Protect yourself from high-tech fraud


How it works: Skimmers swipe your credit or debit card through a handheld device, or they install an overlay device—a slightly different color than the machine—on an ATM or gas pump. The device gleans information—your name, account number, expiration date, security features—off the magnetic stripe on the back of the card. The thief copies information from your card to a fraudulent one and sells it to a counterfeiter.

How to avoid it: Try not to let your card out of your sight when shopping or in a restaurant, and watch for devices on ATMs and gas pumps.


How it works: A criminal gets your personal information under false pretenses, such as by calling and posing as a survey firm, then sells it to people who may use it to get credit in your name, steal your assets, or investigate or sue you.

How to avoid it: Never give out your financial information via phone or email unless you initiated the contact.


How it works: Scammers send emails—often including the name and logo of a legitimate business or financial institution—luring victims to a “spoofed” or fake website where they’re asked to enter personal information.

How to avoid it: Beware of emails that use a generic greeting (Dear Visa customer, or Dear friend) rather than your name, refer to an urgent problem, say that your account will be shut down unless you reconfirm billing or other personal information, or urge you to click on a link within an unsolicited message. Remember: A legitimate business or financial institution will never ask you to enter sensitive financial information via email.


Smishing is phishing via SMS (short message service) and it’s targeted at cell phone users who use text messaging.

How it works: You receive a text message along these lines: “We’re confirming you’ve signed up for our dating service. You will be charged $2 a day unless you cancel your order.” The message includes a Web link that routes you to the main phishing page, where you’re prompted to download a program.

How to avoid it: Be cautious about deregistering from a service when you’re sure you didn’t make a formal arrangement with the sender. Be as vigilant about security for your cell phone as you are for your computer. If you have children who have cell phones, warn them about this scam as well.


How it works: You receive a phone call from an automated random dialer informing you that your credit card has been used illegally and asking you to call a fake 800 number, where you’ll be asked to confirm your account details. Or you may receive an email asking you to call a toll-free number.

How to avoid it: If you get a call asking you to give personal information, hang up and call the financial institution that issued your card, using the number on the back of the card. Your provider will know if the call is legitimate. Delete any emails making similar requests, and never provide personal information in response to an email.


How it works: When you type in an Internet address and hit enter, you’re redirected to a fake Web site where you’re asked to submit personal information.

A hacker may have hijacked the legitimate site and is redirecting all traffic.

Malware such as viruses and Trojans may be directing you to the site.

A minor misspelling of the domain name may trigger the redirection.

It may be DNS (domain name server) poisoning, which is most dangerous of all—a poisoned server is redirecting traffic. Basically, you enter a Web address into your browser, and poisoned servers send you to a website other than the one you requested.

How to avoid it: Keep your firewall and virus-protection software up-to-date. Also, look for “https” in the URL before entering sensitive information and for the closed padlock icon in your browser frame, separate from the vendor website window; these indicate secure sites.

Phony appeals

Fraudsters have long tried to talk people out of their money with hard-luck stories or too-good-to-be-true “opportunities of a lifetime.” They used to do it face-to-face or by U.S. mail; now email is often the preferred channel. And the messages frequently come from the other side of the world, although that is seldom obvious.

The Nigerian letter scam is a common one. A message arrives claiming a reputable authority figure in an African nation needs help transferring millions of dollars to U.S. accounts, and offers a percentage if the recipient helps. But first the recipient must send an advance fee to cover the transaction costs, and often gets requests for other fees. The sender typically finds reasons to charge other fees until the recipient wises up. Then the sender disappears—with the money.

International con artists also often snare lovelorn Americans through online dating sites. After the American’s interest is piqued, the online correspondent claims to have a sudden need for cash, often due to a personal tragedy.

Got Spam? Send it to the FTC

Unsolicited commercial email—also known as spam—is filling our inboxes. It’s estimated that unsolicited junk mail accounts for more than nine out of every 10 email messages. If you get spam that you think is deceptive, forward it to

For tips on reducing the amount of spam you receive, go to

Opt out to prevent fraud

Visit the Direct Marketing Association’s DMAchoice tool to get your name and names of those in your care off mailing lists, telemarketing lists, and email lists. In addition to some helpful FAQs, the site also offers information about preventing identity theft, avoiding sweepstakes scams, and being a smart catalog shopper.

Go to main navigation