Three Tips for Keeping Your Information Safe

So you have a crosscut shredder and you know to hang up on that “you owe back taxes” phone call, but personal information can be compromised in many ways. Here are a few personal data security tips that you might not have considered.

Never email your Social Security Number

No matter who someone claims to be, there is never a reason to send someone your Social Security Number via email. Even if you are initiating contact with someone you believe works for the IRS. This happened to a writer at Lifehacker—she wrote an article about the 2020 Economic Impact Payments, and a number of readers somehow got it into their heads that she was from the IRS and began emailing questions that included a lot of personal information. Don’t ever do it. Even if you somehow are in contact with the IRS or other government entity via email (which is exceedingly rare), they already have your SSN and other information. If someone you don’t know is asking for your number via email, they’re up to no good. If it is someone you do know, with a legitimate reason to need your SSN, there are safer ways to relay this information.

(The entire above paragraph also applies to text messages. Don’t text your Social Security number, either.)

Never email an account number or PIN

On a similar note, it is a bad idea to email financial account numbers. If you get the wrong address, you could accidentally send your information to someone else. In the same way the federal government already has your Social, any business you have an account with already has your account number. They can look it up. You also never know what the email security protocols are like on the other end. Even if the security system itself is robust, how do you know your email isn’t sitting out in full view on an unlocked computer, while the recipient walks away (or leaves for the night)?

Never give additional information

If you successfully opened an account or membership with a company, you have already provided them with all the information they need. For example, if you sign up for Netflix, all they need is your name, email address, phone number, and payment information. However, phishing emails that appear to come from Netflix appear in inboxes every day, and many of these contain links to fake websites designed to harvest further information, such as banking passwords/PINs, Social Security numbers, and other personal details. Don’t do it. If they needed a piece of information, they would have asked for it before opening the account.

Employment Scams are Still Going Strong

The Better Business Bureau has released a report on employment scams that is well worth a read (it’s only about six pages long, not counting the title page and what would be the back cover if the report were printed).

There are some interesting findings in the report.

In 53% of cases where someone responded to a job offer that turned out to be fraudulent, the primary thing that attracted the victim was the promise of being able to work from home. This is nothing very new—I was writing about the scammy nature of online work-from-home offers ten years ago—but I have a feeling that fake job listings will increasingly promise working remotely as the pandemic continues in the U.S. Stay home full-time and get paid? I would want to take that action without a pandemic simply because I don’t like commuting. If I was looking, and if any of those jobs weren’t scams.

The age group most targeted by, and most likely to fall for, a fraudulent job posting is the 25-34 range. People in that age bracket are often looking for their first career-type job, and those with established careers still tend to change employers often. Additionally, a lot of them don’t (or barely) remember a time when the internet wasn’t just an everyday fact of life, the way the television was just there if you grew up in the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s. They may not have developed an innate slight distrust of online offers yet, which is such a helpful scam-avoidance tool.

While younger people are more likely to be victims, the greatest monetary losses to these scams are incurred by people aged 45-54 and 65+. Women are more likely to encounter a fraudulent job listing online, but men are slightly more susceptible to becoming a victim. Unemployed persons account for over half of the encounters with job scams, which makes sense because they are more likely to be looking in the first place.

If you’re looking for work, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, you must research every single company that puts an advertisement up. Make sure it’s a real employer offering a real job that pays real money. Never pay someone else in order to secure a position, and assume any listing with the words “work from home” is very, very likely fraudulent. There are exceptions, but they are few.

Finally, some online job postings involve processing payments from home—receiving large sums into your account, then transferring or wiring it to overseas accounts, or processing shipments—receiving electronic goods which are then “reshipped” to someone else. These jobs will compensate you, but they are actually part of an organized money laundering scheme, leaving you as one of the only verifiable, domestic, and easy-to-locate links in the chain. Victims of these scams can find themselves in legal trouble if law enforcement decides they “should have known” something was not right.

You Have Not Been Awarded a Grant

“Money for Nothing” is a great song (from a year I’m not going to name because none of us need to feel that old right now) but a lousy concept to hang your hopes on. Especially when it comes to the promise of grant money.

Hang around the internet long enough and you’re bound to see an advertisement, email or social media post (or direct message) informing you that you—yes, YOU—have been awarded a grant you didn’t apply for, or can get one simply by responding to the pitch.

