Should You Worry About Writing Out “2020” on Documents?

The warnings are dire and deadly-serious, and by now, you’ve heard it at least once: make sure you write out the year “2020” when you date checks and legal documents, because if you just write the year as “20,” some scammer is going to change it to “2019” or “2018” or “2021” and…do something or other to you.

The primary anxiety seems to be that someone could backdate a loan agreement and make it look as though you initiated the loan in 2017 (for example) instead of 2020, and then sue you for payments and interest, using the signed document as evidence that you didn’t pay for three years.

However, mainstream, trustworthy lenders aren’t going to resort to this kind of thing because getting caught could result in the entire financial institution being shut down for fraud, plus the growing trend of electronic applications and e-signatures renders the point moot anyway.

(Also, you’re not going to borrow from any shady, greasy, fly-by-night under-the-table lenders in the first place, are you? “If it sounds too good to be true…”)

The scenario for writing out the full year on checks usually goes like this: if you just write “20,” but the check never gets cashed, some scammer is going to find it a year later, change the date to “2021,” then cash it.

Okay. And how likely is it that all these circumstances will line up in exactly this way? Most people don’t even write that many paper checks anymore, and very few of those go uncashed. Most payees want to be paid. Of course, anything is possible but even so, now this theoretical-scammer-from-a-year-from-now has a non-staledated check…made out to someone else. At some point, it would be easier to earn his own money, especially since any check that did remain unused long enough to go stale is probably not for an amount large enough to be worth the hassle.

I can’t think of an obvious benefit to this theoretical scam in any other scenario. If you give someone a check dated 2/13/20 and they change it to 2/13/2019, they have now rendered the check void because most financial institutions won’t honor a check past 180 days. And if they change it to 2/13/2021, all they’ve done is make themselves wait another year to cash it. Not exactly the work of a criminal mastermind.

fAll that said, go ahead and write out “2020” on checks and documents anyway. And next year, write “2021,” and after that “2022.” Why? It takes zero effort and it’s more accurate. It’s always good to strive for accuracy. And it eliminates the (ludicrously unlikely) situations above.

Do You Need to Change Your Passwords Regularly?

For years, the conventional data security wisdom has been to change all your passwords every three months. Or sometimes you would hear six months. At least once a year, they would tell you.

But is this necessary in every case?

The short answer is: it depends.

If you know or suspect a password has been compromised (examples: a major data breach has happened, or you fell victim to a phishing scheme), log in to the affected site immediately and change your password.

If you have been using a weak password (a single word, or a word-plus-a-number, or “password” or “abc123”), go change that immediately because that type of password is far too easy to crack. You don’t have to change your password to a string of gibberish (like “iu3r54!#hr3uHCE&@Eibi84f87*^CE” or whatever), but make them long. A long password constructed from random words, such as “vinestumpaxelclownboat,” is more secure than a short one made of uppercase and lowercase letters, digits and special characters, like “hJe4j#x.”

If you’ve been reusing one password for multiple accounts, go ahead and change those. When a database is compromised, cybercriminals will try the hacked email/password combinations at other sites. Example: you’re a member of some online discussion forum you’re not too serious about. If that database gets hacked (or simply downloaded…plenty of websites have been revealed to be keeping member login information in plain text) you can be sure that the people who did it aren’t interested in disrupting discussions about methods for making D.I.Y. tofu (or whatever your hobby is). They’re going to try that email/password at every major credit card, bank, retailer, and social network app. If you’ve reused it anywhere important, nothing good will come of it.

But what if you’re already using a strong password, there hasn’t been a data breach or a hack, and you haven’t fallen victim to phishing or any other tricks? The current advice is to just let that password ride. If it’s impossible for a human to guess and would take a computer script a trillion years to crack, changing it every three or six or twelve months doesn’t really do anything to provide any additional protection.

Of course, you can change any password any time if it helps you feel safer, but make sure to keep them strong, and don’t get into the habit of just changing one digit at the end (changing “vinestumpaxelclownboat1” to “vinestumpaxelclownboat2” for example); this could make your new password guessable if thieves obtained an old database and figured out your pattern.

Another Way They Can Get Your Personal Information

If somebody made a pie chart of every article I’ve ever written about fraud prevention, a very large slice of that pie would be “how to avoid giving away your own personal information to people who shouldn’t have it.”

