resisting pressure to act immediately and to tell a trusted person what is happening before you withdraw any money – would most likely have averted disaster in Cowles's situation, as she notes throughout her essay.)

Other government agencies and non-government organizations often maintain info pages about common scams related to their subject areas, such as the IRS's Tax Scams page. The Better Business Bureau similarly provides helpful articles on spotting scams. Individual companies may also provide warnings on their help pages, such as Venmo's guide to common mobile payment scam techniques. Reviewing pages like these in advance, or conducting a quick web search after receiving a suspicious call or email, could help you or a loved one determine the likelihood of a scam.

If you or someone you know does encounter a scammer, reporting is an important step. The FTC maintains an easy-to-use page for Reporting Fraud. At the state level, the attorney general's office is the appropriate place to report consumer complaints. In North Carolina, the AG maintains an info page for Protecting Consumers; for other states, visit the Association of State Attorneys General to locate your local AG office. The Better Business Bureau also offers a ScamTracker reporting option.

Other steps that you can take to cut down on scam attempts include adding your phone number to the Do Not Call Registry and regularly checking your three free annual credit reports at Duke University's Information Technology Security Office also offers security guides designed to help you stay safe online, including Safe Browsing and Phishing.

Scams will continue to evolve with technology, and it's important to stay educated and vigilant. By becoming familiar with these consumer protection resources, and sharing them with friends and family (especially senior citizens, who are frequent targets of scammers), you too can help fight fraud. For help with locating other consumer protection resources, be sure to Ask a Librarian.