This is the Life: Look before you jump into a scam

Web Lead

As much as I enjoy my weekly visits with RCMP Staff Sgt. Bob Gollan or one of his team to get the police news, it is also the source of frustration. It is not uncommon to learn of yet another scam that has relieved yet another member of our community of what is often a significant amount of money.

Not always, but all too often, the scams involve computers. You get a phone call that your computer has been infected with viruses and that the caller’s firm will remove the threats — for a price. Or perhaps an email arrives from an unfamiliar address, trying to lure you into clicking on a link or downloading a file — for your own benefit, of course. Another common one comes in form of a message from “your” bank, claiming that there is a problem with your account and inviting you to click on a link to “update” your information.

Some of the more successful scams come by telephone and don’t involve a computer at all. They play on our concern for family members. Someone at the other end of the line claims to be a grandson or nephew who is travelling and has become involved in some sort of legal issue that requires immediate payment of a large sum to keep them out of jail. Please send by Western Union or provide a credit card number.

These scams are often so obviously bogus that they defy belief. The spelling and sentence structure in emails, for example, is often a dead giveaway that the message originates not at your bank but in a far away country that has banks of callers trolling the world for unsuspecting, innocent and downright naive victims.

Mixed in with all these opportunities to have a modern-day con artist relieve you of your hard-earned savings are legitimate calls, too. A few months ago I received one from the bank that administrates a credit card I use most often for online transactions. In this case, the caller identified the name of the bank and provided his own, then said that I had made a purchase that had been flagged for security purposes. Would I provide my credit card number to confirm that I had indeed made the purchase? When I refused to provide the information the caller was unfazed, and then offered an alternative. Provide my mailing address and birthdate. Her demeanor on the phone was calm and co-operative, and she was happy to provide a phone number that I could call back on. I did so, then provided the information requested. I was then asked if I had indeed made a hotel reservation in the U.S. through a website. I had indeed. OK, then, we are approving the transaction. My hotel reservation worked as planned.

Last week I got a call from the same bank. This one referred to the previous issue, then said that the security department wanted to confirm that I had made another charge to my account, this one for tickets on Southwest Airlines. I had, only 10 minutes earlier. The transaction was approved and the caller recommended that when I was on my trip out of the country I could avoid any questions about my card use by calling the number on my credit card and informing them of the dates I would be travelling. Debit card providers often recommend the same practice.

I like the idea that my credit card provider is aware of unusual transactions that could indicate that my card or the information on it had been stolen.

But how to know when these things are scams? It’s not always easy. But legitimate callers will always provide you with a way to confirm their validity and easiest is to get a callback number. Banks don’t use email to contact their customers about account issues. Your “grandson” should be able to answer personal questions that would confirm his identity. Microsoft does not call you to let you know you have a problem with your computer. No legitimate business asks you to click on a link or to download information without giving you information about why you should do so.

The easiest way to find if something is a scam is to Google for more information. Just type in some keywords, hit enter and chances are you will find sources explaining the scam. Snopes.com is another good source. It keeps an updated list of what are urban legends, scams and legitimate enterprises, and provides sources for its information.

The best advice I can give, though, is one of my own personal guidelines when I am faced with unusual information: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Don’t feel compelled to overreact or respond to demands or requests immediately. Ask for information about how to reconnect with the caller. Close the email without clicking on anything. Take some time to think about the requests, ask friends or family members, maybe even give the police a call. Protect yourself by not simply believing what you hear or read. Don’t be the next sad story I report in the police news.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.