But victims revealing their data directly isn’t the only way this information falls into the wrong hands. “Of course!” you might say. “There are those big data breaches.”

And that’s true. But there is yet another route that doesn’t get talked about as often: other people being tricked into revealing your data on an individual basis.

Let’s say you’ve got a non-private Instagram account under your actual name, where you post photos of the things you do and the places you go. You go on vacation and post a “check-in” at the hotel at which you are staying.

Eventually, somebody you don’t know sees this post and decides you look like you might have some extra money sitting around. So they call the hotel after you’ve gone home and start asking for details about your stay, pretending to be you. Maybe they’ll say, “I was there on business, so I need to know what card I used, and what email address the information was sent to because I can’t find it,” or maybe they’ll concoct some other way to find out where you bank and harvest some contact information.

Now, maybe the person answering the phone knows about social engineering and cares about keeping people’s information safe. But then again: have you ever checked into a hotel and had to deal with a front desk person whose name might as well have been Yeah Whatever? What if that eyeroll-come-to-life answers the phone? They might not be too bothered about whether or not the person they’re talking to is really you, and just answer the questions to get the caller to go away faster.

Armed with your name (from your Instagram account) and some information about where you bank (and perhaps the last four digits of a card number) and how to contact you, the scammer can then call or email you, pretending to be your financial institution. The premise of this contact? Easy. “There were some charges made in [wherever you just vacationed], and we wanted to make sure it was you,” and from there he or she can attempt to gain access to your account.

Granted, this kind of multi-level, personalized social engineering isn’t extremely common, but it illustrates an important lesson: that you’re not the only potential target for people trying to obtain your personal information. It is vital to watch for the signs of unauthorized access, to be aware of social engineering tactics, and to be extremely wary of any contact that appears to come from your financial institution, even if they seem to already have some of your personal data.

The Pigeon Drop Scam

I’ve been trying for a while to figure out a clear, concise way to explain the Pigeon Drop Scam, but I’ve had trouble keeping the article length reasonable. There are a lot of variations on this very old scam.

The basics are pretty much the same across the board. A stranger approaches you, claiming to have found a large sum of money. Sometimes the money is in a bag, or a box, or a duffel. Sometimes it’s made to look like evidence of a crime, with a note or some other indicator (so the victim thinks whoever it belonged to isn’t likely to come looking for it through legal means). Some scammers work alone, some use an accomplice. At some point, you will be asked to hand over some of your own cash. But there are so many variables to the scheme that it’s hard to even identify what the “classic pigeon drop” scam would look like, to use as an example to write about.

Therefore, it’s probably best to just point you to a video where somebody shows you instead of tells you how this thing works. I found a couple decent ones where a couple pigeon drop scenarios are acted out (in one case on an unsuspecting “victim” who is later let in on the scam and has his cash returned by the crew making the video):

The common thread: a stranger who claims to find money, then asks you to give him or her some of your own for some reason.

The point is this: as soon as a stranger approaches you claiming to have found cash, regardless of how many people you find yourself talking to, regardless of the pitch (whether it’s “hey let’s divvy it up!” or “hold this while I report it” or something else entirely), you are not going to end up a winner if you go along with what that person asks you to do.

Given that this is an in-person scam, I would not recommend letting on that you’re suspicious. Politely suggest they report the find to the police, then walk away. As soon as it is safe to do so, call the police yourself with as good a description of the crook as you can give. You might help someone else avoid being a victim, and you might even help a terrible person run headlong into some well-deserved terrible luck.

The Nuclear Option: (Almost) Never Answering the Phone

There are a few scams that happen in-person (the fake utility worker being one of the most common), but the majority rely on some sort of communications technology.

This gives the people running the schemes the advantages of a physical buffer (less likely to be identified, or slugged upside the skull by an enraged victim), global reach (not limited to immediate local surroundings) and scalability (the ability to scam hundreds of people simultaneously, instead of one at a time).

According to FTC statistics, the telephone was the contact method for 69% of scams reported to the agency in 2018. By comparison, in 2008 phone calls only accounted for 7% of that total (email was the king back then, at 52%). If it seems like you’re getting more and more fraudulent phone calls over the past decade, it’s because you are.

Of course, there are various techniques for spotting a scam phone call in the moment, and one tried-and-true method of responding (hanging up without saying anything), but while I’m not a big fan of scorched-earth responses to daily irritations, there is one option that isn’t brought up often enough: simply (almost) never answering the phone. Basically, if the phone rings, you let it go to voicemail.

