Having money now is great but think if you lost it all. Think if someone somehow got access to your credit, checking accounts, and worse yet, your identity. Scary. Losing it all is indeed scary. This text can potentially truly protect your ass(ets)!
Between shopping, filing taxes, and connecting with friends on social media, an increasing portion of our lives as consumers happens online. This shift makes it more complicated to avoid becoming a target of thieves.
It is estimated that 1.5 billion cyber-attacks happen each year. Due to these attacks, the number of consumers who become victims of identity theft has increased almost 600%.
In addition, with access to a much wider range of merchants on the Internet, there is a likelihood of having your money stolen by businesses that are either not legitimate or that fail to fulfill their end of the agreement.
New technologies have also made it easier than ever before to track consumers’ habits and to get in touch with them, for example, to present promotional offers or to collect a debt.
It’s important to be aware of these new risks and know how to protect yourself if you become a target of credit card fraud, identity theft, scams, or harassment from debt collectors.
“Common sense is the most widely shared commodity in the world, for every man is convinced that he is well supplied with it.”
– Rene Descartes
Credit Card Fraud
Credit card fraud is a rampant issue and there is no way to completely protect yourself.
There are three main methods used to steal credit card information:
- Skimming. Devices can be used to read the information stored in your credit card. A copy of your card is then made and can be used to charge your account.
- Phishing. With this method, fake shopping websites or a copy of your credit card provider’s website is created for the sole purpose of stealing payment information.
Always plan for the worst scenario so, if it should happen, you can avoid losing money on a deal.
3. Spyware. Your computer or a merchant’s system can be infected with spyware that collects information, including payment details.
Protecting yourself from credit card fraud is difficult because there are no ways to shield your cards from the devices used to skim information.
However, if you adhere to these tips, you can avoid many attempts by others to get your credit card info:
Keep control of your credit card. Avoid handing your credit card to someone who would be able to skim it without you noticing, for instance, when paying your bill at a restaurant. It’s safer to just stop and get cash before going to the restaurant. Then pay for your food and drinks with cash.
Be diligent when at an ATM. If it’s not well lit or if the equipment looks awry in any way, leave and use a different ATM. Notice those around you and keep your password hidden from them.
Maintain your privacy. Never give your credit card details or password to anyone over the phone or on the internet.
Carefully monitor all the transactions made with your card and immediately freeze it if you notice anything suspicious. It doesn’t stop the first transactions made with your stolen info, but it does keep the thief from doing further damage.
Some accounts even offer an app for your Smartphone that sends you a text immediately each time your card is used.
There are a few things you can do to protect yourself from phishing:
- Avoid purchasing anything from a website you aren’t familiar with. Do some background research to ensure that you’re dealing with a trustworthy merchant.
- Always ensure you’re on the official website of the retailer or credit card issuer. Hackers can create convincing copies, but the URL is usually different and might begin with HTTP instead of HTTPS.
- Be aware that emails are often used to phish for information. These emails typically ask you to visit a link that seems to lead to the website for PayPal, eBay, your bank, your credit card issuer, or a popular retailer. Contact your bank, merchant, or creditor by phone if you think anything might be amiss with your account.
- Similar scams exist via text messages and over the phone. If you receive a message or a call that asks you to verify your payment information, find out who is calling, look up their phone number, and keep in mind that banks, credit card companies, and retailers would not contact you like this to double check your payment information.
Protect yourself from spyware that can steal your payment information by using a good antivirus on your computer, tablet, and Smartphone.
Never make purchases or access your accounts via public Wi-Fi networks, including the free Wi-Fi available at your local library or at the nearest coffee shop or fast food restaurant.
There is still the possibility that spyware could infect the system of a merchant. This is why it is best to only shop on the websites of large retailers you know and trust.
If you decide to shop on a lesser-known website, ensure they have up to date security certificates.
Where large sums of money are concerned, it is
advisable to trust nobody.
– Agatha Christie
It is estimated that 9.9 million cases of identity theft occur each year. This is a real issue on the Internet, but your identity isn’t safe offline either. These scams are becoming more complex and thieves are more resourceful than ever before.
In most cases, the main purpose of identity thieves is to open credit accounts, but there are other nefarious purposes as well. For example, thousands of victims recently had their tax returns stolen by thieves who filed taxes using their info.
