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How to spot online, text and phone scams

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Nobody is immune to scams. They are constantly being changed by criminals to fit the latest headlines, attack our insecurities, and get past even the most sophisticated 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 quickly, it’s also important to stay on top of the latest techniques and topics so you’re not caught off guard by a fake romance text while on high alert for robocalls.

We’ve included a printable guide to place next to your child’s or parent’s computer, or to keep handy as a reminder to yourself.

Having ‘the talk’ with family members

Don’t assume the people in your life know how to recognize or respond to scams. Even teenagers, who we often assume know the most about the Internet, are vulnerable. Make sure your family members know that they can come to you at any time to verify a suspicious direct message or phone call. There is a lot of shame and embarrassment associated with “falling for” a scam, but this type of scam is like any other crime and is not the fault of the victim.

Change this setting to minimize scam risks

Make it significantly more difficult for cybercriminals to attack you or your family members by changing the basic settings. Not everyone will need or want all of these protections.

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

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

Delivery courier: Tap your profile picture and select Privacy → Sending messages. Under Other People, click Other on Facebook and select Don’t Receive Request. Do the same with Others on Instagram. In the Potential Connections section, set the categories to No Requests or Message Requests to limit the number of potential connections that can 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 your phone’s address books to make it easier to ignore unknown numbers. Then send unknown callers to voicemail. If it is important, they will leave a message. On an iPhone, go to Settings → Phone → Silence Unknown Callers. This will send anyone you’ve never communicated with directly to voicemail. On an Android device, open the Phone app, locate the menu button (looks like three dots), tap it, then tap Settings. Most phones will have options for number blocking and caller ID/spam protection there, though they often go by different names. (If you’re using voicemail to screen calls, make sure outgoing is set up and your inbox isn’t full.)

Maximize your privacy: Most devices and apps have privacy settings that you need to turn on. See our Privacy Reset Guide.

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

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

knowledge what new scams are hot will be hot too helps you quickly spot shadowy activity. You can get updates on the latest scams from sites including fraud.org. The FTC does a great job of publishing timely consumer alertsand the AARP Fraud Site it is also full of resources.

Assuming that people or companies are not who they say they are

It is easy to imitate a real person. or organization. Make your first instinct ask you: Are they who they say they are? If you have any questions, go to the next step.

Check everything using a different channel

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

“Verify, validate, verify. If you received a message from Facebook, send the person a text message. Do you have a phone call? Call the bank,” says Caroline Wong, chief strategy officer at cybersecurity firm Cobalt. “Find out a different channel than whatever channel you send the message on.”

Don’t answer, don’t left click, don’t answer the call

Don’t get involved with potential scams, even if you’re curious. That includes not clicking on links from contacts you don’t know. Received a text message 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 tell you a message is fake and Google it if you’re not sure. This includes an email address that doesn’t have the correct domain (such as a message that claims to be from Apple but isn’t from Apple.com), a link that goes somewhere it shouldn’t, or a phone number you’ve never seen . In social networks or messaging applications, click on the profiles to see if they are recently created and look real.

Are you worried about being rude? have a script

If you don’t feel comfortable simply hanging up on a stranger or find it rude to do so, have a rejection 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 the signs that something is a scam

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

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

You are in a panic Criminals want you to believe that there is an emergency. If they can get you to act without slowing down and thinking critically, there is a better chance that they will succeed. Look for signs in yourself, such as a fast heartbeat or sweaty palms.

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

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

If a stranger asks you to pay them (or offers to pay them) in any of the following ways, it’s likely a scam: Peer-to-peer apps like Venmo, Cash App, mobile, wire transfer, prepaid gift cards, cryptocurrency, or cash. Also, don’t share your credit card number 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 are having trouble with a transaction to or from you, investigate. In a popular Facebook Marketplace scam, criminals offer to pay for an app like mobile, say there’s a problem, and then ask for your email address so they can send a fake email and get your information.

They want information: Not all scammers want money; some try to get your address, logins and passwords, or your social security number.

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

Something doesn’t feel right: Your instinct is your best tool to avoid scams. If something feels wrong, ask a family member, call the AARP hotline, or find another way to contact yourself and get in touch to confirm if the proposal is legitimate.

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