It can be hard to get used to. You don’t have to be all that old to remember a time when a ringing telephone was kind of an event. People would race each other to the kitchen to answer it. “The phone is ringing! It could be anybody!” And that’s exactly why you should consider letting everything go to voicemail now—it could be anybody.

The next step is to not automatically go through your missed calls and call back every number. If a legitimate caller has something important to tell you, they will leave a message. Sometimes a scam that sounds convincing if you pick up the call can sound completely unbelievable when you hear it as a voicemail. Like the prerecorded robocall that started playing as soon as your voicemail picked up, so the pitch starts mid-word about 20 seconds in. It destroys the credibility. It also gives you time to think about how to respond (which is to NOT respond, at all).

You probably don’t even have to ignore every call. While you can’t trust caller ID, the chances that a scammer is going use the name and number of a friend or family member is low. Besides, you’ll know right away if it really is who you think. You’re not going to mistake a friend for a prerecorded “press 1 to lower your rate” scheme. If you’re expecting a call from a business, it is reasonably safe to answer. Again, you’re not going to think, “Well, my dentist usually only calls to remind me that I’ve got an appointment, but today they’re telling me I owe unpaid taxes. Better go buy some iTunes gift cards.”

The real issue with caller ID is when it says things like “Microsoft” or “Social Security” or “Internal Revenue Service,” or when it shows some random local phone number. Unexpected calls that are not in response to something you yourself initiated? Ignore.

How Much Should You Worry About RFID Card Skimming?

At some point you’ve either heard warnings that high-tech crooks are remotely reading people’s debit and credit cards using handheld RFID readers, or you’ve seen a wallet advertised as having built-in RFID-blocking features. More than likely, you’ve seen both. But is there really anything to worry about?

But before we get into that, what is an RFID chip?

RFID chips are embedded in some credit and debit cards, and are designed to let you pay by holding the card near an RFID-enabled card reader, instead of swiping or inserting the card into the machine. Contactless payment, in other words. U.S. Passport covers issued since 2007 also have this type of chip, and you can set up a “virtual wallet” on most smartphones that can be used for contactless payments, even if the cards you add to it don’t have the chip).

The RFID chip is not the same as the EMV chip that is embedded in nearly every credit or debit card these days.

Your card will tell you if it has RFID technology embedded. The big four credit card companies each have their own name for this feature:

  • ExpressPay (American Express)
  • PayPass (MasterCard)
  • PayWave (Visa)
  • Zip (Discover)

An RFID-enabled card will also either say “RFID” or have an icon that looks like radiating waves (similar to a WiFi signal), or both. Tap-and-go is promoted as a desirable feature of these cards—they want you know you can use it.

But, along with RFID cards came the usual anxiety about new technology: with your credit card just throwing out this radio signal containing all of your personal information all the time, it was going to be a cinch for some wily hacker to sit back in a shopping mall and just collect the data from every single card in every purse and wallet that happened to pass within 50 feet, right? And, right on cue, “security experts” emerged on websites and in online videos showing how it could, in theory, be done, under ideal circumstances. “Electronic pickpocketing” was the anxiety du jour.

Immediately, wallets and passport covers and other items (fanny packs, anyone? RFID-blocking jeans?) appeared on the market that claimed to block these frequencies, and they sold like hotcakes. Interestingly, a lot of those same experts who could demonstrate how this crime could be carried out also happened to be selling wallets, or at least promoting a paid affiliate link to buy one from somebody else.

There are a few things to know about electronic pickpocketing before you seek out (and spend money on) an item that is supposed to prevent this type of fraud.

First, the range of this type of RFID chip is about 10 centimeters (under four inches) and even that’s kind of pushing it. Outside of a vacuum, and with anything less than a NASA-level RFID reader, a thief would have to get extremely close to you to even have a chance of being able to pull this crime off. Like, probably touching you with his or her reader. And even then, circumstances are seldom ideal. What if you have two RFID cards on you? Those signals would be scrambled and worthless. And someone loitering around a crowd of people, holding a device up to every purse and back pocket in the place, is going to attract a lot of attention. “Be seen by literally everyone” is usually the opposite of what most crooks want to happen.

