With supply chain snarls still plaguing parts of the U.S. economy, many consumers are turning to gift cards as the holiday present of choice this year. In fact, according to the website Research and Markets, the United States gift card industry is expected to reach $188 billion in 2022.
Why is gift card fraud such a problem?
Because of the small dollar amounts involved, gift card fraudsters face a low probability of prosecution. It’s also easy to convert gift card value to cash or merchandise. In other words, this kind of fraud is relatively risk-free and easy to pull off.
In one common scam, a crook goes to a retail establishment, grabs a handful of gift cards from an out-of-the-way stand or kiosk, and records the card numbers using a magnetic strip reader. After returning the cards, the crook heads home and repeatedly checks balances on the merchant’s website until the numbers are activated.
The thief then spends or transfers the money on the card before the legitimate buyer or gift recipient has a chance to use it. Less sophisticated scammers may simply scratch off the card’s coating and replace it with a sticker, hoping the buyer won’t notice.
You can scam-proof your gift card experience by following these tips:
Don’t pick the front card. Crooks are impatient. They often return compromised cards to the most accessible place on the rack. Select your gift card from the middle of the rack.
Buy gift cards online. Purchase cards online, directly from the business that issued them. This reduces the potential tampering risk.
Inspect packaging. If you purchase gift cards in person at a store, examine the cards for signs of tampering. It’s safer to buy from stores that keep gift cards behind the counter or in well-sealed packaging.
Register the card. If a card issuer lets you register on their website, do it. You’ll be able to check your balance regularly and identify any abuse.
Don’t give out card information to callers claiming to be from government agencies, tech companies, utilities or other businesses. Only scammers ask you to pay fees, back taxes or bills for services with gift cards.
Don’t buy gift cards from online auction sites. They could be counterfeit or stolen, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
If you think you’ve been scammed, contact the store directly and report incidents to local law enforcement.
Compiled annually, the IRS lists a variety of common scams that taxpayers can encounter. This year’s list includes the following four categories.
Pandemic-related scams. Criminals are still using the COVID-19 pandemic to steal people’s money and identity with phishing emails, social media posts, phone calls, and text messages.
All these efforts can lead to sensitive personal information being stolen, and scammers using this to try filing fraudulent tax returns. Some of the scams people should continue to be on the lookout for include Economic Impact Payment and tax refund scams, unemployment fraud leading to inaccurate taxpayer 1099-Gs, fake employment offers on social media, and fake charities that steal taxpayers’ money.
Offer-in-compromise mills. Offer-in-compromise (OIC) mills make outlandish claims about how they can settle a person’s tax debt for pennies on the dollar. Often, the reality is that taxpayers are required to pay a large fee up front to get the same deal they could have gotten on their own by working directly with the IRS. These services tend to be more visible right after the filing season ends while taxpayers are trying to pay their recent bill.
Suspicious communication. Every form of suspicious communication is designed to trick, surprise, or scare someone into responding before thinking. Criminals use a variety of communications to lure potential victims. The IRS warns taxpayers to be on the lookout for suspicious activity across four common forms of communication: email, social media, telephone, and text messages. Victims are tricked into providing sensitive personal financial information, money, or other information. This information can be used to file false tax returns and tap into financial accounts, among other schemes.
Spear phishing attacks. Criminals try to steal client data and tax preparers’ identities to file fraudulent tax returns for refunds. Spear phishing can be tailored to attack any type of business or organization, so everyone needs to be skeptical of emails requesting financial or personal information.
What you can do
If you discover that you’re a victim of identity theft, consider taking the following action:
Notify creditors and banks. Most credit card companies offer protections to cardholders affected by ID theft. Generally, you can avoid liability for unauthorized charges exceeding $50. But if your ATM or debit card is stolen, report the theft immediately to avoid dire consequences.
Place a fraud alert on your credit report. To avoid long-lasting impact, contact any one of the three major credit reporting agencies—Equifax, Experian or TransUnion—to request a fraud alert. This covers all three of your credit files.