Once someone has your identity, it’s not hard to gain access to your financial accounts, including your bank or investment accounts.
An identity thief only needs your name, date of birth, and social security number.
Always be careful when disclosing your private information and take the time to find out how this information will be used, stored, and who might have access to it.
It is understandable that your bank, employer, or utility companies need this information, but do not hesitate to refuse to share it. For instance, when applying for a job, your application might be stored for years in an unsafe system that many people will have access to.
You can protect your identity offline by always keeping your IDs in safe locations, especially when you travel.
Also, contact the post office to have all your mail forwarded to your new address if you move and put a hold on your mail if you plan on being away for a while.
Protect your identity online with these strategies:
- Use strong passwords and change them regularly.
- Be aware of phishing scams.
- Never share personal information on social media.
- Use an encrypted browser.
- Avoid selling used computers, tablets, and phones, since personal information can be retrieved even after you wipe out the hard drives.
It is important to be aware of the signs of possible identity theft so you can catch the crime early on and take action to stop any further damage.
Common uses for stolen identities include opening credit accounts in your name, gaining access to existing checking, savings, and credit accounts, filing taxes, and even obtaining medical services in your name.
These are the signs to watch for:
- Your bank or credit account show charges for purchases you didn’t make.
- You start getting bills for accounts you didn’t open or you entirely stop getting mail.
- Your requests for new credit accounts are denied even though you have a good credit score.
- You receive a notice from the IRS saying you filed multiple returns.
- You start getting calls from debt collectors even though you have no outstanding debt.
- Your medical insurance gets canceled, your premiums go up based on high claims, or some services are denied.
Act quickly if you notice any of these signs. Freeze your credit by contacting the three credit reporting agencies: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. A credit freeze means no new accounts can be opened in your name.
Also, contact the police as well as your bank, credit card issuer, health insurance provider, or the IRS, depending on the nature of the issue.
If you believe there is a risk that your identity has been stolen, request a fraud alert.
With a fraud alert, extra steps will have to be taken to verify your identity or open a new credit line during the following three months. This is your best option if your employer, bank, or a retailer you shop at announces that there has been a security breach.
“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man
knows himself to be a fool.”
– William Shakespeare
Your Credit Report
It’s important to review your credit report at least once a year and check it for accuracy. You’ll be able to see new accounts and requests, plus the latest activity on your old accounts.
This is a good way to keep track of your finances and to ensure your information is safe.
You can obtain one free credit report each year from Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. You can also pay to get additional reports if you suspect your identity has been stolen.
Your credit report includes three main sections:
- Personal information. Your full name, date of birth, SSN, address, and employment information should be listed.
- Ensure this information is correct and up to date, since new activity might not be properly reported if you use different addresses or a slightly different name.
2. Credit information. This is where your lines of credit are listed, including the accounts sent to collection agencies.
- Ensure you actually opened all these accounts and that the information regarding your credit limits and account balances is correct.
3. Credit inquiries. Review these inquiries. Do you recognize all of them?
There are two types of credit inquiries:
- Hard inquiries. These come from companies that pulled your credit score and report, for instance, to approve a loan or a new credit line.
- Keep track of the applications you fill out and always ask the name of the company that will conduct the credit check if you apply for a loan that will be granted via a third party.
- Soft inquiries. A soft inquiry can occur when a current creditor does a regular, ongoing check of your account or when marketing companies look up your information to pre-screen you for offers.
- Soft inquiries don’t affect your credit score in any way, but it’s a good idea to look up these companies to ensure they’re legitimate.
If you notice any new lines of credit on your report of if the balance of an existing account is higher than it should be, request a credit freeze right away.
If you notice a lot of unexplained credit inquiries, request a fraud alert to prevent potential identity thieves from being able to open accounts in your name.
Check your reports for any mistakes, too, since small errors could hurt your credit score. Contact the reporting agency that made the mistake to have it corrected.
“Common sense is seeing things as they are; and doing
things as they ought to be.”
– Harriet Beecher Stowe
Billing mistakes are more common than you think and can be costly. You can catch billing errors by taking the time to review bills before paying them.
To help you keep track of your purchases, you can get an app to record your transactions on your phone or simply use a notebook to write down what you bought, how much it cost, and where you bought it from.
Consider these items when you look over your bills:
- Are there charges on your credit card or bank account that you don’t recognize?
