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Financial scams were on the rise long before coronavirus. But it has taken a pandemic to realise we are living through a fraudster epidemic. It’s time for radical solutions to a big problem says Dana Raer
It takes a matter of seconds and a moment of curiosity. Your entire online identity – credit cards and payment details, names, emails, contacts and photographs – might all be available to a scammer if you press on a wrong button or unknown link.
That can be delivered to you from something as simple as an email, text message or phone call. But how do those scammers even get a hold of a way to contact you?
In the uncertain early days of the pandemic, I received a call from a number I did not recognise. I answered the phone, only to hear an automatic voice saying something about a ‘compensation for a car accident that I had in the past.’ I hung up without even responding, I don’t even have a car.
I would imagine this is an experience almost all of us have had at least once. But during lockdown, I received more unknown calls with machine-recorded voices or text messages with suspicious links than I can ever remember.
It is easy to recognise that voice on the phone, hang up the call immediately or delete a suspicious text, being fully aware of the strategies scammers use on the phone or online. That is why I did not pay that much attention to the matter nor did I report it to the police, thinking it was not the most serious issue during a pandemic.
But over £11 million has been reported lost by victims of coronavirus-specific scams, according to Action Fraud. The whole situation is alarming.
And online scams in particular have become more frequent during the pandemic, reaching a high of 5,152 phishing cases in May in the UK, according to research from Lanop Accountancy. This comes as no surprise considering people were forced to conduct much more of their financial lives online while stuck at home.
But it is not a coronavirus-specific theme. Financial scams have been a growing trend for years. As we enter more data into the digital ether, so scammers gain ever more access to information about us.
In many instances it comes from seemingly-innocuous data held by blundering firms. Take the Marriot Hotel data breach in 2018. Millions of customers had their data stolen by scammers through the leaky security of the hotel chain with untold consequences for customers.
The danger of someone invading our privacy and stealing from us right now is clear then. So what steps should you take?
Modern scammers rely upon digital platforms to gather more information about us, and then steal from us. Taking steps to ensure you’re not leaking data online is a crucial step in preventing yourself from becoming a victim.
The modern internet, and smart technology, is designed to capture your data in one way or another. Anything from what places we like to visit, search history, advertising content and more are collated and sold to create an online profile of who we are. Taking steps to limit how much of this data you share is key to protecting yourself online.
Stop casual tracking
Oftentimes you can be sharing data through your personal devices without even really being aware you agreed to it. For instance, the phone in your pocket tracks all the places you frequently go to through its system settings. A part of this information then feeds into your ad preferences.
Two years ago, Associated Press carried out an investigation on location tracking systems from Google. Its findings showed how Google Maps collected data even after users declined to share their location. The app kept a storage of minute-by-minute travels, unquestionably infringing upon user’s privacy rights.
Why would your location be an important part of your data? Well, it can give organisations a deep understanding of your religious or sexual interests as well as your political activity or health – a complete map of your schedule shows a pattern of your preferences.
After years of consumer complaints about this tracking system, not a lot has been done to change this apart from Google regulators in Europe starting investigations. Earlier this year Ireland’s regulator launched an inquiry into Google’s processing of location data.
Fortunately, it is possible to limit this tracking system. Both Android and iPhone now offer more specific location services permissions. If you’re concerned any apps are tracking you, go into your phone’s location services settings and remove the permission.
If the app needs location services (say, Google Maps), then you can usually limit the app to only accessing location while the app is in use on the screen. You can also now clear that history or turn it off completely in your Google account options.
Taking the time to look at what permissions you are giving away to seemingly-innocuous apps within your smartphone is a great first step.
Set social media boundaries
Social media platforms have changed the way in which we communicate with friends and family and share our lives with others. But this comes at a cost. The quid pro quo of free social media is the agreement (obvious or not) to reveal our data to a whole range of companies.
The most unfortunate element of this is there is usually no way to opt out of it. Facebook makes consent to give your data over an explicit condition of using its platforms. Sure, you may be able to limit how much data it gets on you, but one way or another it will follow you around.
The best way to minimise this, without sacrificing usage of the platform completely, is to limit how much information you input. This means not entering your birthday, middle names, or adding family members to your profile – all things that help Facebook build a web of information about you.
Other ways to limit how Facebook tracks you is to install browser extensions that prevent its cookies – the little bits of code that do the tracking – from following you around. This can be done with extensions like Adblock Plus, Disconnect, or Privacy Possum. Browsers such as Brave or Firefox come with additional privacy elements now too.
Invest in security apps
Investing in a quality antivirus or VPN app can better protect your privacy and prevent scammers from putting malicious software on your computer. Password managers that help manage and create secure login information is also essential.
Antivirus programs such as BitDefender, Norton or TotalAV promise anonymous surfing on the web, unlimited encrypted traffic and security on your wi-fi hotspots to make it safe to take part in online platforms. Meanwhile a good password manager such as LastPass or Keeper will help you create and curate stronger randomly-generated passwords to prevent hacking.
Protecting your privacy when using unknown or open-access WIFI is really important too. These kinds of networks are impossible to police effectively and highly susceptible to scammers. Setting up a good VPN, from the likes of ExpressVPN, NordVPN or Hotspot Shield will help scramble your phone or computer’s internet connection and keep you anonymous.
Remember, personal information is now the most important asset in the digital world we all inhabit. However, there should be some limits to how much we share. Those limits are occasionally crossed by companies without us even realising when we sign up.
As much as we can pressure governments into taking action, these changes take time. In the meantime, making small personal changes could make the difference between getting scammed or not.
Dana is a former reporter at Mouthy Money, having previously worked for Times Money Mentor and the BBC.