Our fascination with fraud seemingly never ends. Eight years after Bernie Madoff confessed to the biggest investment fraud of all time, a single utterance from the Ponzi-meister in prison can still grab headlines. Financial fraud is a staple of prime-time TV, including CNBC's "American Greed" and the new Bravo series "Imposters," about a serial con woman and her victims' quest to track her down.
What is it about the financial ruin of others that keeps us glued to our screens?
It could be because the stories make us feel smart. We could not possibly be taken the way those poor Madoff saps were, right? We would see that scam artist coming a mile away.
That may be the case. But the moment you truly start to believe that, the con artist has scored his first victory. It means you are complacent. Remember, "con" is short for confidence. Once a crook has yours, he has an easy path to your wallet.
With that in mind, here is a refresher on the most common scams, and how to protect yourself.
Your most valuable asset can be stolen without a gun. The market for stolen identities is brisk, and no wonder. With even a few pieces of personal information, a crook can rake in big money at your expense.
According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, here is what identity thieves are most after these days:
- Social Security numbers. With those nine digits, a crook can collect a tax refund in your name (and make it impossible for you to collect yours), get a job and obtain credit — while ruining yours. Don't give out your Social Security number unless you absolutely have to. Don't carry your Social Security card with you, and never put your number in email.
- Bank account or credit card numbers. At the risk of stating the obvious, if a crook has these, he has access to everything. Be careful about online forms that ask for this information. Never supply the numbers in communication you did not originate. And check your statements often to monitor for fraud.
- Driver's license numbers. Increasingly used as an alternative form of identification, your driver's license can allow criminals to apply for credit, board a flight and much more. Make sure you know where your license is at all times. Guard the number just as you would your financial account numbers.
- Insurance policy numbers. Both medical and auto insurance numbers are in demand, the center says. A scammer can file claims in your name, potentially blocking you from your coverage when you truly need it.
- Date of birth. The more information a crook has about you, the easier it is to pretend he is you.
- State or employee identification number. See all of the above.
A clever crook can turn your phone into a weapon—against you. In one of the latest twists, the scammer asks if you can hear him, and you instinctively answer "yes." Now he has a recording of you saying "yes" that he can use to activate voice recognition programs to purchase products or services in your name.
To head off this and other phone scams, never answer a call from a number you do not recognize. Let it go to voicemail. If the caller is legit, he or she will leave a message.
One way to head off unwanted calls is to register your phone on the Federal Trade Commission's National Do Not Call Registry. You can register landlines as well as mobile phones. The FTC says the registry contains more than 221 million numbers, and telemarketers are not supposed to call them.
Of course, many crooked callers ignore the registry. If you just can't resist picking up a ringing phone even if you don't recognize the number, beware of callers asking for personal information such as credit card information. Be careful of unsolicited calls from charities seeking donations. It could be a scammer. Send your donations by mail instead.
Beware of a caller who claims to be from the IRS and demands payment. It is a growing scam. The agency almost always initiates contact by regular mail, not e-mail or phone.
In the "grandparent scam," a caller poses as your grandchild or another relative. They claim to be in trouble and say they need money right away. In fact, the caller got your name and the name of your relative from a social network post and is simply trying to steal your money. The lessons: Don't send money without verifying the caller's identity, no matter how desperate he or she may sound. And be careful of what you post on social networks.
With stock markets trading near record highs, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is warning investors to be on guard. The agency has issued a list of investment tips for 2017. They include:
- Always check the background of an investment professional. Sure, the person you are thinking of working with seems trustworthy, but you still need to check them out. The SEC offers a free tool at its special website for individual investors.
- Beware of promises of high returns. Think you could have spotted Madoff? Here's your chance. An investment advisor promising a big return is a dead giveaway. Remember, high returns mean high risk. That's how investing works. The SEC says ignore the pitches, or better yet, report them.
- Be alert to affinity fraud. That's where an investment professional targets you because you belong to the same church, ethnic community or something else you have in common. No matter how well you think you know your prospective advisor, check him out.
- Be careful when using social media as an investment tool. We get a lot of our information from social media these days, and investment advice is no exception. Social networks can be useful sources of investment information, but they can also present opportunities to lure fraudsters into scams. Be careful.
We live our lives online. Heck, it's where you are reading this article! But the internet can be a hazardous place. The FBI lists some of the most common types of internet fraud.
- Email account compromise, or EAC. This is where an email that looks to be from a financial institution tries to get you to transfer money or engage in some type of transaction. Some of these emails can be very sophisticated and very convincing. Beware of any email communication from your bank, no matter how authentic it may look. When in doubt, call the bank to verify it.
- Phishing/Spoofing. An official-looking email asks for your personal information — your address, your Social Security number, your financial accounts. Legitimate organizations rarely collect information this way. Beware of any confidential communication that you did not initiate.
- Malware/Ransomware. A crook can turn your life upside down with a simple email. You click on a link or open an attachment in the message, and your computer is infected with software that allows the perpetrator to steal your information, hack your email or do serious damage to your system. Ransomware is a type of malware that can lock your computer until you agree to pay a fee. And then the crook has your credit card number. Don't click on links or open email attachments unless you are absolutely sure where the message came from.
The common thread in all of these scams: They only work when you let your guard down. Don't do it. Watch the frauds unfold on TV instead.