- Were you charged full price for something you bought at a discounted price?
- Keep track of what you pay to avoid paying for the same product or service twice in case the merchant makes a mistake and bills you twice.
- Keep track of what you buy to ensure that you’re charged for the correct product or service.
- Compare your utility bills, since a bill that is higher than usual could be a sign that a mistake has been made.
- Mistakes are common with healthcare charges since medical billing requires using specific codes for every service. A mistake on the code means errors in your bill or your claim to your insurance company.
- Communicate with healthcare providers to understand the services received and their correct charges.
If you notice a mistake on a bill, the best course of action is to contact the company that sent the bill and draw attention to the mistake. Credit card companies usually allow for a grace period and can put a charge on hold if this isn’t a purchase you recognize.
If you paid for a product or service via a third party company like PayPal, contact this third party company about the billing issue.
If you contact a utility company, bank, credit card company, hospital, or merchant regarding a billing mistake, keep track of all the communications.
Keep copies of the emails and chats and take notes during phone conversations. Write down who you talked to, the date of the conversation, and the time.
Some businesses will acknowledge that they made a mistake and will fix the issue. Some businesses won’t.
You can file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and contact other consumers associations or lawyers if you can’t get the issue resolved.
Legal action might be necessary if there are no efforts made to correct the error.
“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”
Unethical Business Practices
There are many options available to shop online, which can make it hard to find reliable sellers. If you feel that you haven’t been treated fairly by a seller or service provider, there are some options available to you.
For your own safety, it’s important to learn to tell ethical businesses apart from the companies you should avoid. Creating a website that looks legitimate and professional is easy and you cannot assume that a business is trustworthy simply because they have an online presence.
Follow these steps to avoid having to deal with unethical business practices:
- Shop with major online retailers. This approach is safer than ordering from websites you aren’t familiar with.
- Look over reviews about the sellers. Many shopping platforms with multiple merchants provide reviews about both the sellers and the products. Study the reviews to get a feel for the merchant, their products, and their customer service.
- Ensure you can get in touch with the merchant. Never purchase anything from a website that doesn’t have contact information and an “About Us” page. A P.O. Box address is not enough to show that a business is legitimate.
- Check with the Better Business Bureau. Check the BBB website as well as other websites that gather reviews on businesses. Look at the types of complaints that were filed and whether or not the business tried resolving them.
- Find out who owns the store or service provider. Research the owners to find any businesses they previously owned. Did these past businesses have a good reputation?
- Get answers directly from the source. Call the business and ask questions to get more details about them or their products.
- Read the fine print. Take the time to carefully read any terms and conditions before making a purchase, especially if you’re buying something on a payment plan.
These are some of the most common issues you might encounter with unethical businesses:
- Never receiving a product or service you paid for
- Being charged for services or additional products you didn’t agree to
- Being charged twice or charged additional fees you didn’t understand you would be paying
- The product or the service doesn’t correspond to what you thought you purchased.
- Your information has been shared without you ever agreeing to it.
These are only a few of the situations you might find yourself in.
Regardless of the type of issue you are encountering, there are a few steps you can take to get the issue resolved:
- Start by contacting the customer service department. Keep in mind that mistakes are possible and it may be to your own advantage to give the company a chance to make things right. Keep track of all communications.
- File a complaint. If there are no efforts from the business to resolve your issue, you can file an official complaint with the Better Business Bureau and contact local consumers associations to see if they can help you.
- Contact the payment processor. If you paid for a product or service via a third party payment processor such as PayPal or a credit card company, you have additional protections. You might be able to get the charges reversed as long as you can prove that the merchant did not fulfill their end of the agreement.
- Keep communicating with the business that wronged you. Explain why you aren’t satisfied, tell them how they can fix the issue, and avoid getting emotional when communicating. Continue to keep track of all communications.
- Consider legal action. If all else fails and there was a lot of money involved in the transaction, you may want to think about speaking to an attorney.
“To give real service you must add something which cannot
be bought or measured with money, and that is
sincerity and integrity.”
– Douglas Adams
Debt collectors are companies that purchase debts from loan companies, utility companies, hospitals, credit card issuers, and other credit providers. Their goal is to get the most money they can from you.
