Keeping Yourself Safe from Digital Scams
May 9 2022
You may have received an email recently from someone pretending to be Father Scott…if you looked closely you may have noticed that it was very close to his real email address. This “spoofing” of someone’s real email is a common tactic used by scammers to engage unwitting victims into handing over private information or money.
Unfortunately, I’ve learned a lot about this subject in the past month – we recently had an older relative scammed out of a significant amount of money. This relative is very computer savvy, which makes it all the more concerning that she was fooled. So I asked Father Scott if it might be okay to share a few tips we’ve learned with fellow St. John’s parishioners that will help keep your data and your bank accounts protected!
- Install anti-virus/anti-malware software on your computer. Programs like Webroot and Bitdefender do a good job keeping viruses and malware (“malicious” software) off your computer. McAfee, Norton, and Trend are similar alternatives.
- Use an Identity Protection Service. These services, like Identity Works from Experian and Lifelock from Norton track your personal information on the internet, so you’ll be notified if anyone ever tries to use your social security number, phone number, driver’s license number etc. anywhere on the web. You can also lock your credit file so no one can open a credit card in your name without you giving explicit permission.
- Consider giving a trusted person access to your financial records, as a backup. Because we were able to log into our relative’s bank account and credit card accounts, we were able to identify the unusual withdrawal pattern that told us there was a problem. It might have gone on much longer if we hadn’t been checking regularly.
- Be suspicious before clicking on links or attachments in emails. These can be malware in disguise – once you click on them, you’ve opened the door to your computer. We believe this is how the attack on our relative started – she probably clicked on a link that enabled the scammers full access to her computer, including all her personal information. If you don’t know the sender of an email that includes a link or attachment – or have been forwarded one by a friend – simply delete the email. I’m paranoid enough that I sometimes pick up the phone and call people I DO know who sent me something unexpected, to say, “Is this email really from you?” before I open it.
- Legitimate companies never need payment in gift cards. A common tactic, after your computer is infected with malware, is to mess up the computer so much that it barely works – at which point you’re directed to call “Apple Support” or “Microsoft Support” or something similar. (In our relative’s case, there was an audible alarm that wouldn’t turn off, and a Helpline number flashing on the screen.) Once you’re in contact with the “support caseworker”, they’ll say they can help get the viruses off your computer and ask you to pay them in gift cards – that is, you are told to drive to Target or CVS etc. and buy large $ gift cards, and then you read the card numbers back to them. At that point, they have your money.
Anytime anyone is asking you to withdraw cash to buy gift cards for payments, or pay them in Bitcoin/cryptocurrency, the alarm bells should be clanging.
- Your phone is not being bugged. Our relative was told by her “support caseworker” that the scammers could hear all her conversations, so she didn’t feel she could tell us what was happening. Unless you are with the CIA, there’s no way they’re bugging your phone, nor the phones of your relatives. If they have personal information about you it’s not because they’re listening- it’s because they are now reading all the files you store on your computer.
- If you get a call from a stranger that a younger relative “is in trouble”, hang up and call someone else in the family to confirm. My friend’s dad almost fell prey to this one recently – someone called and said they were a friend of his grandson’s who was in jail needed bail money…in New Jersey. Of course my friend’s dad wanted to help, and almost transferred money, until he worked out that there was no reason for his California grandson to be in NJ.
- Trust your instincts. If something feels off, don’t wait: hang up and call a trusted family member or friend for a reality check on the situation. You can call me!
The final thing I want to say is that these scammers are sophisticated and very, very clever. My relative was embarrassed at the situation but the more we learned about how they targeted her and led her through the process – for weeks – the easier it was to understand how she fell for it. So never, ever feel ashamed at reaching out and asking someone – “do you think this sounds legit?”
Here’s a good article I found for further reading. I hope this helps!