Your phone rings and you answer it without a thought. Suddenly your day is going in a very different direction. An agent with the IRS is informing you of irregularities in your tax return and is threatening steep fines and legal action unless you sort it all out with them immediately. They ask you to verify your employer’s name, your Social Security number, annual salary, bank account numbers. You frantically gather the information to make this all go away and hope that… Wait a minute. Let’s rewind that and review what just happened.
The oldest trick in a con artist’s toolkit is to pretend to be someone they’re not. Long before the Internet, long before computers and even machines, people have been pretending to be someone else in order to steal information, valuables, land, inheritance, you name it. What’s different now is that criminals have even more ways to make their ruse believable. And tax season is the perfect time of year for con artists to work their craft.
The classic con job is technically known as “social engineering.” The con strives to create an atmosphere of trust, urgency, intimidation, sympathy, whatever it takes to play on your emotions and get you to do their bidding. Sometimes it’s for money, other times it’s to steal information, gain access to your home or office, anything you can imagine. A “guy in IT” may call you to “verify” your password. An “IRS agent” may call or email you to deal with “a very serious matter.” A “stranded motorist” may ask you to use your phone or your bathroom. The con artist may yell or cry, or even play a recording of a crying baby in the background. They are the ultimate actors and actresses, and deceiving you is how they make their living.
It’s not the IRS
Con artists have a great ally in the Age of the Internet. The con can easily fake the phone number they’re calling from. Now it’s not just some voice claiming to be an IRS agent, your Caller ID even shows that the call is coming from the “IRS.” Of course, it’s not the IRS. But it’s one more critical step in the con job, stirring up emotions and breaking down your doubt and building anxiety. Email is another great tool for con artists. By using official-looking logos and fake email addresses that look real, cons can pretend to be just about anyone, hoping that you’ll respond to their “urgent matter.”
So what can you do about it?
When in doubt, doubt
The first critical step is to not trust anyone who calls you, asking for sensitive information, to transfer money, access to your home, anything out of the ordinary. The best weapon you have against the con artist is your own doubt. We live in a trusting society, and it can be hard to discount someone’s story. But try to remember that it’s just that, a story. And the story they’re telling is not going to be a happy ending for you.
Another critical step is to never immediately volunteer information to someone who contacts you, whether through email or over the phone. Legitimate requests from government agencies, banks, doctors’ offices, etc., will all provide ways to contact them. You can then verify the contact information on your own, through the organization’s published phone numbers and online “Contact Us” webpages. Taking that extra time gives you a chance to think and to ask trusted friends and family for their thoughts. If it all checks out then you call the organization, not the other way around.
Don’t even say goodbye
Remember, a con artist needs you to believe in their story, and they usually need you to act quickly to take their bait. Instead, stop and think. Don’t reply to their email. Hang up the phone. You don’t even need to say goodbye. Once a con artist thinks you’re a difficult target, they’ll probably move on in search of an easier victim. If they persist, you can contact the authorities for help.
Posted by LifeLock Security Communications Director Joe Gervais