What to Do When You Suspect a Scam

Within days of filing my taxes this year, I started getting suspicious phone calls. Apparently, the IRS was suing me and I had to pay a "settlement" amount, or I would be hearing from lawyers pursuing a much greater amount of money.

Fortunately for me, my husband works in the financial industry and knows how the IRS works — they always send a letter first. Since I knew from the outset that the call was a scam, it was actually kind of funny to be on the receiving end of one of these calls that I'd heard so much about.

But for many, many people — up to one in 10 in the general population, and one in five in the over-65 demographic — these calls aren't funny at all. They are terrifying, and people will spend whatever they have to in order to keep the supposed IRS off their backs. And this IRS scam isn't the only one!! In fact, there are several common phone scams that take financial advantage of people who simply don't know any better.

Wondering how to spot one of these scams, both in the calls you get and in the lives of those you care about? Here are some ideas.

Government Agencies Won't Call You Out of The Blue

Most government agencies will contact you first by mail, even if they think you owe them quite a bit of money. So if someone calls and claims to be from the IRS, FBI, local law enforcement, jury duty enforcement, or any other government agency, you can be pretty sure that they are scamming you. This is especially true if they are asking you for money, for you Social Security Number, or anything else like that.

If you're unsure as to the legitimacy of the call, tell the scammer that you are driving and cannot pay right now, but you'd like to call back as soon as you've stopped. Get as much information as you can, like the name and the official title of the person calling you, and the name of the department they claim to be representing. Then, when you're off the line, do some research. Find a phone number or email address for the department and call them directly. Explain the call you received and that you aren't sure it was legitimate, and let them help you figure it out.

These calls can be especially harmful to people who feel vulnerable or afraid, like many elderly people, people living alone, etc. If you know or love someone in one of these categories, make sure they know that these calls can be fake. Offer to back them up if they ever need it, and remind them that they have rights, too.

Cold Calls From Charities

Did you ever get a call out of nowhere from a charity, cause, or campaign asking for an immediate donation? These can be among the most confusing calls to receive, because some non-profits use this as a legitimate marketing technique.

If you aren't sure that the call is legit but you're interested in a cause, explain that you are uncomfortable giving out financial information over the phone. Get the exact name of the organization and Google it. See if you can find any reviews of the organization. Then, donate online or call the number provided on the website to make your donation.

Also, don't share personal information, like your Social Security Number, over the phone. It is perfectly acceptable to simply say that you don't give out that data that way. If they pressure you, they either aren't legitimate or they might not be an organization you'd want to donate to anyway.

Computer Support Scams

If anyone ever calls you out of the blue and asks you to install something on your computer, run away. The programs they have you install will mine your personal data and collect things like usernames and passwords, which the scammer can then use to steal your identity and your money.

Instead of following the directions a cold-calling supposed computer tech gives you, you can either tell them that you're not worried about your machine or you can thank them for their information and tell them you'll have someone look at the machine in person (and you can actually do this, if you're concerned).

If You Get Scammed, Act Fast

If you get scammed, take a deep breath. There are still some things you can do to give yourself the best chance of recovery. First, create an identity theft report through the Federal Trade Commission. This might not get you your money back immediately, but it will help them follow up on and catch scammers.

Next, place a fraud alert on your credit report with one of the three credit reporting agencies (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax). This automatically causes all three agencies to tell potential creditors to take extra steps to confirm your identity before opening any sort of line of credit, which can stop scammers in their tracks.

If you think your Social Security number might be compromised, contact Social Security and the Internal Revenue Service. They will help you take steps to ensure your number is not used fraudulently.

Even if you don't get scammed, report potential scam calls to the FTC. This helps them track and stop scammers before they hurt someone else.

Helping Potential Scam Victims You May Know

Maybe you feel confident that you could avoid being scammed, but you're concerned for elderly relatives or other people you know. Start by having a conversation about the types of scams that are out there and the impact they could have. If you are in a place to do so, set up a system for a loved one where you or another close friend or family member can verify the legitimacy of an organization before the vulnerable person donates. Having this in place ahead of time can help stop the scam before it starts.

If you can't have that conversation or you're not sure how well the other person took it, keep your ears open. Many scams play on fear and anxiety, and people who have given into that often talk about it. If someone mentions owing money to the IRS or another government agency, ask some more questions.

Similarly, listen for discussions about donating money, prepaying funeral expenses, and more. Even if your loved one has already been scammed, keeping your ears open can help you nip the problem in the bud before it destroys their financial future.

If you have a loved one who has been scammed in the past, it might behoove you to set up some sort of joint access to their bank and credit card accounts. That way, you can monitor any money movement and spot transactions that might be fraudulent.

You can also teach yourself and your loved ones to become scam resistant. Don't answer calls from numbers you don't recognize (if they have something to say, they can leave a message!). Google the numbers before you call them back, as there are websites that will report on whether or not the number belongs to a fraudster. Look up the numbers for the folks who call you independently, so you can check on the legitimacy of the call before you disclose any information.

Maybe most importantly, learn to control your own feelings. Dealing with scammers is difficult because they try to manipulate emotions. Staying calm is usually more than half the battle, rather than giving in to fear, anxiety, a desire to help, and more. Train yourself to do this and help the potentially vulnerable people in your life to do the same, and you will be nearly scam resistant.

Have you or a loved one been scammed? What was the scam and how did you recover?

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