By James Pan
Always confirm any phone call, email, or US mail stating that you have a problem with a bill, taxes, or postage, and be sure to use a phone number you get from a verified source instead of one in an unsolicited communication. There is always a chance the problem is real, but you want to confirm the issue first by finding an independent phone number. If the problem concerns a credit or debit card, call the number on the back of the card, find a number on an old statement, or log in to the official website. If someone claims you owe postage due, verify the issue with the post office.
If the alleged problem concerns taxes, call only the number you obtain from the official government website and work your way through the phone tree (which can be its own challenge). NOTE: The IRS or any other official government agency will never send you an email or call you. If someone claiming to be from such an agency does call, hang up! Government agencies do business only via official US mail.
These precautions can take some time, but think about the alternative: Let’s say you get a notice from the IRS and you call the phone number in the letter. For the IRS to verify you, you have to give them your address, Social Security number, and date of birth. But if the IRS letter was a scam and you give the fake IRS person all your personal information, they can wreak havoc in your life by opening fraudulent accounts under your name. Again, call only numbers you have verified as authentic!
Fraudulent wires are even more potentially devastating. Suppose you are buying a home for $400,000 and you receive the wire instructions from the settlement company. If the instructions are sent via email from a scammer, your email responses are now being intercepted, and you will be given false account, routing, and phone numbers. Once you send the $400,000 to the wrong account you have no recourse, and you have lost the money. The solution once again is to call the settlement company directly using a verified phone number from its website or a previous contact. Ask the recipient of the funds to verify all routing and account information and only then send the money.
One possible tool of defense for many of these scams is to freeze your credit with the three major credit bureaus, which is explained in this article from nerdwallet:
To recap, always confirm that the alleged problem is legitimate, being sure to use an independent phone number. Never believe the phone number on any email or even regular mail. Hackers are very clever, and they have to be right only once to devastate your savings. Taking the few extra minutes needed to discover a potential scam can save you a great deal of heartache and money.