This is the problem: grant money is kind of hard to get. First, you must have an identifiable project that needs funding. Then you must find a grant that is earmarked for projects like yours. Then comes the application process, which can be quite exhaustive (and exhausting). After the paperwork comes the waiting. If you are successful, then comes using the money exactly as indicated, then (usually) reporting back to the grantor with proof that you did so.

But in the popular imagination, grants are just free money indiscriminately handed out for doing whatever. That makes grants, especially federal grants, an easy setup for scams. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • You will never be awarded a grant you did not apply for.
  • They do not hold drawings or raffles to distribute grant money.
  • Real government grants do not require you to pay up front—advance fee fraud is a very common grant scam (there may be private foundations that require an application fee, but this would be exceedingly rare, and cause for suspicion in most cases).
  • Grantors will not contact you out of the blue; it is your job to find them.
  • Your friend on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram is not telling you about a real grant opportunity. Your friend’s account has been hacked or cloned.
  • You will generally never be awarded a grant to simply do whatever you want with it.
  • For the most part, grants are not advertised, and the word “free” is suspect; there may be exceptions involving famous people running a nationwide project, but a yard sign or a flyer on a pole? No.
  • “Cash this check, then wire some of it back to me for fees/taxes/because the amount is too high” is always, always, ALWAYS a scam.

What do the people running grant scams want? They want the usual: for victims to give them money or personal information. They may ask for banking information in hopes of breaking into your accounts, other personal details to steal your identity, an upfront payment via wire transfer or prepaid gift cards, or to convince you to cash a check, then wire funds back before the check comes back as counterfeit.

Mystery Seeds and Brushing Scams

By now you have probably heard of people getting packets of mystery seeds sent to their homes, apparently from China. And you may have heard the term “brushing” applied to this scheme. But what is brushing, and how should you respond?

Brushing is a scam used by online sellers to boost their product ratings at online marketplaces, such as Amazon, that allow third-party sales. Sellers will order their own products through these channels and send…something…to random recipients, then use the now “verified” purchase (since a shipping label was created and the shipment was completed) to post five-star reviews of their own product on the unwitting recipient’s behalf. The sales also help artificially inflate the product’s ranking on the site through which it was “sold.”

What gets shipped to the random recipients is generally not the product whose ranking and reviews are being inflated. It will be an inferior knockoff, an empty box, or in the case of this latest version, a packet of mystery seeds, labelled as jewelry on the outside of the mailer.

What should you do if you get a packet of seeds you didn’t order?

First, do not plant them. They could be an invasive species capable of destroying crops if they spread, such as amaranth, which has already been identified in some cases. By that same token, don’t throw them in the trash, since they could take root at the landfill and spread from there. (Also, don’t eat ‘em, smoke ‘em, or stick ‘em in your ear. I know that should be obvious, but people can be…surprising.)

Do not open the packet. If you live in Indiana, mail them along with the envelope and any packaging to:

State Plant Health Director
Nick Johnson
3059 N. Morton St.
Franklin, IN 46131

(Outside of Indiana, you will need to find out where to send the seeds.)

If you are concerned about identity theft or data breaches, change your password with any online retailers you do business with, and keep an eye on your credit reports and bills. The addresses used in this scheme are mostly obtained by the sellers buying a mailing list, but it never hurts to use a little extra caution.

Watch Out for This Amazon Prime Phishing Scam

Here is the text of an email that has been used to target Amazon Prime members:

Dear customer,

Your Amazon Prime membership is set to renew on [DATE].

However, we’ve noticed that the card associated with your Prime membership is no longer valid.

To update the default card or choose a new one for your membership,

Please find the document attached and follow the on-screen instructions.

To prevent interruption of your benefits, we will try charging other active cards associated with your Amazon account if we can’t charge your default card.

If we can’t process the charge for your membership fee, your Amazon Prime benefits will be suspended.

The message includes an attached PDF file.

There are other versions of this attack out there. Some are poorly-spelled attempts to convince the recipient to click on a link and login to what they think is the Amazon website, but isn’t.

However, in this case the grammar and spelling are fine, and the original message as it appears in your inbox contains correct Amazon Prime logos and graphic elements. This one isn’t trying to weed anyone out—it is designed to convince as many people as possible to open that attachment.

What’s in the attached PDF? Most likely the file is infected with malicious software, something that will either log keystrokes or give someone else access to and control of your computer. It may even contain actual instructions for logging into your Amazon account.

