Take these tips with you to become a smarter consumer and avoid fraud:
Know who you’re dealing with. In any transaction you conduct, make sure to check with your state or local consumer protection agency and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) to see if the seller, charity, company, or organization is credible. Be especially wary if the entity is unfamiliar to you. Always call the number found on a website’s contact information to make sure the number legitimately belongs to the entity you are dealing with.
Pay the safest way. Credit cards are the safest way to pay for online purchases because you can dispute the charges if you never get the goods or services or if the offer was misrepresented. Federal law limits your liability to $50 if someone makes unauthorized charges to your account, and most credit card issuers will remove them completely if you report the problem promptly.
Guard your personal information. Crooks pretending to be from companies you do business with may call or send an email, claiming they need to verify your personal information. Don’t provide your credit card or bank account number unless you are actually paying for something and know who you are sending payment to. Your social security number should not be necessary unless you are applying for credit. Be especially suspicious if someone claiming to be from a company with whom you have an account asks for information that the business already has.
Stay safe online. Don’t send sensitive information such as credit card numbers by email because it’s not secure. Look for clues about security on Web sites. At the point where you are asked to provide your financial or other sensitive information, the letters at the beginning of the address bar at the top of the screen should change from “http” to “https” or “shttp.” Your browser may also show that the information is being encrypted, or scrambled, so no one who might intercept it can read it. But while your information may be safe in transmission, that’s no guarantee that the company will store it securely. See what Web sites say about how your information is safeguarded in storage.
Be cautious about unsolicited emails. They are often fraudulent. If you are familiar with the company or charity that sent you the email and you don’t want to receive further messages, send a reply asking to be removed from the email list. However, responding to unknown senders may simply verify that yours is a working email address and result in even more unwanted messages from strangers. The best approach may simply be to delete the email.
Resist pressure. Legitimate companies and charities will be happy to give you time to make a decision. It’s probably a scam if they demand that you act immediately or won’t take “No” for an answer. Some scammers may also demand you pay off a loan immediately or damaging consequences may occur, always take time to look into who is requesting the money before you pay up.
Don’t believe promises of easy money. If someone claims that you can earn money with little or no work, get a loan or credit card even if you have bad credit, or make money on an investment with little or no risk, it’s probably a scam. Oftentimes, offers that seem too good to be true, actually are too good to be true.
Fully understand the offer. A legitimate seller will give you all the details about the products or services, the total price, the delivery time, the refund and cancellation policies, and the terms of any warranty. Contact the seller if any of these details are missing, if they are unable to provide the details, it may be a sign that it’s a scam.
Get off credit marketing lists. Credit bureaus compile marketing lists for pre-approved offers of credit. These mailings are a goldmine for identity thieves, who may steal them and apply for credit in your name. Get off these mailing lists by calling 888-567-8688 (your social security number will be required to verify your identity). Removing yourself from these lists does not hurt your chances of applying for or getting credit.
Check your credit reports regularly. If you find accounts that don’t belong to you or other incorrect information, follow the instructions for disputing those items. You can ask for free copies of your credit reports in certain situations. If you were denied credit because of information in a credit report, you can ask the credit bureau that the report came from for a free copy of your file. And if you are the victim of identity theft, you can ask all three of the major credit bureaus for free copies of your reports. Contact the credit bureaus at: Equifax, 800-685-111; Experian, 800-311-4769; TransUnion, 800-888-4213.
Everyone can request free copies of their credit reports once a year. In addition to the rights described above, a new federal law entitles all consumers to ask each of the three major credit bureaus for free copies of their reports once in every 12-month period. Go to www.ftc.gov/credit or call 877-382-4357 for more details and to see when you can make your requests. You don’t have to ask all three credit bureaus for your reports at the same time; you can stagger your requests if you prefer. Do not contact the credit bureaus directly for these free annual reports. They are only available by calling 877-322-8228 or going to www.annualcreditreport.com. You can make your requests by phone or online, or download a form to mail your requests.
Be cautious about offers for credit monitoring services. Why pay extra for them when you can get your credit reports for free or very cheap? Read the description of the services carefully. Unless you’re a victim of serious and ongoing identity theft, buying a service that alerts you to certain activities in your credit files probably isn’t worthwhile, especially if it costs hundreds of dollars a year. You can purchase copies of your credit reports anytime for about $9 through the bureaus’ Web sites or by phone: Equifax, 800-685-111; Experian, 800-311-4769; TransUnion, 800-888-4213.