Elliott Greenblott | Fraud watch: Some habits and actions enable fraud

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With many scams today involving phone calls or the internet, we often forget to consider how our own everyday behavior opens us up to becoming victims of fraud. Today's self-defense tips come from recent news headlines from around the country reflecting how criminals often rely on our own predictable behaviors and reactions.

The first example involves the theft of a handbag containing the usual items — wallet, credit card, drivers license, cell phone. Several minutes after discovering the loss, the victim called her husband, only to find out that he had just responded to her text message requesting the bank personal identification number. On checking with the bank, they discovered that the criminal used her bank debit card and PIN to make several withdrawals from their account. While we will never be certain of the way the theft occurred, law enforcement believes that the criminal used the contact list on the cell phone to text the woman's husband for the ATM PIN.

Can this prevented? Hard to say, but there are some basic safety steps that can be applied. 1: Avoid use of names or words that provide immediate identity, such as husband, wife, son or daughter, on a cell phone contact list. You already know the relationship so don't provide confirmation for others (this same tip applies to all digital contact lists or address books). 2: When a text message requests any sensitive or personal information, verify or confirm the request before responding. (While this step may delay a response, it will ensure the security of the information). 3: When texted by friends or family to meet somewhere, confirm that the message came from them before going there.

The second example is commonly called the Grocery Cart Scam. The scammer steals a wallet from the purse left unattended in the child seat of a shopping cart. At some point later in the day, the victim receives a call from "store security" reporting that the purse was recovered, minus any cash that may have been in it. She is asked to return to the store immediately in order to retrieve her wallet and file a report. Of course, when arriving at the store, she discovers that there was no call from security and on returning home discovers that her home has been burglarized. The criminal lured her away with the fake phone call and used the opportunity to ransack the home. In this situation, the victim's best action would have been to call the store to verify that her wallet was recovered. As with the first example, personal habits and actions by the victim worked to the advantage of the scammer.

The final example of how we assist fraud criminals through personal behavior is seen in the ways we dispose of personal information. We amass a large quantity of paper data; credit card, bank, brokerage statements, medical bills and benefits reports regularly swamp us. While best practice recommends review of these items for accuracy, little is said concerning what to do with the information after it has been verified. For some, the paperwork is simply saved, in many cases, for years, while for many others, the documents are dumped into paper recycling bins or discarded in the trash. While the usefulness for us may have passed, it has only begun for identity thieves and criminals. Discarded documents contain account numbers, purchasing behaviors, and other personally identifiable information, sometimes including Social Security numbers — the essentials for committing identity theft.

Best practice in dealing with these items is to shred them prior to discarding. While a cross-cut or micro shredder may cost more that you are willing to pay, look to other alternatives. A very pricey micro shredder shared by neighbors or family members provides an inexpensive approach to security. Also, check with your bank or credit union and ask if they can allow you to "piggyback" on the shredding service they utilize on a regular basis. Additionally, some office supply stores and copy centers provide commercial shredding services. Don't allow your approach to discarding information be the vehicle for enabling your losses.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator serving as the Vermont AARP Fraud Watch Network coordinator and can be contacted at egreenblott@aarp.org.

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