If you are a Prime member, keep track of your renewal date so you will know right away if an email has any chance of being legitimate. But also remember that Amazon isn’t going to send you a message with an attached file. Never open an attachment in an email message you weren’t expecting. Even if you think the card associated with your Prime membership might really be expired, don’t click any links or open attachments, visit the Amazon website directly and login to check.

Add Warren Buffett to the List of People Not Giving Away Free Money

Bill Gates isn’t the only game in town when it comes to scammers posing as generous billionaires. Here is an email that made the rounds over the past year:

My name is Mr. Warren E. Buffett an American business magnate, investor and philanthropist. am the most successful investor in the world. I believe strongly in ‘giving while living’ I had one idea that never changed in my mind? that you should use your wealth to help people and i have decided to give ($2,500,000.00) Two Million Five Hundred Thousand United Dollars, to randomly selected individuals worldwide.On receipt of this email, you should count yourself as the lucky individual. Your email address was chosen online when searching at random. Kindly get back to me at your earliest convenience , so I know your email address is valid. ( warrenbuff02(at) ) Email me Thank you for accepting our offer, we are indeed grateful You Can Google my name for more information: Warren Buffett .God bless you.

Sure. Warren Buffett’s email address is going to be “warrenbuff02(at)” And he’s going to forget the word “I” at the beginning of a sentence. And rich people give away millions to random individuals all the time. That’s how they get rich—by giving it away, not by getting it and keeping it. Everybody knows that!

So, it is very obvious that this message is designed to appeal only to the absolute most trusting individuals, and weed out anyone who might start to respond but become suspicious and not follow through. It is also obvious that the World’s Richest People are going to forever have their names utilized in email-based grifts like this one, so for future reference, if you get one of these from Jeff Bezos later on, that’s a scam, too.

A Reminder That the IRS Won’t Email You

Will there be a second round of direct Economic Impact Payments to U.S. residents in 2020? The debate continues as of this writing (mid-June 2020), and while the question of whether or not it will happen might be resolved by the time this article is published on June 24th, I ran across an article that is disturbing in either case: Second Stimulus Payment Fraud: Why 35 Matters More Than $1,200.

In short, a research team did some polling and found that 35% of the people they asked expected the IRS would contact them by email regarding future Economic Impact Payments. That’s over one third of people who, upon seeing a message from the IRS in their inbox, would not immediately recognize the attempted deception.

This is despite the IRS repeating “we won’t email you” like a mantra, despite hundreds of articles written about how the IRS won’t email you (I’ve penned a few myself), despite warnings of email scams going after the previous payments, despite the fact that they didn’t email anyone the first time around in 2020.

Therefore I want to remind you now: don’t be one of that 35%. The IRS isn’t going to email you, about future payments when and if they occur, or about anything else.

Why So Many Scams are So Obvious

A lot of times, the fraudulent email messages that show up in your inbox are laughable. Bad spelling, terrible grammar, bizarre claims, incorrect logos when they try to imitate a well-known corporation. If you’re a charitable type, you might chalk it up to the fact that many scams originate overseas, from people whose first language is not English. If you’re not as kind, you might just go with, “Boy, these scammers sure are stupid.”

But what if there is a reason those emails are so wrong on every level? What if they’re that bad on purpose? After all, they still work.

Pretend you’re running an email scam. You bought a database of a million email addresses for a couple dollars, and you want to maximize your earnings in as short a time as possible.

If you send your scam attempt to all one million addresses (we’ll assume they’re all valid for the sake of this example), and your pitch is so well-crafted that 1% of its recipients respond, you now have an inbox with 10,000 replies. On the surface, that might look great—after all, 10,000 victims that lose $1,000 each means you’re going to have $10 million coming in.

However, not everyone who responds is going to end up following through and wiring you money. If only 1% of the 10,000 who responded end up giving you money, that’s 100 victims (admittedly, still a nice little chunk of change), but 9,900 people you had to waste time trying to convince to fall for a scam they ultimately didn’t fall for. If you’re a single person, or a small team, that’s a lot of time lost. When you consider the hours that would have to be spent, it ends up being more cost-effective and less work to get a job. It would be much better to deal only with people who are very likely to send money.

The solution a lot of scammers go with is to make the attempt as transparent as possible from the start. This way, the only people who respond are those who are not savvy enough to detect anything suspicious. If only 200 people out of a million respond, the success rate is going to be much higher, and less hours will have to be spent on people who ultimately figure out that something isn’t right.

