Scammers go into overdrive during the holiday season, using all sorts of tactics like fake gift cards, charities, deals and more to get you to give them your money or information. In fact, according to AARP, a whopping 76 percent of consumers experienced a scam in one form or another last holiday season. Thankfully, identity theft protection expert Carrie Kerskie is on your side. When it comes to identity theft, fraud and cyber threats, she’s seen it all — and then some.
Based in Naples, Florida, Kerskie is president of leading identity theft restoration and consulting company Kerskie Group, as well as author of the book Your Public Identity: Because Nothing is Private Anymore and the self-help guide Protect Your Identity. She is also the host of a new podcast, “Privacy Mentor,” which is aimed at further informing consumers on how to keep themselves — and their identity — safe from scammers.
Here, we asked Kerskie for her top tips on how to identify scammers as well as her thoughts on some of the tools you can use to keep yourself and loved ones safe, especially during the holidays.
What are some general steps all of us can take to be vigilant against scammers and other threats?
- Prioritize Privacy: If it’s easy for you, it’s easy for a criminal. Privacy means having strong and unique passwords with a minimum of 12 characters, and for pins using random numbers and taking advantage of extra security. Enabling multi-factor authentication on your various apps and accounts will also protect yourself from potential threats.
- Use Available Resources: Take advantage of the free anti-fraud safeguards offered by your mobile carrier. In the case of T-Mobile's Scam Shield, services include enhanced caller ID, scam ID and blocking, which flags suspicious calls and gives customers the option of blocking those numbers.
- Validate or Eliminate: Whatever potential threat you come across via email, text message, letter or even a phone call, try to validate the information. If you cannot confirm the information is true or confirm a sender’s validity, throw it away, block the phone number or email address and report it as spam or junk mail.
What are some of the main signs that a call is from a scammer?
Every single phone scam we’ve seen has the same formula:
- First, there’s a sense of urgency. They’ll insist, “You have to do this right now. You can’t hang up, you can’t call us back. It has to be done immediately right this minute!”
- Second, there is a consequence. “If you don’t do this right now, you’re going to go to jail. If you don’t do this right now, you’re never going to see your loved ones again. If you don’t do this right now, we’re going to cancel your Social Security number. If you don’t do this right now, were going to come and arrest you.” That sense of urgency and a dire consequence, even though things don’t work that way. If it’s really your bank or the IRS or the Social Security Administration, they’re going to contact you by regular mail. They’re going to contact you by email. It’s going to be more than just one phone call.
- Third, they demand something specific — which most of the time is a form of payment. If you hear the words “gift card, Western Union or wire transfer,” hang up. It’s just that simple. Any organization, especially federal agencies, don’t take gift cards as payment. If anybody says, “go to the store and buy me gift cards,” hang up the phone. Don’t engage. Don’t have “fun” with them. The more you engage on the phone, they’re going to flag you as someone who’s a talker, so they’re going to come back with a different scam or they’re going to have someone else who’s a little bit more skilled in closing the deal call you back. Just don’t even engage at all, just hang up the phone.
- Just remember that not all scam calls have these three red flags. If the caller offers to check your computer, or device, or says your device is infected, hang up. These types of scams install remote access software, giving the scammer control over your device from anywhere in the world at any time. They can also access everything on your computer, including your browsing history, bookmarks, and passwords stored in your web browser.
What about scammers using text messages?
We’re seeing so many smishing texts — the text equivalent of the now age-old phishing email. I know for myself, not long ago I would get maybe one every six months. I’m getting two a day now.
There is a new tactic where scammers just randomly text people and see who they can engage in conversation, hoping they’re going to get a lonely person on the phone. You might get a text message, and the person’s like, “Oh, I’m sorry, I must have the wrong number” — and then they start a conversation. They befriend you and then the next thing you know, they’re asking for personal information or money.
For text messages, do not click on any links and do not reply. Don't even type the word S-T-O-P. We used to tell people to type that, and that would supposedly stop the messages, definitely for legitimate companies. When you do it to a scammer, you’re telling them there’s a live person at the end of this number who responds to text messages. So, don’t even do that.
By the way, customers can forward a suspicious text message to 7726, and it helps screen out the smishing messages.
What other tools are available for people to help keep themselves safe from scammers?
Like I mentioned earlier, Scam ID and Scam Block are great protections. I also love the T-Mobile PROXY number that allows you to have a second number. I think that is brilliant. I think that is huge. Phone numbers now are becoming equivalent to your social security number, except everywhere you go now, they ask you for it.
By being able to put that second number in there, you’re protecting your core number which you would only give to close family, friends, doctors’ offices — or ascribe to your financial accounts, because the banks use that phone number as an ID verifier.
Lastly, criminals can try to access your information in settings like coffee shops or libraries using public Wi-Fi. A laptop or smartphone using public Wi-Fi can easily fall victim to scams. So, use your mobile hotspot on your phone or buy a separate hotspot device and use that because it’s more of a secured connection. I highly recommend that you use the data on your mobile phone plan and turn your phone into your own wireless network instead of using anything out in public.