You hear about scammers all the time. They call, email, and message you trying to get information for some nefarious purpose, generally to steal your financial information or to try and manipulate you into doing something. Most of the time scams can be ignored, sent to your email’s ‘spam’ folder, or avoided altogether, but sometimes you encounter a particularly resourceful and cunning person who is determined to make you a target. In that instance, calling the person a scammer doesn’t seem appropriate. Sometimes these targeted attacks can be very serious.
Recently, a client contacted my firm because her family had been targeted by an extremely aggressive and threatening scam artist. Her younger sister had gotten some pretty serious text messages from a stranger who claimed to have kidnapped a family member. The series of text messages and phone calls that followed contained threats and very specific personal information; they knew her home address, the location and balance of her bank account, and personal details about her family. They insisted that she pay the balance in her account and made a variety of threats designed to scare, intimidate, and manipulate her into complying with their demands. Thankfully, the alleged kidnapping was a hoax and the entire thing turned out to be a scam; a very scary and unsettling one at that.
This case got me thinking, how often does this sort of thing happen? A targeted attack like this is enough to rattle even the most rational and composed person. If you or a loved one should find yourself the victim of a particularly serious scam attempt, and I sincerely hope that you never do, here are some things to consider:
Safety First. As difficult as it may be, take a deep breath and try not to panic. Each situation is different, but the people who perpetrate the type of scams as the one relayed above are very good at eliciting strong emotions. Their tactics are designed to keep you off guard and to force you to act quickly to satisfy their demands. If you receive a threat that you believe is credible, get somewhere safe and call the police immediately. Provide the 911 operator with the details of the situation, ask that an officer be sent to your location, and be sure to state that you fear for your safety.
File a Police Report and Obtain a Copy. If you do not believe that you are in immediate danger, it is best to still file a police report and be sure to include all the specific information you can. Chances are you are not the only person who has been subjected to this particular scam, so everything you can relay is important to help identify and track down the person responsible.
For example, give them the phone number dialed from (if displayed), the time of call, actual text messages (if applicable), the words used in the conversation, and any specific threats or demands that were made. Did the caller have any identifying characteristics, such as an accent, lisp, or stutter? Were they male or female? Did they use slang or a bizarre phrase? How old did they sound approximately? Each detail can be significant and even the smallest piece of information can lead investigators directly to the perpetrator.
Make sure that you get a copy of the police report, even if there is not enough information for the police to move forward with an investigation at that point. As discussed below, having the report will make it easier for you to gather additional information and to update your personal accounts.
If the scammer continues to contact you, try not to engage, incite, or threaten. I understand the temptation. Don’t answer the texts or calls unless otherwise instructed by the police. Should you decide to engage in the conversation, try not to confirm any further details they provide, as they may simply be fishing for additional information. Take detailed notes and make sure to provide to the police so they can update your case file.
Protect Your Assets. Change whatever information was provided by the scammers as quickly as you can. If they have your bank account information, call the bank immediately and let them know you have been compromised. They should check for, and investigate, any suspicious transactions, as well as change your account number and put an immediate hold on your funds to prevent any unauthorized removal.
Notify your credit card companies to stop any unauthorized transactions and ask that new cards be issued with different account numbers. You should also submit a fraud alert to the three major credit bureaus (TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian) requesting direct authorization from you personally before any new accounts are established in your name.
Do not limit these steps to the accounts with which the scammer indicated he had access. With even minimal personal information, a resourceful scammer can easily uncover other financial data about you. So it is important to change the passwords and security questions connected with all online financial accounts.
Prevent Further Access. You are safe, have contacted the police, and created several new roadblocks to protect yourself financially. Now what? If you were contacted via telephone, notify the phone company and/or your cell provider and give them the details of what happened. Provide them with your police report and ask what information can be supplied about the calls that can then be submitted to the police to assist with any future investigation. At the very least, the phone companies can block any further calls and text messages from the same number or numbers.
Of course, blocking calls may only prove to be a temporary solution if the scammer is using multiple ‘burner phones’ to establish continued contact. Thanks to Google Voice, scammers can also create multiple free accounts, complete with phone numbers local to their target, without providing any personal information. As inconvenient as it may be, you may need to consider changing your phone number entirely if the calls and texts persist.
If you were targeted via email, then contact your provider and explain the situation. As with the phone companies, your provider should be able to block any further emails and flag the account and/or accounts from where they were sent. Submitting your police report may also give your provider a reason to initiate an investigation to establish where the emails originated. Ask that you are provided with any additional information that is obtained so you can submit to the police for further review.
If you need additional professional help investigating the origin of the scam, then you should contact a qualified private investigator or certified fraud examiner depending on your specific situation. They will be able to fully explain your options and help you to find the information you need. I would also make sure that the person you hire is licensed by your state (if applicable) and holds the Certified Fraud Examiner designation if hired to investigate a financial fraud.
Of course, it is generally easier to protect yourself from becoming a victim beforehand. Here are a few additional tips that can help safeguard your privacy and make you a much more difficult target of an aggressive scammer:
- Always shred or burn any documents containing personal and/or financial information; never simply throw away.
- Set your social media accounts to private and remove all sensitive information from your profiles and posts. Never include your birthday and be judicious about posting photos of your kids, home, and valuables.
- Regularly update your online passwords and security questions. Use passwords that include a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and special characters.
- Don’t give out personal information to people on the phone or email that you don’t know. If it sounds fishy, tell them you will contact their company back directly. There is a popular scam where people will call to ‘verify’ your bank and credit account details. A legitimate financial institution will never call and ask for your account information.
- Conduct a search of yourself on the Internet to identify what personal information can be obtained. Consider fixing or ‘scrubbing’ any information that you may believe sensitive or subject to use in possible fraudulent activity (check out this 2011 article from The New York Times for further details).
- Be diligent when providing your personal information to anyone and be clear how that information will be used and managed. View privacy policies to see how your data will be shared.
If you have any questions about this topic, or need investigative assistance with a situation you believe to be a scam, please feel free to contact me directly.
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