Secondly, any time a crime (however unlikely) has that “high tech” aroma to it, it’s easy to imagine the perpetrator as some kind of super-smart criminal mastermind, and there may have been a time (think: 25 or 30 years ago) when that was the case, but a lot of the “hackers” of today are the same people that would have been snatching purses a few decades ago. They’re not masterminds, and they don’t wait around for “ideal circumstances.” They go for the easiest, surest thing, and RFID skimming is neither. It is far easier, cheaper and faster to install a skimmer on an ATM or gas pump, or to buy a database of cards stolen in a data breach—and the success rate is much higher.

Finally, you’ve probably heard people claim to have been a victim of RFID skimming, but there have been no documented cases of fraud being traced to this activity. Real card fraud happens every day, but these almost always originate either with a skimming device (that captures magnetic stripe data—becoming rarer as the EMV chip becomes the standard), phishing attacks, or from retail data breaches in which millions of consumers are victimized at once. For an individual, it can sometimes be difficult to determine where the fraud happened, and so a lot of people just jump on the last thing they heard about. “RFID skimming? Oh yeah, that happened to me…”

In summary, RFID skimming isn’t something you need to be overly worried about. If a wallet or a passport cover has a feature to block these signals and it doesn’t cost anything extra, go ahead and get it. Or get some RFID-blocking sleeves for passports and individual cards if you want to, but you don’t have to spend much on these. I’ve seen a pack for under $10 that had enough sleeves for multiple cards and passports. But don’t pay a premium price just for the RFID-blocking feature, to prevent a crime that isn’t very likely to happen in the first place.

What a Credit Freeze Does (and Doesn’t Do)

When it comes to preventing identity theft, anything you can do to reduce your risk is generally a wise move, even if no one thing (or combination of things) can make you 100% safe.

One step you can take is to freeze your credit file with each of the three major bureaus (Transunion, Experian and Equifax). This prevents creditors from accessing your credit file without taking additional steps to verify your identity. Since most creditors aren’t going to open a new line of credit without being able to see your file, it prevents one of the more common forms of identity theft, which is to open new fraudulent lines of credit which are then maxed out and never repaid.

However, there are things that a credit freeze won’t do, and it’s important to keep those in mind.

While a credit freeze prevents new credit accounts from being opened in your name (unless the freeze is temporarily lifted before applying), it does not, on the other hand, prevent unauthorized access to existing accounts. So, even if you’ve got a freeze in place, you still have to protect account numbers, passwords, PINs, your Social Security number, etc. That means you still have to watch out for phishing and other schemes designed to convince you to reveal this information to people who shouldn’t have it.

Similarly, if your credit or debit card information is compromised due to a data breach, a credit freeze won’t stop fraudulent charges from being attempted. Your card provider may have security protocols that automatically detect suspicious transactions, but that will happen whether you’ve got a credit freeze in place or not (you’ll also have to get a new card, since your old one is compromised).

A credit freeze also won’t prevent other forms of identity theft, such as using stolen information to obtain employment, medical services, government benefits or tax refunds, or to evade law enforcement.

A credit freeze won’t stop prescreened credit offers (for that, you need to call 888-5OPTOUT or visit https://www.optoutprescreen.com), and it also won’t keep existing creditors from viewing your credit files.

A freeze also won’t stop you from viewing your own credit reports, using your credit cards, or affect your credit score, which are misconceptions some people have about the process.

If you want to place a freeze on your credit files, the easiest way is to visit each of the major credit bureaus online and follow their instructions:

One more thing a credit freeze won’t do: remember its own PIN for you. When you place a freeze at each of the three bureaus, you will end up with a PIN for each one. It is important to keep this number in a secure location where you alone can access it, in case you need to apply for a new line of credit later. If you forget your PIN, you can reset it, but the process is not very convenient in most cases, as it requires providing additional documentation to prove that you are really who you claim to be.

Three Tips for Spotting Fake Reviews

If you shop online, you’re probably familiar with the “User Review.” These generally take the form of a star-based rating system (1 to 5) and a text portion where users describe what they liked or disliked about the product. User reviews on a site like Amazon are an integral part of their entire business model, as products can live or die on these reviews.

