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FDIC Consumer News - Spring 1998
|You Can Protect Yourself From Financial
Fraud and Theft
Crooks and con artists have countless ways to rip you off, but you are your best anti-fraud weapon. Heres our guide to some of the best, easiest and most overlooked things you can do to protect yourself from financial scams and thefts.
Weve all heard or read reports that a fraud or theft was stopped or some bad guy was apprehended because of an alert citizen. But even though the dramatic cases make the headlines, millions of average people are quietly helping to prevent or solve financial crimes, every day. You dont need to carry a badge or put your life on the line to make a difference in the fight against credit card fraud, counterfeit checks and other money-related offenses. You simply need to pay a little extra attention and take a little extra care as you go about your daily routine.
FDIC Consumer News in the past has run several warnings about specific types of crimes and how to guard against them. This time, though, we decided to print this special report on how to fend off practically any financial fraud or theft that may come your way.
We dont want to frighten you. If youre lucky, these crimes will never happen to you or someone you know. But we also think that crime prevention takes more than just luck it takes knowledge and a willingness to take action, too. Here are some of the reasons we believe you should take financial crimes seriously:
While laws and industry practices limit dollar losses for crime victims in many cases, not everyone is 100 percent protected, and some end up swallowing the loss if theyre found to have been somehow negligent.
You may spend long, frustrating hours filling out police reports, closing old accounts, opening new ones and otherwise clearing your name from bounced checks, unpaid bills and other problems.
Banks, merchants and other businesses may charge all consumers higher prices for goods and services to compensate for losses from fraud and theft.
So how can you protect yourself? Start by reading our list of some of the best and easiest approaches that, regrettably, too many consumers have either forgotten, dismissed or never even knew about.
1. Protect your incoming and outgoing mail. On any given day, your mail could include checks, credit card applications, loan checks (typically blank checks you receive from your credit card company with offers to write yourself a loan) and other items of interest to thieves and fraud artists.
You can help lick postal theft by taking some simple precautions suggested by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in Washington: Remove your mail from your mailbox as soon as possible after its delivered. If a check, credit card or other valuable mail doesnt arrive as expected or if the envelope appears tampered with, notify the sender and a postal inspector at your local post office. Also, never leave outgoing mail containing checks for utility or credit card bills at your doorway or your curbside mailbox. Instead, deposit it into a blue collection box, hand it to a letter carrier or take it to the local post office. Unfortunately, says Ken Hunter, the Postal Services Chief Inspector, putting up the red flag on the curbside mailbox alerts thieves that there may be something of value to steal.
We add the following thoughts: Consider having your pay and benefit checks directly deposited into your bank account. That way your check wont get lost or stolen in the mail or at home. Also, for checks you write regularly, perhaps for your mortgage or an investment into a mutual fund, think about having the funds automatically deducted and transferred directly by your bank. Not only are electronic transfers safer and quicker than written checks, but problems or mistakes can be more easily tracked and resolved, says Alan Cox, an FDIC consumer affairs specialist in Washington. He explains that when an error in an electronic transfer is brought to a banks attention, its required by law to investigate the matter promptly.
If you want to cut back on mailings of loan or credit card offers, there are several ways to do that (many are described in our winter issue, which is available from the FDICs Public Information Center or our Internet site, both listed at right). Finally, if youre concerned about the security of your mailbox, consider putting a mail slot in your door or renting a P.O. box.
2. Stop thieves from turning garbage bins into gold mines. Fraud artists know how to recycle trash into cash. How? So-called dumpster divers pick through rubbish and find things they can use to counterfeit or order new checks or credit cards. That old saying about one mans trash is another mans treasure is certainly true in this case, says Gene Seitz, a fraud examiner with the FDIC in Washington. So the next time you want to get rid of credit card receipts or applications, old credit cards, canceled checks, monthly statements or loan checks, tear them up into bits before you put them in the trash. You might even want to scatter the pieces into separate trash bins.
For similar reasons, always take your receipts and carbons with you after using plastic at an ATM, gas station, store, restaurant or anywhere else. Take them home and keep them in a safe place, at least long enough to make sure your account statements are correct. Then when it comes time to dispose of them, do it the safe way slice em and dice em first.
3. Be extra careful with the checks, credit cards, debit cards, ATM cards or similar banking items you carry around. Many people think its no big deal to leave their wallet unattended, even just for a few minutes, inside their car, office or gym locker, or at a store, restaurant, phone booth or other public place. Unfortunately, wallets and their contents are easy to lose or have stolen. As weve said in the past, never set down your wallet in public unless your hand is attached to it.
Also, dont carry around more blank checks than you really need, just in case you lose your wallet. Likewise, consider canceling any credit cards you dont really need or use, because theyre still valuable to a thief.
4. Closely protect your Social Security number, bank account numbers and other personal information. If you think a crook needs to steal an actual check or bank card to commit a crime, think again. Just knowing your credit card account number and a little personal information about you (such as your Social Security number, birth date, address or your mothers maiden name) can be enough for a con artist to make or order new cards in your name, or to simply buy goods and services over the phone.
Here are a few ways to keep this information from criminals. First, never give your credit card number, Social Security number or other personal information to anyone over the phone unless you make the call to someone you know and trust. Never divulge this kind of confidential information to a telemarketer who calls your house. Also never give this information to a caller who claims to represent your credit card company, warns Randy Schoultz, a fraud specialist with the FDIC in Memphis. Tell the person youll call back and be sure to use the customer service phone number on your credit card, he says.
Dont have your Social Security number pre-printed on your checks. And dont carry personal identification numbers (PINs) for your ATM card or credit card in your wallet; try to memorize them instead.
5. Thoroughly check out any unsolicited offer before agreeing to anything. Swindlers often pose as legitimate business people, charity workers or law enforcement officers just to convince people to give up cash, checks, credit card numbers and other valuable information. Unfortunately, too many people fall for a friendly voice, an official-looking document and a fantastic-sounding sales pitch thats really part of a scam.
We suggest you walk away or hang up if you get an unsolicited offer that sounds too good to be true youre being pressed to say yes immediately and youre asked to give money or bank account information before you can receive anything in return. These are classic warning signs of a fraud. Before saying yes to any offer, ask for details in writing and research the matter carefully. If a lot of money is involved, you also might want to check out the organization with the Better Business Bureau, the police, or your states Attorney General or consumer protection office.
6. Closely review your credit card bills and bank statements. Open this mail as soon as possible after it arrives to make sure that no one else is using your account and to protect yourself from claims that you were in some way negligent (especially important with checking and savings accounts). Compare the list of transactions with your own records and receipts, and generally search for anything that may be questionable. And if your credit card bill or monthly bank statement doesnt arrive as expected, that could be a sign that someone has stolen this important mail or put in a fake change of address as part of a fraud scheme. Call the issuer immediately.
Its also a good idea to periodically review your credit reports, maybe once a year or so, to make sure someone else hasnt used your name to get a credit card or a loan. For a copy of your credit report from the three major credit bureaus, call these special toll-free numbers: Equifax at (800) 685-1111), Experian at (800) 682-7654), and Trans Union at (800) 888-4213. Under 1996 amendments to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the most you can be charged for your credit report is $8, but youre entitled to a free copy once a year under certain circumstances (including if youve been a fraud victim).
Weve tried to point out some of the best, simplest self-protection techniques that you can use in your daily affairs. Now keep reading to find even more ways. We cant say that if you follow our advice youll never be a victim. We also cant guarantee youll ever make headlines as a crime fighter. But we do think youll make headway in the efforts to make our neighborhoods and our financial services safer and more secure.
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