Defeat would-be thieves by keeping sharp

Posted April 04, 2010, at 6:56 p.m.

If they weren’t trying to steal your money, we might laugh off their efforts as a bad April Fools’ joke.

The problem is they are trying to steal your money. And while they are hatching new schemes all the time, some familiar themes keep cropping up.

One was reported in this newspaper recently as authorities in Hancock and Washington counties got wind of automated phone calls. Someone posing as an official of Machias Savings Bank generated the calls, urging people to enter their credit card information to “reactivate” an account.

Of course there is no inactive account and Machias Savings Bank had nothing to do with the calls. The home page of the bank’s Web site states: “By policy, we will never ask you for personal information, passwords or account number or send you an e-mail or text message with a link to a website” (another favorite of phishing scammers).

Lots of people who aren’t bank customers received the calls, e-mails and texts as scammers blanketed the state with their messages. The crooks sometimes use bits of personal information they’ve bought or researched about those they are calling, to gain their confidence.

These cons are trying to get passwords and other information. With these bits of data, they can access — and potentially clean out — the accounts of bank customers.

As we’ve discussed before, phishing is an attempt to get your personal and financial information under false pretenses. Other Maine banks have been targeted and have issued similar cautions once the fraud attempt is discovered.

It’s not clear how much money may have been lost in phishing attacks; it’s likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars each year. When you receive any e-mail or text seeking financial information, remember that legitimate entities do not operate that way.

Don’t respond to such phone calls. Don’t click on links in e-mails or respond to text requests for personal information.

If you’re a customer of a bank, credit union or other business named in a phishing attack and feel your information has been compromised, you should contact the customer service department. You also may want to notify local police. While phishing attacks are widespread, police may not be aware of a particular incident until someone lets them know it’s going on.

Thieves are polishing their phone techniques as they find new ways to take your money. Social engineering refers to all the ploys that a caller might use to convince you that 1) the call is legitimate, and 2) you should give the caller whatever information is requested. DON’T FALL FOR IT. Real businesses don’t work that way.

Neither do government agencies. Some phish scammers mail official-looking envelopes containing information-seeking letters; these crooks have no right to ask for information of any kind from you. Simply throw their letters away and notify police and postal inspectors of the fraud.

Be suspicious of any letter, e-mail, text message or phone call that’s not a response to an inquiry by you. The crooks are working overtime to avoid doing something productive; don’t be their victim.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or go to http://necontact.wordpress.com.

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