You’ve probably also encountered some fake reviews, whether you knew it or not. Usually, these are submitted by people who are paid by a company to artificially drive up a product’s average rating. Sometimes they are paid by a rival company to artificially depress a competitor’s score. Other untrustworthy reviews aren’t so much “fake” as they are “low quality.” This would include people poorly reviewing a book they’ve never read because the author has a political or religious viewpoint they don’t like, or people who submit reviews of something other than the item, such as “It was broken in shipping” (okay, fine, but Amazon has a process for that…instead of writing that in anger four seconds after you got the broken one, why not wait until you get a replacement and review that?). The one- or two-word reviews you see (“great!” “love it!” “terrible!”) are always low-quality, and may also be fake.

There are far more than three tips for spotting fake or low-quality online reviews; all you need to do is run a search on “how to spot fake reviews” and you’ll get hundreds of articles, but some of the tips are kind of involved, such as checking how many reviews each reviewer has submitted within a certain amount of time—dozens of reviews of random objects in a short span is a red flag—but who has time to do that? I’m more interested in techniques that don’t take up a lot of your time. Here are three semi-quick things you can do.

Check out the one- and five-star reviews first

If a significant number of the highest or lowest reviews are just one or two words long, or if there’s a lot of very poor spelling and grammar, it may be a sign that the seller has paid a lot of people to submit fake reviews for the sole purpose of affecting a product’s average rating. Off-brand electronics have a notoriously high number of glowing reviews that are completely worthless. However, this doesn’t mean all the extreme reviews are bad—if you find some that are well-written and thoughtful, those are worth considering.

Read some two-through-four-star reviews

For the most part, companies don’t pay people for two- or four-star reviews. They want extreme ratings that will have the greatest effect on the average. The reviews that live in the middle—between “didn’t like it much” and “mostly liked it” are generally going to give some reasons for their opinion. Are there almost only five-star reviews out of hundreds or even thousands? Not a great sign.

Ignore the super-emotional reviews

There’s no real reason for anyone to be that angry (or joyful) over a three-pack of furnace filters. If you’re looking at an album by a music group, a review of the bass player’s response to being asked for an autograph in an airport in 1998 is beyond worthless, as are book reviews that say, “I would never read this trash. One star.” I know, we’re all people, and true objectivity is impossible, but give more weight to reviewers who at least try to stick to the benefits and disadvantages of the item you’re looking at.

Netflix Payment Phishing Scams

Video streaming giant Netflix currently has something like 150 million subscribers worldwide and 60 million in the U.S.

That tells me two things: there are a lot of people interested in gritty dramas, true crime stories, and those documentaries that kind of end up being more about the person making the documentary than the actual subject of the documentary, and what a prime target for a phishing scam.

And sure enough, there is one.

In this case, the phony email message alerts the recipient that there was a problem with their monthly payment. “Please update your payment details,” it begins. There is a link that takes the victim to a website that will either infect the victim’s computer with malware, steal personal and financial information, or both.

There are always clues you can look for when you get this sort of email, such as the message using a generic greeting instead of your name, link text that says one thing while the link actually points to a completely different site, grammar and spelling errors, or even more subtle hints (the screenshot I saw of this phishing email mentioned a “Help Centre,” which is a British English spelling unlikely to be used by an American company contacting an American customer). But you don’t really need to get that in-depth. If you get something like this, go directly to netflix.com and log in to your account (don’t use any links or phone numbers from the message itself). If there really is a problem, they’ll tell you. After all, Netflix is a business. They’re going to make it as easy as possible to correct anything that comes between them and your subscription money.

Tips for Avoiding Apartment Rental Scams

If you’re looking for an apartment to rent, be forewarned that there are scammers out there waiting to take your money and leave you with no place to stay. Here are three tips to remember.

No sight-unseen rentals

If the landlord won’t let you visit the apartment before you agree to rent it and hand over money, walk away. Zero exceptions for any excuse they give, including overseas travel or missionary work. Scammers will pull photos of legitimate rental properties from the internet and post them as their own, then try to convince people to send them money to rent a property that is not theirs. At the very least, you need to make sure the landlord has access to the apartment (and make sure it’s not a dump).

First the contract, then the payment

As soon as a landlord wants you to make an upfront payment, before you’ve checked out the property in person and signed a lease agreement, something is not right. That’s your cue to walk away and report the listing as fraudulent.

There are a couple ways to pay, and several ways not to

A legitimate landlord is going to accept payment by check. There are some who might be set up to accept payment by credit card or electronic checks. The key with these forms of payment is that they are traceable. If a landlord wants you to wire money, pay in cash, or load up gift cards, once again something not-completely-legit is happening.