With the average household debt being over $5,000, there are more consumers than you might think who have to deal with collection agencies. Keep in mind that even if you owe money to a creditor or collection agency, you still have rights as a consumer.
Showing that you’re willing to make payments is usually enough to prevent your debt from being sold to a collection agency. But not always. Every business has its own procedures for delinquent and disputed accounts.
If your account is bought by a collection agency, they will typically call you and send you letters. It’s almost always better to pay attention to these calls and letters because the problem will not just go away. Collectors can request a judgment and a judge can decide on a wage garnishment if you have an outstanding debt.
As a consumer, you have some rights when dealing with debt collectors. Collectors cannot harass you, threaten you, or violate your right to privacy. If a collection agency has done any of these things and you have sufficient proof, you are well within your rights to file a lawsuit against them.
These tips will make dealing with debt collectors easier:
- Communication is important. Follow these steps when communicating with collectors:
- Figure out how much money you owe and where this debt came from.
- Ensure this is actually your debt and that you haven’t paid it to the original creditor.
- Try negotiating to see if they will drop some fees. Make the best deal you can.
- If you work out a payment plan, stay in touch with the collection agency in case you have to miss some payments.
- If you feel harassed… If the collection agency is sending you many letters and constantly calling you, keep in mind that you do not have to answer. Listen to the voicemail you receive to look for any threatening language and take the time to read everything that is sent to you.
- Keep track of all the communications between you and the debt collectors. This information will be very helpful if a debt collector does something illegal and you decide to file a lawsuit.
- Avoid letting the debt collectors intimidate you. Some collection agencies will do or say anything to get money from you. Your best option is to communicate calmly with them, make a payment plan, and think about getting help from a lawyer if the threats and attempts to intimidate you go too far.
Keep these consumer rights in mind:
- You can ask a debt collector to quit contacting you. Send a request in writing and they will be legally obligated to respect it. This is your best option if you’re being harassed, but keep in mind that communication is important so you can work things out.
- You don’t have to pay anything if a debt collector is trying to collect a debt that is not yours. Ask them to provide more details about the debt, such as the date and the nature of the charges. By law, they must be able to verify the debt. If it’s not your debt, let the collection agency know.
- Collectors cannot obligate you to pay. If you have no income or assets, let them know. The calls and letters will probably stop, since most collection agencies will not want to waste their time with someone who truly cannot afford to pay them anything.
Debt collectors will do everything they can to get you to agree to making a payment right away. This might include lying and pressuring you.
Consider these tips when dealing with collectors:
- Avoid giving them additional information. Never volunteer information about your assets, financial information, and other existing debts. Instead, ask questions to figure out what information the debt collector already has and focus on establishing a payment plan.
- Avoid losing your temper when dealing with debt collectors. This can make things difficult for you. Stay calm and use the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act in your favor.
- Never acknowledge that you owe the debt. Acknowledging the debt might commit you to more than what you actually owe, since there might be a mistake in the amount the debt collector is trying to collect.
- Get everything in writing. Ask the debt collector to send you a payment agreement in writing so you can review it and sign it.
- Avoid agreeing to anything over the phone. In your phone calls, avoid any mention of specific amounts or dates for payments you intend on making, since the debt collector might consider this as a binding agreement.
Collectors can take legal action, namely requesting a wage garnishment. However, once the statute of limitations for your state expires, legal action can no longer be taken.
- Debt collectors often try to get you to make a small payment as quickly as possible to restart the clock on the statute of limitations. You might feel that you are making a payment to appease them, but you’re actually giving them more time to take legal action against you.
“A wise man should have money in his head, but not in his heart.”
Always use diligence when shopping, paying bills, or dealing with collection agencies. Be aware of the risks that exist when you make transactions online or in stores. Knowing these risks and your rights can prevent a lot of havoc in your financial life.
The tips in this guide can help you stay safe and protect your finances, privacy, and rights as a consumer. Write down the ones that you aren’t already in the habit of performing. Starting a couple of new habits based on these guidelines will help you keep your hard-earned money out of the hands of thieves.
When you do encounter issues, you’ll find that most of them can be resolved by communicating with your bank, credit card issuer, or with a merchant to voice your concerns and ask for a resolution.
Read more about your rights as a consumer and stay up to date with new legislation on this topic. You’ll gain new confidence as an informed, proactive consumer.
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which
is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and Third
by experience, which is the bitterest.”