It’s tricky keeping money safe these days. Our debit card was charged more than $1,000 last Christmas at a Sam’s Club, where we don’t have a membership, and my card was still in my wallet. I’ve ignored numerous emails congratulating me on an inheritance I didn’t get. Most recently, an Instagram message from a dear friend asked if I’d taken advantage of a new fund that gives away money. Her account had been hacked and was sending out messages that almost seemed genuine.
The occasional thief may steal money the traditional way by taking a bag or wallet. But it’s the money we can’t see that’s in constant danger of being stolen by cyber thieves. New ways to unwittingly separate us from our money are always being developed.
Here are four ways to be vigilant about keeping your money safe:
(1) Protect your mobile phone.
Our personal and financial information may be stolen by even the most unsophisticated criminals. Over the past three months, three to four reports a week are made to Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department about crimes with a false pretense, according to Sgt. Seth Greene with the Financial Crimes Unit of the CMPD.
How it happens: A person appears to be in distress—his car has broken down, he’s lost his phone or it’s run out of battery, or he can’t find the friend he’s meeting. He asks to use your phone to contact someone. When you give it to him, he walks a few feet away and accesses your Zell, Venmo or Cash app. Once he opens it, he transfers money to a fictitious account. You don’t realize anything is wrong until you view your bank account or get an email confirmation from the app.
How to protect yourself: Greene doesn’t recommend loaning out your phone to strangers. If you want to help someone out, make the call or send the text yourself. He suggests taking advantage of the security features each app has available. Typically, access to these apps can require a four-digit code or fingerprint to open.
(2) Watch for unusual communication.
Ever get a strange message or email from what looks like an official entity like the IRS or another government agency? Imposters contact you, pretending to be part of an organization or company, and ask for personal information, gift cards or cash.
How it happens: Phishing is one type of social engineering that is commonly used to gather personal information, said David Cooper, vice president of information systems at Charlotte Metro Credit Union. An email is sent out, pretending to be from a reputable company to fool individuals into revealing data such as usernames, passwords and credit card numbers.
How to protect yourself: Be wary of calls, emails and messages asking for money, Cooper warned. If you do receive unexpected contact from someone requesting information or money, ask them for a phone number, website or email address so you can contact the company directly.
(3) Secure your social media, website and email accounts.
We get lackadaisical with passwords because there are too many to remember. We use the same format or similar string of numbers and letters for all our sites. But we could be aiding and abetting the people who aren’t deserving of our money.
How it happens: Automated programs called bots continuously attempt to gain access to social media, website and email accounts. “Most people use the same usernames and passwords on multiple sites,” Cooper said, “so once a bot is able to gain access into an account, those credentials are then presented for manual review to see what other accounts can be found and access granted.”
How to protect yourself: Apply varied usernames and passwords to your accounts. Try apps such as Roboform, Sticky Password and Keeper, which will generate and store strong passwords. Lock your phone with biometrics such as a fingerprint, or use a strong alphanumeric password.
(4) Know the lingo and your rights.
Truliant Federal Credit Union offers workshops to its customers. Courtney Lewis, a Truliant at Work development officer, introduces identity theft seminar participants to the words describing behavior that could lead to identity theft and/or money being stolen from their accounts. People posing as a legitimate company or government agency to request personal information by phone is “vishing,” by email is “phishing” and by text message is “smishing.”
Lewis also reviews the laws that fight identity theft. The Fair Credit Reporting Act gives you the right to dispute your credit score and allows only certain organizations access to your file. If you’re denied credit, insurance or employment because of what’s in your credit report, you may get a free report within 60 days.
The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act includes the ability to receive a free copy of your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus once a year or when identity theft is suspected. The act allows for fraudulent information to be blocked from appearing on your credit report and the right to access business records, such as credit applications, documenting an identity thief’s fraudulent transactions.