personal finance

How to Protect Yourself Against Scams

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Before I got scammed, it wasn’t really something I worried about. I knew I wasn’t immune, but I figured I’d see through a serious fraud if one came along. I never responded to weird texts; I blocked and reported phishing emails claiming to be from Geek Squad. Occasionally someone would get ahold of my credit card information and buy random stuff with it, but it was always resolved quickly. It was, at worst, a minor nuisance, a small price to pay for digital conveniences.

Then, last October, I fell for a devastating imposter scheme that cost me $50,000. In trying to understand what happened — and, more specifically, how it happened to me — I interviewed a number of other scam victims, as well as experts who research sophisticated scams and how they work. My biggest takeaway is we’re all potential victims, even sitting ducks, under the right circumstances. But we can’t live our lives in a constant state of paranoia (and even if you do, it might not help). Instead, it’s best to be prepared. Here’s what I wish I’d known before I was targeted, and what has helped in the aftermath.

1. Spot a scam before it starts.

One way to dodge scams is simple: Don’t pick up calls from people who aren’t in your contacts, even if your caller ID recognizes the number. (For what it’s worth, my scammers were able to spoof calls from government agencies and Amazon customer service, so anyone is fair game.) If the person trying to reach you is legitimate, they’ll leave you a voice-mail and you can cross-check their callback number. Or they’ll find another way to get in touch.

Of course, sometimes you might answer your phone without thinking. Or a scammer might make contact through other means, like text or email, or even speak to you in person. Frauds are constantly evolving, but most fall into one of two categories: the fear-based (you owe taxes, you’re about to be arrested, your identity has been stolen, a family member has been kidnapped or arrested and you need to pay ransom or bail, etc.) or the opportunity-based (you’re getting access to a great investment, a fantastic discount, lottery winnings, a tax refund, romance). Each model preys on different personalities; what fooled me might sound ridiculous to you and vice versa.

Don’t underestimate your hardwired instinct to defer to authority. Sophisticated scammers thrive on “source credibility” — their ability to present as respectable figures with a good reason to contact you, says Christine Kieffer, a senior director at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), an organization that regulates financial systems. They might pose as a member of your bank’s fraud department, a customer-service representative from a business you use, a lottery official, or a government agent. They might show you a “real” badge or ID. (My scammers did all of the above.) They might have a LinkedIn profile or a Facebook page or an Instagram account with followers and connections. Sure, we’ve all heard that scammers do this, but in the moment, it can be hard to believe that someone is straight-up lying to you.

An advanced scammer will also establish a sense of familiarity. In my case, the people who contacted me knew my birthday, my address, the names of my family members and where they lived, and the last four digits of my social security number. But all of that information is pretty easy to come by online, says Kelly Richmond Pope, a professor of forensic accounting at DePaul University and the author of Fool Me Once: Scams, Stories, and Secrets from the Trillion-Dollar Fraud Industry. “A thorough search on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, or Google could probably turn up the names of your family members, how old your kid is, where you live, where you graduated from high school or college, if you were in a sorority, who you married, when your anniversary is, your mother’s maiden name,” she says. (And if there’s something a scammer can’t find out for free, they can probably buy it on the dark web.)

2. Might be a scam? Slow down.

Let’s say you do find yourself on the phone with someone who claims to be from your bank or the government. “If someone comes to you with information, and you’re busy, you’re thinking, Well, wait a minute, could this be? Did I? Maybe I didn’t … And that’s what lures you in at first,” says Pope. “Suddenly, there’s something pressing that you’ve got to attend to immediately.” This is how many scams start.

One way to interrupt this process is to get third-party verification. “We are all conditioned not to question authority, and scammers prey on that,” says Pope. “If someone says they’re calling from an institution, ask them for the name of their supervisor and what branch they work at.” Then hang up, call the main number of that branch and ask to be connected to the person who contacted you. Sure, it’s annoying to take extra steps, but if the call is in good faith, then this shouldn’t be an issue.

Slow down and find a way to disengage. This might seem unthinkable in the moment, especially if you’re scared. (It was for me.) If you’re worried about sounding rude or upsetting a person who’s threatening you, say you have an incoming call that you have to take. Blame connection issues. Tell them you have to go to the bathroom. Whatever it takes, invent a reason to hang up and take a breather. “The objective is to stop and get out of that emotional moment,” says Kieffer.