Report the theft to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Visit identitytheft.gov or call 877-438-4338. The FTC will provide a recovery plan and offer updates if you set up an account on the website.
Please call if you suspect any tax-related identity theft. If any of the previously mentioned signs of tax-related identity theft have happened to you, please call to schedule an appointment to discuss next steps.
In today’s digital age, it is impossible to avoid the internet. Even if you don’t have a computer and actively avoid social media, there is information about you in some corner of the web. Here are some ideas to help you manage your digital footprint:
Actively manage your security settings. Every app, social media site and web browser have multiple layers of privacy and security settings. When you download a new app or register with a new site, don’t simply trust the default settings. Look through the options yourself to ensure you are comfortable with the level of privacy. One thing to watch for with apps on your phone is location settings. Some apps will track your location even when the app isn’t running.
Protect your online image. Career search firms now have strategies built entirely around recruiting through social media. In addition to recruiting, human resource departments will vet prospective employees by reviewing social media profiles. Pay attention to what others post about you, as well. If you are uncomfortable with what they are sharing, have a conversation with them and ask that it be taken down.
Set boundaries for yourself. According to the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of Facebook users visit the site on a daily basis. And 51 percent say they visit multiple times per day. Try to find the balance that allows you to enjoy connecting with others online, but doesn’t negatively impact other parts of your life. In addition to time spent, draw a bright line between what you consider shareable versus personal information. If you have these boundaries in mind when on social media, it will help you think critically before continuing to scroll or posting something.
Know your friends. Be aware of who you are connected to on social media sites. Be cautious of accepting connection requests from people you don’t know, as some of these requests could be a phishing attempt to swipe confidential information.
The best defence of your private information is you. Having a plan and actively managing your online profiles is the best way to minimize the chance of your personal data falling into the wrong hands.
It’s the dead of night. Something wakes you from a deep sleep. It sounds like popcorn. Is someone in the house? Now you are alert. You grab your phone, open the door and head for the sound. It’s coming from the kitchen. At the same time, the smoke hits you AND the smoke alarms go off. Now is the time to act, and improving your survival comes from thinking about what you need to do….long BEFORE it happens.
Learn from the experts
Do a review of your situation now. Here are links to two great sources:
This includes smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and proper fire extinguishers all in the proper places and all in working order.
The top causes of home fires are cooking, heating, electrical, smoking and candles. Knowing this, you can reduce the risk of fire by creating an awareness trigger when engaging in these areas. For example:
Know how to handle different types of cooking fires both inside and outside.
Know where shut off valves are for gas.
Unplug when not using electrical devices.
Never smoke inside.
Only buy candles enclosed in glass.
Have an escape plan and practice it!
When a fire occurs, you have two minutes to get out. Create a plan, provide two methods of escape, and practice the plan every six months. Know where you are going to meet so everyone is accounted for after you exit. This is especially important for kids as they may need to escape without your help. Also think about overnight guests and grandkids at sleepovers. This is where reviewing plans from experts can help.
Get out. Stay out. Call for help.
Make this your mantra when in the midst of a fire emergency.
Review this I wish list.
Hindsight is 20-20, and especially so when it comes to fires. Here are some tips from those who have gone through it:
I had a go bag. This is a small bag of essentials stored in your bedroom to grab if you need to leave in a hurry. It contains a change of clothes, coats, or other emergency items for the kids.
I had a good inventory. After the fire, you are going to spend a significant amount of time with insurance adjusters. Periodically review your policy and develop an inventory of your household items. Take videos, document models and ages of major appliances, autos, other equipment, and valuables.
I had a where to go plan. If you cannot return to your home, where will you stay? How will you pay for it? Figure this out ahead of time.
I had a remote backup of my computer and phone. Remote backups can be invaluable in getting you back up and running.
I had an emergency fund. It will take a while to get your life back in order. What if you need to take time off from work? Having 6 months of emergency funds can make all the difference as you recover from your disaster.
The purpose of this article is not to act as an expert in fire safety, but rather to help generate awareness in this often overlooked subject. If, however, you need expert advice with your financial and tax affairs as you navigate this or other disasters, please call for help.