Fraud on the risePublished 8:04pm Wednesday, January 22, 2014
The phones are ringing off the hook. And the person on the other end of the line wants nothing more than your personal information — the kind of information that could land you in the position of the victim.
“We have seen a significant rise in fraud-related reports in the past 10 years,” said Major Kenneth Watson, spokesman for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.
In 2003, 107 Beaufort County residents were victims of fraud. Five years later, the number climbed to 129. In 2013, 154 people fell victim to fraud. In all, fraud-related crimes have risen by 50 percent in Beaufort County over the last decade.
The crimes encompass a broad range of situations in which victims are scammed into releasing personal information or funds to the perpetrators: clicking on a deceptively harmless link that downloads personal-information mining software onto a personal computer; a similar link that locks down a computer, paving the way for a fake online technician to “solve” the problem, at a price; supposed lottery winners who must pay up front to receive winnings from overseas; and the list goes on.
In the last several months, a few of these scams stand out. In September of 2013, a woman reported that her social security checks were being diverted to a bank account in Sioux Falls, S.D., a bank account that was not in her name. What law enforcement found out was that an unknown person changed the woman’s account information on the federal Social Security website. How that person discovered her Social Security website password could be attributed to Malware — it stands for malicious software, used to gather sensitive information or gain access to private computer systems and is easily downloaded if precautions are not in place.
On Jan. 17, an elderly Beaufort County woman was called at home by someone who identified themselves as working for the electric company. She was told that someone was on the way to shut off her electricity.
“They tried to get her to give out personal information,” Watson said.
The process is called “phishing,” the act of attempting to acquire information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details (and sometimes, indirectly, money) by masquerading as a trustworthy entity.
“Frequently, they’ll slowly walk you through the process. They may go after account information, social security number,” Watson explained.
This woman was savvy enough to know that the call could be a scam and was able to get off the phone without giving up information.
“One of the ways people can help protect themselves is they should not give out information. If it is a legitimate representative of the company, they should have your information,” Watson advised, adding that anyone who receives a similar call from a company they do business with should disconnect and call the company in question back using its listed number.
“If you don’t trust the person who has reached out to you, you can hang up and call the company,” Watson said.
The number of scams continue to increase as law enforcement catches on to the scammers, which then forces them to change their methods. But at this time of year, Watson warns county residents to be aware of tax- and social security number-related fraud.
There are a few ways in which scammers work during tax season, Watson said. One is that someone files a tax return with all your information, hoping to divert any tax refund to their own account. Another way, is that scammers will use the social security number of a young person, claiming them as a dependent in order to beef up their own tax return. A third way, is that a person may use a stolen social security number to legitimately file taxes because they have no valid social security number of their own.
This type of fraud causes significant problems for the victims, Watson said. Once a social security number has been used to file taxes for a year, it cannot be used again. And an investigation first by local law enforcement, then by the IRS, takes time.
“We’ve seen victims of this trying to work it out for months and months,” Watson said. “Of course, it ties up any refunds you may be getting.”
If a dependent’s social security number is used to fraudulently file taxes before the parent files taxes, then that parent won’t be able to claim that child as a dependent until after investigation.
As to how to prevent becoming a victim of such scams, it’s simple: “Protect your personal information,” Watson said. “Don’t share it. Don’t keep it in places others may have access to.”
Checking reports through the three major credit-reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — can red flag fraud before major damage has been done.
“If (someone) believes their personal information has been stolen, they need to put up fraud alerts with the three major agencies. Check for fraudulent activity through reports,” Watson said. “A lot of times if someone is using your information, you can catch it. Fraud alerts make it more difficult for them.”
While many scams target the elderly, simply because they may be less computer-savvy than their younger counterparts, when it comes to tax fraud, anyone with a social security number is considered fair game by scammers.