Don’t Fall for Fraud: How to Protect Yourself from Phishing and Other Cyber Scams
By: Katie Fung, Intern
I recently stumbled upon a new docu-series on Netflix. Titled “Web of Make-Believe: Death, Lies, and the Internet,” the June 2022 release consists of six episodes detailing various events of cyber crime and their very decidedly non-virtual impact on those caught in the crosshairs. While many of the episodes deal with large-scale events culminating in murder and conspiracy, the docu-series ultimately forced me to consider cyber crime and its impact in my own life, as well as those around me.
How many of us have gotten those fake IRS phone calls claiming a warrant is out for our arrest unless we can pay up? How many of us have gotten email after email, most sent to spam folders, claiming that our bank accounts have been hacked and we have to provide our password in order to recover it? These emails and calls fall under a category of crime called phishing, in which scammers pretending to be a part of a legitimate company attempt to gain access to personal or financial information.
These cyber scammers often pretend to be from banks, credit card companies, and social networking sites. They might tell you that your payment details for your Visa need to be updated and they need your credit card number and PIN immediately. They might tell you that someone hacked into your Facebook account and they need your password to get it back or they’ll suspend your account. They might even include links in these texts or emails that open into viruses intended to install on your computer. A large part of phishing is the urgency these scammers create, intended to make you panic and provide personal information before being able to even think twice.
And to be frank— these phishing scams have gotten good. Scammers have begun to utilize official letterheads, legitimate signatures, and more in order to convince us they’re exactly who they aren’t. In 2021, the FBI’s annual Internet Crime Report found that over 300,000 cases of phishing occurred in the United States alone, over 12 times the number of cases reported in 2017. The losses from such crimes totalled in millions of dollars.
More than that, these scammers often have a type. According to the 2021 FBI Internet Crime Report, victims of phishing are most likely to be over 60 years of age. Those over 60 years of age are also more likely to experience greater financial loss to these scams. That’s not to say no one of any age can be a victim, but the statistics point to a generational cybersecurity knowledge gap, emphasizing the need for more comprehensive cybersecurity education.
So what can be done to prevent phishing scams? The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an organization that addresses these consumer scams, provides a few steps to prevent becoming a victim of phishing. The first step is to set software to update automatically on both your computer and mobile phone; such software updates often close loopholes and gaps scammers may use, so automatic updates decrease the chance of security threats on electronic devices. The second step is to use multi-factor authentication, a form of security that requires two or more credentials to access your accounts. Many social media platforms and credit card companies offer multi-factor authentication in which you must log in with a password and a code sent to your phone or email. This sort of authentication protects from phishing if you happen to accidentally fall for a scam; even if you provide a password to a scammer, they still won’t be able to access your account.
Finally, the FTC has a few recommendations for potential encounters with phishing scammers. If you receive a text or email from someone you suspect is a scammer, never click any link they provide. Links may install malware on your computer meant to gather personal and financial information. Likewise, if you receive a call from someone you suspect is a scammer, do not provide any personal information upfront. Instead, in both situations, contact the company through a real phone number or website directly.
While these steps can be taken as preventative measures, they may not be helpful if you’ve already fallen victim to phishing. In this case, the FTC recommends you go to IdentifyTheft.gov, the federal website for cyber crime that gives advice on next steps to recovering your information. The most important thing to remember is that these situations are not your fault. Phishing scammers have perfected their messages to play on emotions and fears in order to convince or coerce you into giving your personal or financial information to them.
Victim Advocates at Victim Support Services are here to help in cases of phishing and other scams. We’re well-versed in next steps, whether that’s contacting your credit bureau or law enforcement to document the scam. We understand that scammers often rely on a victim’s sense of embarrassment in the wake of financial fraud to prevent people from reaching out for help or from reporting the crime they’ve experienced. Victim Support Services can direct you to resources and safety planning to address both the financial and emotional stresses of cyber crime. Cyber fraud can be scary, angering, and even saddening. You don’t have to go through these emotions — or cyber fraud — alone.
If you’re interested in learning more about cyber crime and how to prevent it in your own life, there are resources available. The aforementioned Netflix documentary “Web of Make-Believe: Death, Lies, and the Internet” is an entertaining and informative foray into myriad cyber crimes. For more specific reads, “Scam Me If You Can: Simple Strategies to Outsmart Today’s Rip-off Artists” by Frank Abagnale and “Future Crimes: Inside the Digital Underground and the Battle for Our Connected World” by Marc Goodman detail preventative steps to take as well as detailed chapters devoted to cybersecurity. We also invite you to learn more about phishing scams on the Federal Trade Commission’s website. By knowing the signs of phishing and preventative measures you can take, you’re already taking steps to protect yourself.