NBC 5 Responds

Feds Say Scams Surged in Pandemic; Here's How Experts Protect Themselves

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If it feels like you’re inundated with scam calls, texts and emails lately, you’re not alone. The Federal Trade Commission says fraud reports surged during the pandemic.

Nationally, the FTC counted more than 2.2 million reports of fraud with people telling the FTC they lost nearly $3.3 billion in 2020.

In Texas, the FTC says people reported losing $203.1 million to fraud in 2020 – nearly double the $102 million in losses Texans reported in 2019.

It seems every time you hear about a new scam warning and take steps to protect yourself, there’s another scam taking its place. So, how does a consumer keep up?

Read on for what local experts say about navigating increasingly elaborate scams.

Scams have evolved

NBC 5 Responds hears from consumers all over North Texas who report scams that have become increasingly elaborate. They’re not always easy to spot.

“We used to tell people to watch out for the bad grammar, the bad spelling, shoddy looking web design,” said Jason Moon – an attorney with the FTC office in Dallas.

Moon explains cybercriminals can easily build official-looking web pages and spoof real companies and people to make their scheme more convincing.

“They're able to use very official-looking logos. They can splice in audio, video of people to try to make this look like a real thing,” Moon explained.

Criminals also follow the headlines to promise solutions to real problems like delayed tax refunds or scarce COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

“In terms of keeping up, this year has been incredibly bad,” said George Finney – chief security officer at Southern Methodist University. “What cybercriminals do is prey upon that fear and uncertainty that the pandemic has brought because they know that people are more vulnerable when they're afraid.”

Finney points to another issue: criminals can use automation to gather information about you from your online presence. We’ve seen reports of scammers spoofing a victim’s local PTA or even their boss to tailor their tricks to you.

“Hackers are developing tools that automate their processes. Harvesting information on social media, I think is an easy technique for them now. Maybe a few years ago, it was more manual,” said Finney.

Cybersecurity isn’t just about technology, it’s about people

Finney says criminals use psychological tricks to get people to do what they want – creating a false sense of urgency or appealing to someone’s fear of authority or maybe even exploiting someone’s empathy with a sad story.

He says consumers can fight back.

“My technique is really about recognizing your own gut feeling. I call the technique slow down and frown,” said Finney.

Finney wrote about the technique in his book, “Well Aware: Master the Nine Cybersecurity Habits to Protect Your Future.”

“If you've heard the advice that if you smile for 30 seconds, you kind of trick your brain into becoming happy, you release endorphins,” said Finney. “The same research also studied the effects of frowning and frowning actually makes you more vigilant.”

For example, instead of clicking on a link in an urgently worded text message about resetting your bank password, take a moment to call the number on the back of your debit card to confirm your bank is really trying to reach you.

“Instead of thinking about cybersecurity as something that's hard, that we will never understand and can't do, make it a habit and it just feels natural,” said Finney.

Easy habits you can adopt to protect yourself

Finney says your habits should include changing your passwords and ensuring they’re different for each account.

Hackers may post email address lists and passwords that go with them when they compromise a company. If you reuse a password, you’ve given away access to other accounts too.

“You shouldn't reuse passwords, but I would go a step further and don't reuse email addresses,” said Finney.

Finney says most people should maintain several email addresses in order to keep public, shopping, social media and financial accounts separate.

“If you have a handful of email accounts, maybe you give one or two of them out to be used on social media or to give to a mailing list,” explained Finney. “The more important those email addresses are, like your financial email address, I would never give that to a social media company.”

When it comes to the security questions you use to recover your username or password, Finney says make a habit of picking a lie you’ll remember.

“What is your favorite color? Say something that's not a color. Say it's the dodo bird or it's the mustang, you know, something that's not easy to guess,” said Finney.

Recognize what scammers want

“We're definitely in a new era, but I don’t want consumers to think that they can no longer defend themselves,” said Moon. “There's still a lot you can do by applying common sense. You have to be more skeptical now and you have to dig deeper.”

No matter the scheme, recognize the stranger wants something from you: usually money.

“We’ve seen examples of scams with multiple layers. You're contacted with an email that sends you to a spam website and then they send you to a customer service number and you call and that person's a scammer,” said Moon. “By the time you get to the end of all this, you've interacted with a lot of different people. But, at every stage of the game, you can still apply the tools that we would normally recommend. One of the huge ones is the payment method.”

Moon said that’s a tool the consumer can use to hit pause and get outside the scam to confirm there’s a problem.

“If you're going to research it, don't go to the website they send you to. Don't call the number that they send you to. If you're getting a contact from your bank, don't contact that number. Try to independently figure out what the real number is and contact your bank that way,” Moon explained.

Close calls

Getting outside the scam is exactly what the Smyers family of Dallas did earlier this year.

Darryl Smyers said his adult son received a call from someone who claimed to work for the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department. The person on the phone said Smyers’ son had to pay a fee for missing a jury summons.

Smyers said the call was convincing enough to make the family believe there may have been a mix-up.

“He gave me the number and I called the number,” said Smyers who recalled the voice message sounded professional and legitimate.

Smyers’ son refused to pay anyone over the phone and Smyers’ 21-year-old daughter stepped in to help.

“She was just off from school for spring break and she said: ‘Wait a minute,’” recalled Smyers. “She went and looked up the real number for the sheriff's office and called them and they said they have just been inundated,” recalled Smyers.

They confirmed the call was a scam. A warning remains on the department’s website.

“You can be really wise, like my son is with his money, with his Social Security card numbers, his banking numbers, and you can still be a target,” said Smyers.

If you come across a scam, the FTC wants you to report it here. The FTC says it wants to hear about scams even if you didn’t lose any money.

If you’ve lost money in a scam, here are some steps you can take. The FTC says it’s important to act fast.

NBC 5 Responds is committed to researching your concerns and recovering your money. Our goal is to get you answers and, if possible, solutions and a resolution. Call us at 844-5RESPND (844-573-7763) or fill out our customer complaint form.

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