Tell someone else. Many scammers will give you a compelling reason why you can’t tell anyone what they’ve told you. That’s because it tends to break the spell, says Kieffer. “When you share what’s happening with someone else, that’s literally the best protection against fraud that exists,” Kieffer explains. “Saying things out loud is an excellent reality check.”

(Note: Your scammer might tell you that your phones have been bugged and your communications are being monitored; mine did. This is probably a lie. But if you are genuinely worried about it, try to talk to someone else in person, away from your phone.)

Finally, document as much as possible. If a call starts to get intense, try to record it or take notes. Save all your communication. Ideally, doing so will help you notice red flags and inconsistencies before things escalate. It will also be useful to share with authorities after the fact.

3. So you got scammed. It’s time for damage control.

Report the incident. I sincerely hope that you can identify and stop a scam before you lose money. But no matter how it ends, you should report it. It might feel pointless and embarrassing; do it anyway. Start with this government website, which will direct you to the proper agency (usually the FBI or the FTC). From there, you’ll be asked to submit a summary of what happened. “You’re probably not going to hear back from them, but it’s still important to report,” says Kieffer. Your account will be used in ongoing investigations and to determine resources and funding that are allocated to them. A big reason that scams are so rampant is that most go unreported. Your scammer may never be caught, but your story could prevent other frauds in the future.

Establishing a record of a crime can serve you in other ways, too. When I was scammed, I reported it to my local police precinct. The NYPD officers were patronizing and unhelpful, but according to my accountant, having a paper trail that proves the crime occurred will come in handy when I report it as a tax write-off due to theft loss (more on that in a moment).

If you did lose money, tell your bank or any other financial institutions that were involved. You might not get your money back (I certainly haven’t, and don’t expect to). But after hearing a lot of people’s personal scam stories, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many did manage to get reimbursed, at least partly, by their bank or credit union after they contacted the fraud department. If you wired money to a scammer, sometimes a bank can pull it back if you sound the alarm quickly. And if your scam involved your credit card, you should almost always be reimbursed (after all, a big reason to use credit cards is their fraud-protection benefits).

Finally, many banks offer malware-protection products for free; it’s always worth running a check on your devices if you’re worried they’ve been compromised.

Next, check your credit score and freeze your credit. I know; anything involving credit reporting agencies sounds like a giant headache, but I am here to tell you it is not! Freezing your credit is free and much easier than it sounds. It protects against someone using your personal information to open credit cards or borrow money in your name, which can hurt your credit score and even cause you to owe money you never actually borrowed.

The only downside to freezing your credit is that you will need to unfreeze it if you want to open a new line of credit (for example, if you’re getting a new credit card or applying for a loan). But that’s similarly straightforward, and not something you do very often. Also, the sooner you notice anything strange on your credit report, the sooner you can contest it and get it removed. You could even freeze your credit as a preemptive measure against identity theft; I plan to leave mine frozen for the foreseeable future.

Keep an eye on your taxes. If someone has stolen your identity, they may try to file a tax return under your name to collect a tax refund on your behalf. There are two ways to prevent this. One is to set up an account with the IRS before your scammers do, which makes it much harder for them to use your information. The other is to file your taxes early, so your scammers don’t beat you to it. So just get them done — it’s never a bad idea.

If your scammers stole money and it was not reimbursed or covered by insurance, sometimes you can write it off your taxes as a theft loss. Tax write-offs are a case-by-case situation, however, so it’s worth consulting an accountant before you do this.

Finally, get support. Getting scammed is much worse than just losing money. For me, it was a deeply violating and shameful experience. One report found that almost half of scam victims blamed themselves for what happened to them (I certainly did, at first). Ultimately, I was lucky; my family is safe, I have a great support system, and we’ll recover financially.

But many other victims aren’t so fortunate. Research shows that most fraud victims experience serious mental-health issues in the aftermath of being scammed, including major episodes of depression and anxiety. To me, this is the most heartbreaking aspect of fraud. But it’s something that everyone can help to fix. If you know someone who’s been scammed, be kind and check in on them; they’re probably beating themselves up more than you know. If it happens to you, seek help. And don’t be afraid to talk about it — the more we do, the more prepared everyone will be to stop it from happening to them, and to fight back when it does.

Email your money conundrums to (and read our submission terms here.)

How to Protect Yourself Against Scams