How Identity Thieves Are Exploiting Your Trust

Con artists are finding new and unexpected ways to take your money and personal information. Here's what to do about it.

A woman stares at her credit card and looks worried.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Con artists are disguising themselves as well-known brands to steal your money and personal information. Want to know what to do about it? Kiplinger spoke with Doug Shadel, managing director for Fraud Prevention Strategies, LLC, a Seattle-based consulting firm. He served as strategy director for AARP’s Fraud Watch Network for nearly 20 years.

You’ve been on the front line of fighting fraud for more than 30 years. What has changed in that time? Have we become any better at protecting consumers? There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that over that 30-year period, fraud has gotten precipitously worse. It’s the new crime of the century. The good news is that there are a lot of people focusing on fraud prevention. As recently as 10 years ago, it was hard to get law enforcement interested. Now, stopping hackers, phishing and other scams is all anybody is talking about, and a lot of people are paying attention. 

One of the most recent trends is imitating trusted brands, such as banks and major retailers, to trick consumers into giving up personal information. Why is that effective? I’ve interviewed more than two dozen con artists about their strategies, and they all say the same thing: Gain the victim’s trust, get them “under the ether” and create urgency. Getting them under the ether — a slang term all the con artists use — means getting people into such a heightened emotional state that they’re no longer thinking rationally. It used to be that the number-one tactic was promising wealth. Now, the vast majority use the fear of loss — they’ll try to convince you that somebody hacked into your bank account or got your Social Security number, for example. Whether they’re saying something too good to be true or too bad to be true, either will get you into the ether state. If you get a text message or see a social media post that causes you to become anxious or nervous, that’s a red flag.

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Who is most vulnerable to fraud? With some scams, age matters. For older people, it’s tech-support scams, because they’re uncertain about how to use their computers. But I spent 20 years looking for a magic demographic description that makes people vulnerable, and I couldn’t find it. The closest we could come was people who had experienced stressful life events. The really skilled con artists spend the first conversations looking for the victim’s Achilles’ heel — the loss of a child, for example — to ratchet up the ether. 

Con artists often use social media to scam people. How can we protect ourselves, short of leaving social media altogether? On Facebook, make sure you’ve adjusted your privacy settings so that only close friends and relatives can see what you’re posting. We’ve surveyed people about whether they’ve changed the privacy settings on their Facebook account, and 40% say, “What’s a privacy setting?” Lots of people belong to Facebook groups, and you trust people in the group because they’re your peers. That leads to what’s known as affinity fraud. Anytime somebody reaches out to you out of the blue, whether it’s from your Facebook knitting group or your bank, it’s a red flag. 

What are the most-effective ways to shield yourself from fraud outside of social media? If you use a peer-to-peer payment app, never send money to someone you don’t know. Update antivirus software on your devices, freeze your credit, and use call-blocking tools to prevent scammers from contacting you by phone. As artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated, you need to reduce the likelihood you’ll be targeted, because AI makes it increasingly difficult to detect who is a fraudster and who isn’t. AI can make somebody in the Philippines sound like a sheriff in Texas. If they can’t reach you, you don’t have to worry about that.

Note: This item first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine, a monthly, trustworthy source of advice and guidance. Subscribe to help you make more money and keep more of the money you make here.

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Sandra Block
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.