Precautions to take against online fraud

Make it harder for crooks who want your numbers

On The Money

January 27, 2008|By David Colker | David Colker,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Here's a modern set of resolutions: Exercise more, eat healthfully, recycle and don't answer e-mail from Nigeria.

Frauds are part of life in the digital era, but there are ways to guard against them, whether as obvious as ignoring promises of great wealth from distant lands or as subtle as avoiding real-looking counterfeit items sold online.

Can you completely scam-proof your life? No.

That's because it's partly out of your hands. Your personal financial data - which is worth gold, almost literally, to identity thieves - is scattered around the country in banks, credit bureaus, retailers, hospitals and other places that have been known to spring digital leaks.

Holders of this valuable information have been ordered, urged and shamed into doing a better job of protecting the data.

Still, much protection is up to the individual, and you can take actions to help guard against fraud schemes - or at least spot them while there's still a chance that you can prevent widespread financial damage.

Here are some suggested resolutions, culled in part from guides issued by the Federal Trade Commission and the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse:

Check your credit card and bank accounts often.

At least monthly. You might even find your bank has levied a fee that you don't really owe.

Check your credit reports.

Apply for them at www.annualcreditreport.com (not to be confused with the commercial site www.freecreditreport.com).

Be wary of certified checks.

Counterfeit bank checks, especially from out of the country, have started popping up far too often.

A bank might allow you to draw funds on a check after a few days, but it's not considered a fully legitimate check until it clears - a process that can take much longer if it's from overseas. If the check ends up bouncing, you're responsible for any funds you drew off it.

Don't wire money to strangers.

This scheme takes many guises: a "company" needs to send money through a U.S. bank, an "artist" needs to process U.S. payments, an "importer" must pay local taxes.

You send the money, minus your "commission." Then the check bounces and the company/artist/importer cannot be reached.

Watch out for counterfeit gadgets.

They're getting more real-looking all the time, including the packaging. If earphones, a universal remote control or other gadget is selling for an impossibly low price online, it could be a fake. Buying from an authorized dealer costs more but provides assurance you're not getting an inferior knockoff.

Don't open that electronic greeting card.

There has been a glut of bogus greeting cards hitting e-mail boxes. Unless you know the sender, and the card is addressed specifically to you, don't open the attachment in the e-mail. It could contain a virus.

Don't buy miracle diet claims.

Over-the-counter pills, drinks and patches that take off weight without diet or exercise are a staple of spam e-mail messages and late-night TV commercials. They aren't effective, the Federal Trade Commission says.

Get a locked mailbox.

Thieves looking for personal financial data or uncashed checks sometimes find what they're looking for in home mailboxes. If your mailbox is outside, get a lock on it.

Don't give out bank account or Social Security numbers requested in an e-mail.

No legitimate financial institution or government agency would ask for that information via an e-mail.

Issue a fraud alert.

If you call one of the three credit-reporting companies, such as Equifax (888-766-0008), it will notify the other two.

The alert is good for only 90 days but can be extended to seven years if you can show evidence of identity theft.

David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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