As the holiday season approaches, you might be feeling more generous than usual. But giving out money or your personal information to the wrong recipient might leave you feeling blue this Christmas—and could potentially harm you financially in the long-run.
Understanding common fraud and scams that criminals use to steal your money or identity can help prevent you from falling for their tactics. Later on we’ll discuss what to do in case you have fallen victim to any of these schemes, but first here is the difference between a scam and fraud.
Fraud vs. scams
Fraud: A fraudulent activity or charge generally refers to any action taken within your bank account or with your personally identifiable information (PII) that you did not authorize.
An example of a fraudulent charge is someone making a purchase using your debit card number without your knowledge. An example of fraudulent activity is when someone uses your personal information to open a new bank account or credit card in your name.
Scams: A scam is when someone convinces you to willingly share your personally identifiable information or authorize a transaction under false pretenses.
An example of a scam could be someone calling you pretending to be an IRS employee asking for your personal information or money. The willing exchange of information or payment is what makes this a scam tactic as opposed to a fraudulent activity.
The difference: In situations of fraud, the victim did not authorize the transaction or exchange of information and is often unaware of the incident until after it occurred. In situations of scams, the victim willingly authorized a transaction or shared personal information under false pretenses.
Common fraud and scam tactics
There are several common types of frauds and scams that bad actors use to gain your trust and persuade you to fall for their schemes. It’s important to be aware of common red flags that indicate a scam or fraud situation so you can protect yourself from losing money or giving out your personal information to the wrong person.
Unfortunately, many scammers and fraudsters saw the pandemic as an opportunity to deceive vulnerable citizens. One type of Covid-19 scams are fake charities, which are created by fraudsters to take advantage of other people’s generosity during disasters.
“There’s a number of websites you can go to find out how a charity is rated,” says David Harper, vice president of fraud for Hanscom Federal Credit Union. For instance, you can go to Charity Navigator and look up an organization to see whether it is indeed a charitable organization and how good the charity is at getting the donations to the intended recipient.
How to protect yourself: Especially following a catastrophe, be wary of anyone asking for your personal information, such as your credit card or Social Security number, and money. Take extra precaution in vetting charities that were suddenly created in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
If you’re the victim of a Covid-19 scam, contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud. You can also submit a complaint to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) if the scam was conducted online through email, social media, or other websites.
Bank scams occur when someone poses as a bank employee and contacts you asking for personal information or a payment. Scammers may also request that you make a transaction from your own bank account, such as cashing a check or making a withdrawal.
A common banking scam is when a scammer posts a fake job posting online, usually targeting college students or young adults. The scammer will mail a fake check with instructions to pay a “third party” (who is also a fraudster) a portion of the funds to complete the job. Once the bank realizes the check is fraudulent, the funds from the check are removed from your account and you have paid the fraudster from your own money.
Phishing is another common banking scam tactic used to gain your bank account and debit card information. In this case, a scammer might email you pretending to be a bank employee who needs to verify your information on your account. A good rule of thumb in picking out a phishing scam is that your bank should never email you asking for your personal information.
How to protect yourself: It’s important to be cautious when sharing your personal information and making transactions against your bank account. If someone asks you to cash a check for them, consider verifying the check using the contact information found on the bank’s website before conducting any transactions.
If you receive a bogus check, report it to the FTC. If someone calls you claiming to be a bank employee, you can alert your bank using the contact information provided on their official website for additional steps on how to protect yourself and your bank account.
Investment scams involve a bad actor attempting to trick you into investing money, usually offering a promise of a high return with little to no investment risk. The investment itself can be fake, or the scammer may provide false information about a real investment. These scams may involve a high sense of urgency from an aggressive or pushy salesperson.
For instance, a high-yield investment program scam usually includes claims that you are guaranteed to make a large profit off of the money you invest. In reality, the investments are not real, or they are real but have little to no value.
How to protect yourself: If someone is attempting to sell you an investment, you should always request the proper paperwork that informs you of the investment details—such as a prospectus if they are selling stocks or mutual funds. You can also go online to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) search tool to research if the investment is legitimate and review available prospectuses.
If you believe you are a victim of an investment scam, you can file a complaint with the SEC online or via mail using the investor complaint form.
Scammers create fake lotteries and contests in an attempt to gain your personal information or money. In these scams, you may be told you have won the lottery but need to pay a small fee before you are entitled to the prize.
For instance, you may receive an email that states, “Congratulations, you are the winner of a brand new iPhone 14!” But once you click on the email, you are asked to make a small payment in order to receive your phone. You should never make a payment in exchange for a prize, especially for a contest you didn’t sign up for, or else you risk losing your money.
How to protect yourself: If you notice a contest is asking you to pay or give out your information to get your prize or increase your chances of winning, it is a good sign that the contest is a scam.
Real contests will never ask you to make a purchase to qualify for entry. If you receive a phone call from a contest promoter, they are required by law to inform you that it is free to enter, and will give you steps on how to redeem your prize if you win.
Telephone scams come in a variety of forms, but essentially boil down to someone calling you in an attempt to learn your personal information or steal money from you.
For instance, you may receive a call from a real person pretending to be a salesperson. They may be trying to persuade you into purchasing an item that does not exist, with the hopes of acquiring your bank account or debit card information.
How to protect yourself: A good rule of thumb is to decline phone calls from unknown numbers or calls you are not expecting, says Harper. This helps you weed out the scam calls from those of people you truly know. If you are suspicious of a call after you answered it, hang up immediately.
You can register your phone number online with the National Do Not Call Registry to cut down on unnecessary telemarketing calls. If you continue to receive suspicious calls or if the calls come from someone using a fake caller ID, you can report the scam to the FTC.
Census fraud occurs when a fraudster attempts to gain your personally identifiable information by posing as a Census Bureau worker. The fraudster may call you, email you, or send you a letter in the mail that appears legitimate, but is not. A fraudster may also visit you in-person at your home.
How to protect yourself. You should never share your personally identifiable information with anyone claiming to be a Census Bureau employee, and never respond to email requests to participate in a survey.
How to report scams and fraud
If you realize you are a victim of fraud or a scam, it’s important to act quickly to protect yourself from further financial loss.
Contact your financial institution to inform them of the fraudulent charge or scam.
Depending on the type of transaction, your financial institution may be able to reverse the transaction and refund your money. If the payment was sent using Zelle or another payment platform, the funds may not be refundable. It’s important to note that exchanges of cryptocurrency are generally not reversible—you may only be able to get a refund if the scammer returns the funds back to you.
Report identity theft online through the FTC.
If you gave a scammer your personal information, you can go online to IdentityTheft.gov to determine what steps you should take depending on your unique situation. If the scammer has access to your online accounts using your bank or social media login information, change your username and password as quickly as possible. Make sure to update any other websites that use the same password to secure your accounts.
Scan your devices for malware.
Scammers may be able to control your device remotely using software programs. Update your antivirus and firewall programs and scan on your device for potential issues. If you no longer have access to your device, your service provider may be able to help you regain control. Since the hacker may have accessed the data on your device, remember to review your recent financial transactions for any fraudulent charges.
Personally identifiable information that scammers often ask for include your Social Security number, bank account and debit/credit card numbers, date of birth, and address—which you should never give out. “Any reputable government agency or financial institution is not going to ask for this information over the phone, so that should be a red flag,” says Harper.
Another red flag to look out for is a sense of urgency. Oftentimes a scammer will want you to provide personal information quickly or to send out a payment before a deadline. “If something feels off to you, listen to your gut,” says Harper.