Phone Scams are Big Business for Criminals

The Ripoff Alert is an ongoing series alerting you to the latest scams and ripoffs. What to look out for and what you need to know to stay safe. This is #23 in the series. 

Smartphones are everywhere. I remember a year or two ago there were many people I knew who still had old style flip phones. I myself had one until last fall. Now just a few remain who haven’t jumped on the smartphone bandwagon.

We carry these things everywhere with us – to work, on road trips and to the grocery store. Now that so many of us own these mini computers, we have to take a minute to think about how we can protect the information stored on these devices.

Kiplinger has a list of things we need to be aware of concerning phone scams:

1. Your smart phone holds a mother lode of data

2. Think before you click

3. Scammers cast a wide net

4. That big bonus prize? It’s bogus

5. “Toll fraud” could be down the road

6. You can fight back

My thoughts are below.

1. They list some things we now do on our phones including banking, checking Facebook and calling your Mom. You have to start thinking of your phone as a computer. As such, it holds a lot of personal data that could be used against you in the wrong hands.

Lots of folks password protect their computers, and I recommend doing the same for your phone. That’s your first line of defense if your phone is lost or stolen.

2. They offer a common sense solution: “If it’s too good to be true or too enticing to be legitimate, ignore it.” That applies to texts, emails, banner ads, and anything else you may come across.

I recently wrote about scammers’ efforts to target their attacks against us, a crime known as spearphishing. Criminals have more information about us than you think, and are able to use it against us in new ways.

Just delete any emails or texts from senders you don’t recognize.

3. It seems that scammers are always a step ahead of us. They target a wide range of people knowing they only need a few victims to make it worth their while. The article mentions that because of QR codes and URL shorteners, it’s harder than ever to detect suspicious links or websites.

What exactly are the scammers after? Two things: Our money or our personal information (which they’ll then use to steal our money.)

4. I got a text the other day claiming I’d won a $1,000 gift card from Target. All I had to do was respond with some personal information and my “prize” would be on its way.

Now think for a second. Who wins gift cards out of the blue? The scammers know these are tough times and that we’re more vulnerable than usual.

5. One reason you have to be careful clicking unrecognized links is that they could contain malicious code. This code causes your phone to download ring tones or wallpaper without your knowledge or permission, which you’re then billed for by your phone company.

A related crime, carried out by your cell phone company itself, is known is cramming. In cahoots with third-party marketers, they “cram” unauthorized charges onto your bill, hoping you won’t notice. And guess what? Most people don’t. One obvious solution is to go through each page of your bill every month. If you see a strange charge, call your phone company and have it removed.

A more proactive solution is to have your phone company block all third-party charges. That prevents toll fraud or cramming from happening in the first place.

6. The article offer several good suggestions about how to fight back against phone scams. Among them: Complain to the FTC at; forward spam texts to 7726 to alert the phone company; download and use an antivirus program such as Lookout; and ignore texts you don’t recognize.

It may seem that criminals are one step ahead, but you can level the playing field by anticipating their moves and protecting yourself from their attacks.

9 Tips to Stay Safe Online

We’re spending more time online than ever. With each new device that comes out, our options for staying connected increase. Heck, our DVD players are now connected to the internet.

The Net offers convenience, entertainment and ways to stay connected with those around us, but it also exposes us to new threats. We all want the upside without having to worry about the downside.

So what I’ve outlined below is a series of easy-to-remember tips that will keep you happily blogging, buying, surfing…or whatever you do on the Net.

The first and most obvious thing you can do to keep yourself safe is to (1) use strong passwords. For every website you log into, you need a unique password that contains letters, numbers and symbols. For convenience, use one of your hobbies or your favorite sports team and change up the letters a bit. For example, someone who enjoys fishing might choose f1shIngF@n.

Experts recommend using a different password for every site. If you’re like me you visit about three dozen sites every day. Remembering that many unique passwords wouldn’t be possible without a program like LastPass, which remembers your password for you each time you visit a site.

To keep your computer up-to-date against the latest viruses, you need to (2) set your antivirus program to download and install updates automatically. But for it to be any good, you need to put your antivirus software to work occasionally. At least once a month, (3) scan your entire computer for viruses. To round out your toolbox, scan for malware using Spybot Search & Destroy and Malwarebytes.

