On Guard

Learn how financial fraud works and what you can do to prevent it.

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By Kathleen Childers ‚óŹ Illustrations by David Saracino

Brenda Gadow was just a week away from getting married when her bank called with bad news. Someone had made a $600 online purchase of cosmetics using her debit/credit card account. And it wasn’t her. 

“I was shocked. The money was gone from my account, and the timing couldn’t have been worse,” says the Easton, Pennsylvania, Thrivent member. “We were paying for our wedding with cash. That money was needed to pay our vendors.”

Gadow was the victim of financial fraud. Nationally, her experience is all too familiar. In 2019, 3.2 million reports of financial fraud were made to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).1 That’s an increase from 2018, when consumers made nearly 3 million reports, with losses of nearly $1.48 billion.1 Of the frauds reported in 2019, imposter scams—when a criminal claims to be someone else—topped the list.2

What can you do? It’s probably impossible to fully prevent financial fraud from happening. But there’s plenty you can do to decrease the chances of becoming a victim or at least minimize the damage.

Understand the Basics

There are many ways financial fraud can happen (more on that later), but they tend to fall into two general categories. 

  • Identity theft. This occurs when someone steals another person’s personal information. “It happens in different ways, such as a data breach or stealing of paper documents with identifying information,” says Sharon Minta, director of compliance and anti-money laundering officer at Thrivent. “Stolen identity might lead to a financial account being taken over by an imposter. Fraudsters are also using synthetic identities, one that combines real personal information and some made-up information. Synthetic identities are created from stolen information from you or even your child.” In that case, fraudsters could open accounts or make transactions under your name. They also might use stolen identity information to get medical care, file taxes in your name or access your insurance and investments.
  • Scams. Have you ever been asked to send money to someone you don’t know or to an organization that seems suspicious? Or maybe you’ve been told you have a loan that’s overdue, and you must send money immediately to avoid legal trouble. Or have you received calls from someone pretending to be a government agency? The stories change constantly, but they all have one thing in common: They’re scamming schemes, designed to get money from you.

While no one seems to be immune from financial fraud attempts, some groups of people tend to be more vulnerable. “At Thrivent, similar to others in the financial industry, our elderly population is being exploited,” Minta says. FTC stats back that up. In 2018, the median amount lost by people in their 70s who reported fraud to the FTC was $750 compared to $400 lost by people in their 20s.2

Know How Fraudsters Work

Financial fraudsters try to steal your identity and money in a number of ways:

  • Online transactions and account management: If you make any transactions online—banking, managing retirement accounts, making purchases—and a criminal somehow gains access to your personal information, it could be used to make illegal transactions, as Gadow experienced with her account before her wedding.

If you are planning to send personal or financial information online, always look for the security lock icon on your internet browser's status bar before transmitting. Click the lock to confirm the connection is secure and the certificate is valid to verify a safe transmission of your information.

  • Phone calls: Have you ever been called by someone asking for your credit card number to pay off a bill? Or maybe the person claims to be a long lost relative and wants you to send money. There are many, many variations of such scamming calls. One of the most popular ones right now is a caller who attempts to get you to tell them your Social Security number. Another is a caller claiming to be from the IRS stating that you owe back taxes that need to be paid immediately.
  • Emails: Scammers use what are called phishing emails to ask you to reply with personal information or to click on a link that could then secretly install malicious software (called malware) on your computer in hopes of accessing your personal information. “Such emails can be hard to detect,” says Molly Raisbeck, an information security analyst at Thrivent. “They’ve gotten sophisticated by becoming more personal and targeted. And they often follow the headlines in the news.” For example, the FTC recently reported that the Coronavirus pandemic has led to scammers setting up websites to sell bogus products, as well as sending fake emails and text messages to try to get your money or personal information.3
  • Text messages: You might not expect to get phishing scam text messages—called smishing—but it happens. They’re similar to email requests, asking you to click on a link or reply with personal information.

Learn to Say No

Here’s how you can protect yourself when someone you don’t know asks for money or personal information by phone, email or text message:

  • Don’t share sensitive data. Make a commitment to never give any sensitive information over the phone, in texts or in emails. Keep in mind that the government never requests your Social Security number through such communications.
  • Be on guard with communications asking for money. That includes cash, checks, money orders and gift cards (a recent trend with scammers). If someone contacts you asking for donations for an organization you think is legitimate, look at the email address or other identifying information and make sure it’s legitimate. If you’re unsure, independently look up the number and call the organization to ask if they tried to contact you.
  • Don’t open suspicious emails and texts. “Be alert and delete any that come through that look suspicious or that you were not expecting,” says Raisbeck. If you do open one, don’t open any links that might be included.