None of this is to say that every scam attempt is going to be completely transparent. One type of email scam, known as spear-phishing, uses inside information about a company to gain access to sensitive financial or customer information. These messages appear quite professional, with perfect spelling and grammar, and correct details about a business’s operations, and in many cases attempt to impersonate a manager or executive at the organization itself.

Traffic Ticket Email Scams

Here is one way to get a traffic ticket: break the law in front of a police officer, who then pulls you over and writes you a citation. This is the most common way to get fined, and it probably dates to about a week after cars first became commercially available.

Here is another: get caught on a traffic camera going too fast or running a red light, and the ticket shows up in the (postal) mail. This method is much newer than the pull-‘em-over routine, and it’s not in use everywhere, but it has become more common.

Here is a way you’re not going to get a ticket: through an email informing you of a violation, that also contains links to pay the fine or dispute the ticket.

Why? For the same reason the IRS doesn’t send official communications through email: because there is no “official” email address through which to reach you, or anyone else. There is no national, state, county or municipal database keeping track of your email contact information.

Think about it. You live at your address, and this information appears on official documents like your driver’s license, financial accounts, and everything else. You cannot live at 123 Any Street, then suddenly decide, “You know what? I’m tired of 123 Any Street. I live at 456 Other Street now!” and have that be your address, then change it to something else a few days later.

But you can do that with email addresses. You can also have more than one. You can have more than ten. The number of email addresses you use is really only limited by how much spare time you have on your hands. And since there is no database at any level of government, no registry that is updated when you create a new email address, there is no way for a traffic ticket to be sent by email with any confidence that the address belongs to a particular person, or that it is still maintained.

“But I’ve been renewing my license and plates online for years, so the state does have my email address on file,” you might be thinking.

And it is true—you can renew plates and online. But again, they only have that email address because you provided it. There is no way for the state to verify that it belongs to you personally—after all, someone else could be paying for your plates and using their email (nice of ‘em, eh?), or you could switch internet providers the day after renewing, causing the address you used for the transaction to go dormant or disappear. Since there is no database keeping track of these things, sending a traffic ticket through email simply isn’t practical.

If you’re still unsure about an email informing you of a traffic fine, all you have to do is call the department from which the email claims to be from. Use an internet search to find the real phone number—don’t rely on any contact information from the message itself—and ask if they issue tickets by email. The answer will be “no,” but it does not hurt to check if you’re still worried. Whatever you do, don’t click on any links or reply to the email in any way.

Email Extortion Scams

For the past couple years, people have been getting emails that claim to have caught the recipient doing something embarrassing or illegal. These messages are attempts at extortion and nothing more.

In one version, the email claims the potential victim’s computer webcam has been hacked, and that some private video footage was captured—something they would not want viewed by the general public. The message goes on to demand that the victim make a payment in bitcoin to the sender in order to avoid having the video distributed to everyone they know. This message contains an actual password once used by the recipient, cited as “proof” that the sender knows who they are and has access to their computer, contacts, webcam, and more.

The password used as evidence that the email is legitimate will be real. The recipient will have used this password at some website in the past. However, there has NOT been any webcam hack in this case.*

Here’s what DID happen: quite a few years ago, there was a data breach at some big website or other. I have received one of these messages, and as far as I can remember, the password they used dated back to 2009 or 2010. (Unfortunately, I do not remember which website it was used with.) Therefore, the database of email addresses matched with passwords being used in these attacks is quite old. I recognized it right away—it was from a time before I knew how to create strong passwords.

The people sending these messages are hoping you’ll recognize that password. They’re counting on it for the immediate fear reaction. However, they didn’t hack anything. They purchased an outdated database from a decade-old data breach and started sending emails.

However, while you’re deleting this message (and NOT sending bitcoin to anyone), there is still something to be learned. For one thing, if you’re still using the password from the message on any website, app or account, CHANGE IT NOW. For another, never reuse the same password for different accounts. You don’t want poor security at some message board you visit three times a month to be the reason someone was able to login to your credit card account. Once any website is breached, even one with not that many users or sensitive information, it is guaranteed the hackers will try your email/password combination at all the major financial sites, or use it to attempt extortion.

*Note: none of this is to say that the camera on a mobile phone, tablet or laptop computer can’t be hacked or compromised in some way, it’s just not what is happening with these particular emails. Remember the little hunk of tape you put over your laptop’s camera years ago? Still not a bad idea. Leave it on.