Your browser, operating system and other software also need to be kept up to date. So (4) don’t ignore the update notifications that pop up on your toolbar, thinking you’ll get to them later. These updates are your best defense against the latest viruses.

Here’s another no-brainer, but some of us still forget: (5) don’t open suspicious emails. If you don’t know who the sender is, do yourself a favor and hit delete without even opening it. And be careful with emails that appear to be from companies or people you trust – I talked earlier about the fake Facebook notification emails.

Since most of us, including myself, do our banking and shopping online, I have three tips to keep your finances safe. First, (6) don’t check your bank accounts on public networks. That includes the free wi-fi you find at coffee shops and airports, but also public computers at the library. These networks are not secure, so anything you type could be intercepted by criminals. You may disagree with me here, but I think it’s best to avoid doing anything involving your finances while on a public network.

When you go to buy something online, (7) look for the lock in the address bar. You should also see the “s” in “https://” telling you the page is encrypted. (8) Your method of payment should always be credit card. If you pay with a credit card and something goes wrong, all you have to do is dispute the charge with your credit card company. But if you pay with a debit card, it’s your money that’s gone and you have to fight your bank to get it back.

I have one last tip for you as you’re getting your daily fix. Criminals are getting more sophisticated every day in their ability to swipe our personal stuff. Online, things aren’t always what they seem to be. So my last tip is to be careful out there. (9) Think before you click and you’ll stay out of trouble.

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Where to Find Free Checking

freeI read recently at that checking fees have risen to a record level in 2012. “The banking industry finds itself in the middle of a fee-for-all.” Sounds a little like the airline industry doesn’t it?

I know what you’re thinking. “You’re probably going to ask me to switch banks, aren’t you?” If you’re at one of the big banks and are unhappy with the way you’re being treated, yes. If you’re happy and feel you’re getting your money’s worth, that’s great. You can probably skip this post and go read one of my other ones.

Here’s the problem. Banks have been limited in their ability to fee you for overdrafts and in what they charge for debit card swipe fees, so they’re looking elsewhere to increase revenue. They’re coming after you in other ways to make up the difference.

I remember when you could walk into just about any bank and open a free checking account, no strings attached. I opened my first account as a teenager in the early 2000s, and back then many banks were giving free gifts to people who opened accounts. Some offered cash. The only bank I’m aware of that offers a reward today is ING direct (soon to be Capital One 360), which gives you $50 for opening an Electric Orange account.

The best way to get free checking is to join a credit union or online bank. According the Bankrate report, 72% of the largest credit unions still offer free checking to their members. Many credit unions participate in an ATM network with other credit unions around the country, so if you use ATMs frequently look into this option before joining one. Many online banks, such as ING Direct and Charles Schwab, offer free access to any ATM in the country. The only downside for online banks is you can’t deposit cash. I get around this by depositing at my credit union and transferring it electronically to my checking account.

I know it’s a pain to switch banks. I’ve gone through the process a few times myself. The trick is to take your time. Give yourself a couple of months to transition your automatic payments. Leave enough money in the old account to cover any remaining drafts.

Now, what should you look for in a free checking account? Aside from FDIC insurance, the two most important features are no monthly maintenance fees and no minimum balance requirements.

Even at the biggest banks there are ways to avoid checking fees. Maintaining a minimum balance or a monthly direct deposit are the two most common ways to avoid fees. That’s great, but what if you lose your job? What sparked my search for a new bank in the first place was a letter from my old bank notifying me of a required direct deposit. I didn’t want something else to worry about if I became unemployed.

For those who won’t jump through the hoops, expect to pay a service fee averaging about $5.50 a month, or $66 a year. The price tags for overdrafts and out-of-network ATM withdraws will pinch you as well. If you insist on sticking with your big bank, use only their ATMs and don’t “opt-in” to overdraft protection.

In the end though, is the convenience of big banks enough to offset the higher fees? That’s a question only you can answer. As for me, I’m willing to inconvenience myself just a little to avoid fees and get better service.

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