Expert Interview with Steven JJ Weisman on Protecting Yourself From Scams

Protecting yourself from scamsThink you're immune to being scammed? Think again.

"If you think that you are not vulnerable, you are probably even more vulnerable," says Steve Weisman, lawyer, author and professor at Bentley University.

In fact, Steve says studies have shown people who are financially literate are often more apt to become prey to investment charlatans like Bernie Madoff.

And, he adds, there's a good reason that older people are often targeted for scams.

"A University of Iowa study has shown that the part of our brain that controls skepticism becomes less viable as we age, making seniors more susceptible to scam artists with a knowledge of psychology that would have made Freud envious," he says.

Finally, college-aged young adults often find themselves the victims of identity theft and other scams because they are often careless about protecting their electronic devices.

To help keep an increasingly vulnerable public informed about the latest scams and identity theft schemes, Steve founded in 2012. We recently checked in with him to learn more about the most prevalent scams today and what we can do to protect ourselves from them. Here's what he had to say:

What's your professional background? How did you become interested in scams and identity theft?

I teach White Collar Crime at Bentley University, but I became interested in scams and identity theft many years ago when I became a victim of identity theft. Since that time, I have studied, taught and extensively written about scams and identity theft; including my books, Identity Theft Alert, The Truth About Avoiding Scams and many others on these subjects.

Can you tell us about Scamicide?

Scamicide has entries on more than 1,200 different scams and identity theft schemes. Every day, I update the public on the latest scams and identity theft schemes threatening people. In each daily Scam of the Day, I not only explain how these scams and identity theft schemes work, but also how to identify them and avoid them. It is a dangerous world out there, and my goal is to help people have a place where they can go for information upon which they can rely to help keep them safe from identity thieves and scam artists.

How prevalent are scams today compared with the past?

To paraphrase Shakespeare, how do they scam thee? Let me count the ways.

Identity theft is the biggest crime in the country today, and it can have serious effects on people beyond having their credit ruined or their assets stolen. Medical identity theft can result in someone's medical records being intermingled with those of the identity thieves; which, in turn, can even cause someone to get a blood transfusion of the wrong blood type.

What are the most common types of scams out there right now?

Phony lotteries continue to be a major scam that still manages to steal money from unwitting victims. The Jamaica Lottery is one in particular that is quite effective in stealing the money of Americans, particularly seniors.

Investment schemes are always a big problem, and Ponzi schemes from the time of Charles Ponzi to Bernie Madoff to today still are used to steal the money of victims.

Romance scams are also bigger and bigger, as they use online meetings to convince people to send money to their new romantic partners who are nothing but scam artists.

Phishing, by which people are lured into clicking on links in emails containing malware, is a major problem for individuals, companies and governments. This malware can steal all of the information in your computer and use it to make you a victim of identity theft.

Impersonation scams are also prevalent now, including the profitable one where you receive a call that appears to be from the IRS demanding that you send them an immediate payment over the phone by credit card to avoid serious repercussions. Of course, the IRS will never call you like this, but unwary victims forget this fact.

How can we better protect ourselves and our loved ones from becoming the victims of scam artists?

The best thing we can do to protect ourselves from scams is to slow down and take the time to carefully evaluate the opportunities that scam artists present. Do your homework. Don't invest in anything that you don't understand.

Scammers appeal to whatever works to get us to fall for their scams, whether that is our greed or our charitable impulses. So before you get out that checkbook or credit card, carefully consider and independently check out what you are doing.

Finally, trust me - you can't trust anyone. A major area of scams involves Affinity Fraud, where people get into trouble because they trust people "just like them" who would never cheat them.

Where do we put ourselves at most risk for identity theft?

We put ourselves most at risk of identity theft today online on our computers, smartphones and other electronic devices, particularly when we do not take proper precautions such as using strong passwords, encryption software and up-to-date anti-malware and anti-virus software on our devices. And even then you are not safe, because the latest viruses and malware are always at least a month ahead of the companies that make security software.

What should we be doing to protect our identities?

There are many things we can do to protect ourselves, but two of the most important are to protect your Social Security number and put a credit freeze on your credit report.

The Social Security number is the key to identity theft, so the fewer places that have it, the less you are in danger. When your doctor asks for it as an identifying number, ask to give them something else. You are only as secure as the places with the weakest security that hold your information; and right now, the health care industry is doing a horrible job of protecting data.

A credit freeze is a lock on your credit report such that even if someone has access to your Social Security number and personal information about you, they cannot access your credit report to make major purchases using your credit.

What are some of the more sophisticated and/or surprising ways criminals are engaging in identity theft today? How are they getting our information?

The most common way that identity thieves gain our information is by luring us into clicking on links in tainted emails, social media messages or text messages that contain malware that will steal our personal information from our smartphones, computers or other devices. They do this by impersonating people we trust or by luring us with startling pictures that arouse our curiosity such as of natural disasters, nude celebrity photos, free music and free video games. Again, "trust me, you can't trust anyone." Never click on a link or download an attachment unless you are absolutely sure that it is legitimate.

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