Don’t Recognize the Number? Don’t Answer the Call!

One of the first steps of the financial planning process is to make sure that you have properly protected your assets. Usually, we are talking about making sure that you have the appropriate insurance coverages in place. You buy life insurance to protect your loved ones if you pass away; you buy health insurance to protect against large medical bills; you buy disability insurance to provide income if you become sick or are in an accident; and you buy auto, homeowners, and boat insurance to protect your property against fire, theft, and accidents.

But what about protecting your personal information? The bad guys are getting more and more creative with their schemes, and they are most often targeting some of our most vulnerable citizens—the elderly. They know that moms, dads, aunts, and uncles usually have more assets and tend to be a little less tech-savvy. That combination makes them easier and more lucrative targets. If the crooks can get access to information like your date of birth, Social Security number, or credit card information, they can have a field day—at your expense.

The best way to avoid becoming a victim is to always be on the defensive. Unfortunately, in the world we live in today, your default position should be to not trust anyone you don’t know. And you even have to be careful around those you do know. We’ve all heard the stories about people being defrauded by family members, friends, and people they know from the club or from church. If they are close to you, it’s easier for them to get what they need.

My wife and I were recently visiting with my aunt, who is a few years into her 70s. We took her out to breakfast and were enjoying getting caught up on family stuff. Twice during our breakfast, her phone rang. Both times, she commented that she didn’t recognize the number, but then she answered the calls anyway! Both were for some type of solicitation, and she hung up. It’s good that she cut the calls short, but many of today’s scams don’t need you to stay on the phone for them to work. Some of the calls are simply designed to record your voice. The bad guys can then edit the recordings so that it appears to be you when they are authorizing charges in your name.

Some other common phone scams include:

  • Calls from the IRS, Social Security, or Medicare. By using the name of these respected, or feared, government agencies, the criminals are trying to get you to provide your personal information. It’s important to know that these government agencies will never call and ask you to provide information.

  • Calls from a bank’s “Security Department.” In this scam, they tell you that they are investigating a rogue bank employee and they could use your help catching them in their crime. They ask you to go to the bank and make a withdrawal. Then a bank “officer” meets you, takes the funds you have withdrawn, and promises to put it right back into your account. We know how that plays out.

  • Grandma gets a call telling her that her grandchild has been in an accident and that they need money. An even nastier version of this scam is when they tell the grandparent that the child has been kidnapped.

  • Fake charity scams. These often occur after a natural disaster, so we might see an increase in this scam since Hurricane Harvey hit Texas over the weekend. The scamsters call and ask you to make a donation to help the victims of the disaster. We all want to help when a disaster hits—we just have to be careful. A good idea is to initiate any donation you care to make via the charity’s website.

There are many other scams, but they are all versions of the same trick. The criminal gets you on the phone and tries to separate you from your money or your personal information. The good news is that there is a simple way to avoid falling victim to these crimes. If you follow one simple rule, you will greatly reduce your chances of being scammed. If you don’t recognize the number calling you, don’t answer! If it is a legitimate call, the caller will leave you a message, and you can call them back.

But the bad guys are even making it difficult to follow that one simple rule. Technology is now available that allows them to make the incoming call look like it’s coming from your area. It’s a lot more tempting to answer a call when it looks like it’s coming from your town. So, as difficult as it may be, you can limit your chances of being scammed by only answering calls that come from numbers you absolutely know. As I suggested to my aunt: “Don’t answer that call!”