Guard Your Information

Being proactive is your best defense against becoming a financial fraud victim. Here are some suggestions:

  • Check personal accounts frequently. After her wedding tragedy, Gadow looks at her bank and credit accounts daily for unauthorized transactions. She acknowledges that daily checks may be more frequent than necessary, but it makes her more comfortable right now given her experience. Minta recommends carefully checking your financial account statements when they become available for transactions you didn’t authorize. Experian recommends checking credit card statements at least monthly.4 And the FTC recommends you also check your health insurance plan statements to make sure the claims paid match the care you received.5
    • Protect your computer. The FTC recommends you install security software from a reliable source. Then make sure it and your web browser are updated automatically.
    • Sign up for identity theft protection services. There are various services that offer protection for free or a fee. Thrivent clients have access to a couple of different programs (see “Financial Fraud Resources”).
    • Check your credit reports. Contact the three primary credit reporting agencies—Experian, TransUnion and Equifax—and sign up for credit monitoring alerts. Review your credit reports annually.
    • Create electronic logins to accounts. “Even if you don’t want to access your financial accounts online,” says Minta, “by creating a login and password, you’re preventing an imposter from doing it and possibly gaining access to your accounts.”
    • Create strong passwords. “Thrivent recommends using longer passphrases (15+ characters) instead of the typical shorter passwords if you can,” says Raisbeck. “If you do, the only time you’d need to change it is if someone learns your password, the account becomes compromised or you use the same password for multiple accounts.” It’s also a good idea to use two-factor authentication when available. But don’t agree to have a site save your password. “Instead, use a secure, dedicated password management application,” says Raisbeck.
    • Use secure internet connections. Criminals can access your phone or computer from unsecured connections. Make sure your home internet is secure, and limit use of public Wi-Fi to only those establishments that are trustworthy. When in doubt, connect to the internet with your phone’s hotspot, if possible.
    • Shred documents with personal information. You can buy a shredder and do it yourself, or pay a reputable shredding company to do it.

    Report Fraud

    While you might feel embarrassed about being a victim of fraud, it’s important that you don’t hide it. In fact, sharing what happened, and doing so quickly, doesn’t just protect you. It helps authorities track down fraudsters and alerts others so they can be watchful. And you may get resolution more quickly as well. Whenever you’re a victim of fraud or have concerns about having shared personal information, report it to all organizations where you have accounts, including financial institutions, credit card companies and Thrivent. They’ll advise you about what steps to take, including changing your passwords or freezing accounts. You also should contact:

    • Local law enforcement. Fraud is a crime, so the police in your community should know about it.
    • FTC. This government agency has a system in place so that you can quickly and easily make a report online (see link in sidebar).
    • Neighbors and friends. Consider sharing any fraud attempts you’ve experienced on social media or neighborhood websites, to caution others to be on the watch. But be careful that you don’t unintentially share more of your information than you should.

    Gadow’s wedding story had a happy ending. It took several hours of phone calls with her bank and the online retailer, but they returned the stolen funds to her account. She now uses separate credit cards for online purchases, keeps tabs on what types of scams are trending, regularly monitors all of her financial accounts and changes her passwords frequently. She’s also signed up for account alerts from credit bureaus and is alert to phone and email scams.

    “I thought I was savvy enough that it wouldn’t happen to me,” she says. “I learned my lesson so hopefully it won’t happen again.”

    Reach Out to Thrivent

    • Place alerts on your account that raise awareness and assist Thrivent in protecting your accounts
    • Ask questions about an interaction that affects your Thrivent accounts.

    Financial Fraud Resources

    Use these resources to help you avoid becoming a victim of financial fraud and to report it.

    Contact your financial professional or call 800-Thrivent to:

    ProtectMyID or ProtectMyID Select®

    These programs are available at no cost or at a significant discount to Thrivent clients. They give you access to daily credit monitoring, identity theft resolution agents, identity theft insurance and more.

    Identity Theft: What You Need to Know Workshop

    At this Thrivent workshop, you’ll learn more about how identity theft can occur and what you can do to safeguard your identity.

    The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

    This government agency has online resources to help educate consumers about financial fraud. It encourages anyone who’s been a victim of financial fraud to report it to the FTC using their online system. Report identity theft and file a complaint for other types of financial fraud.

    Credit reporting agencies

    Contact the three primary agencies—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—to get your credit reports, or to place freezes on credit checks.

    Kathleen Childers is a freelance writer in Minnesota.