According to a 2014 survey completed by AARP, online consumer fraud has jumped by nearly 60% over the past six years, and has cost Americans more than $525 million in losses. In fact, of the more than 14,000 individuals surveyed in the study, 65% reported having received an offer for a scam within the previous 12 months.
While the majority of respondents expressed concern about being scammed, a significant proportion engaged in 15 key behaviors that made them more susceptible to falling victim to fraud, many of which were very similar. As a result, for simplicity’s sake, we’ve grouped these 15 behaviors into 4 distinct categories.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at what these behaviors are, and discuss practical tips on how you can change your online habits to avoid becoming a scam victim.
Behavior #1: Increased Online Activity
While this one may seem like a no-brainer, people who are active online are more likely to become scam victims than those who are not. However, what’s important here is not necessarily that they’re more active—it’s the type of behavior that they engage in. This includes clicking on pop-up ads, opening emails from unknown senders, signing up for free trial offers, and sharing more detailed personal information, such as on social networking sites. In fact, among the study respondents who were scammed, 10% had posted their social security numbers online, 17% provided landline telephone numbers, and 11% posted their personal schedule or calendar. These types of high-risk behaviors make you much more susceptible to malware, and increases the chances of your personal information ending up in the wrong hands.
So what’s the solution? In short, be very careful about what personal information you post online, because you never know who will read it, and what they will ultimately use it for. While this certainly entails obvious information such as social security numbers, addresses, and phone numbers, this also includes less obvious information like birthdates, relationship statuses, and even names of related individuals. Scammers have fine-tuned the art of preying on your weaknesses, and can use this seemingly innocuous information in a lot of different ways to separate you from your hard-earned money.
Behavior #2: High Impulsivity Levels
Another seeming no-brainer is that victims of online fraud tend to be significantly more impulsive than non-victims. In other words, even though their brains may be telling them, “Hey, this probably isn’t the best decision,” they act more on emotion than on intuition. In fact, according to the AARP study, victims were about 10% more likely to agree with the statement, “I don’t mind taking chances with my money, as long as I think there’s a chance it might pay off” than non-victims.
With this in mind, online fraud victims also tend to be much more worried about their current levels of personal debt, and feel that it’s ultimately more than they can handle. As such, a scammer will prey on this feeling of hopelessness, and offer a “get rich quick” solution that claims to immediately solves their debt woes. However, the reality is that these types of scams often lead to many more financial problems than the original debt.
So what’s the solution? First, if you’re tempted to become involved in something that sounds too good to be true, take a deep breath and walk away from your computer. According to this article, it’s often the case that impulse decisions are made in order to achieve a feeling of liberation, or to provide a quick ego boost. By temporarily separating yourself from the situation, you’ll be more able to logically weigh the pros and cons before you make a life-changing decision.
In regards to debt, any financial advisor will tell you that it likely took you a long time to accumulate it, and it will take at least as much time to whittle it down to something more manageable. In other words, despite the despair you might be feeling about your debt, there are no “quick fixes,” which is exactly what most scammers will try and make you believe. For additional information on how to responsibly reduce your debt, be sure to take a look at the FTC’s Coping with Debt section.
Behavior #3: Negative Life Events & Feelings of Aloneness
According to the AARP study, scam victims often have weaker social networks (both online and off) than non-victims, which can lead them to feel more alone and isolated from people who can help. In addition, victims often keep in touch with friends and family less than non-victims. After all, our friends and family members provide an immense amount of emotional support in times of need, and if a scammer comes along and promises that you’ll be part of something bigger than yourself, it can be a strong incentive to become involved.
Perhaps as a precursor to feeling alone, scam victims were also reported to be significantly more likely to have experienced a recent negative life experience, or even a series of these events, including loss of a job, recent divorce, a serious illness or injury, and even high levels of stress associated with moving.
So what’s the solution? Social support is not only a great tool for avoiding scams, but it’s also a an integral part of being a happy, healthy human being. According to the Mayo Clinic, engaging your social network can provide a wide range of benefits, including a sense of belonging, improved self-image, and feelings of security. If you don’t already have a strong social network, consider volunteering, joining a gym, going to school, or even searching online for people who share some of the same interests or hobbies.
Behavior #4: Reduced Online Literacy
According to the AARP study, individuals with lower online literacy levels tended to be more apt to fall for a scam. No surprise, right? What was surprising however, was what they defined as “literacy.” This included an understanding of:
- Sharing habits of companies who request your personal information.
- What information is accessible by the consumer.
- Where your data is—or isn’t—secure (e.g. free Wi-Fi hotspots at local coffee shops).
- How to change privacy settings on social networking sites.
In this context, amazingly, only about 46% of respondents answered correctly overall, while some questions in the survey received as little as 5% correct answers. Ultimately, this means that less than half of the study’s respondents, which ranged in age from 18-75+, and which represented a wide variety of backgrounds, were considered online literate.
So what’s the solution? Do your homework, and never stop learning. In addition to reading, writing, and math, digital literacy has recently become known as the “fourth literacy” that individuals need to become proficient in, in order to be fully functional members of society. And like any of these other skills, you need to constantly work at them in order to become better. After all, scammers are constantly changing their tactics, and you need to be in-the-know at all times.
How to Break the 4 Behaviors that can Lead to a Scam
So with all this in mind, what can you do to avoid becoming the victim of a scam?
First, you may want to read through the AARP’s Fraud Watch Network, where you can check out common scams in your state, view scam-related resources, and even take a short online quiz to see if your behaviors make you an easy target for fraud.
If you ultimately find that you do have a propensity for being scammed, what can you do? According to the findings of the study, they offer 4 main tips:
- If you’re experiencing an especially emotional time in your life, such as losing a job, a recent illness or injury, feeling lonely or isolated, or overwhelmed by debt, realize that you’re in a susceptible state, and should avoid accepting “irresistible offers.”
- Avoid clicking on pop-up ads related to weight loss, money-making ventures, and free trial offers. In fact, based on our experience it’s typically a good idea to avoid clicking on pop-ads altogether.
- The more information a scammer has about you, the easier is for them to lure you in. Because of this, be cautious with what information you choose to share online.
Have you been the recent victim of a scam? Do you have any tips on avoiding scams that you’d like to share? If so, join the discussion by leaving a comment below!