Online identity fraud and how to protect yourself

18.05.15  |  Advice, Cybersecurity & Online safety

Scam artists have been working to defraud others pretty much since the concept of currency and bartering was invented. With the creation of the Internet came the perfect tool for scam artists to target millions of potential victims, so it’s important to learn how to keep yourself safe.

The good news is that it’s not as hard as it may sound – all it takes is some common sense and vigilance, and some anti-virus/Internet security software to act as a safety net.

Signs of a scam

So, how do you know when someone is trying to scam you or steal your identity? Here are some sure signs to look out for.

E-mails from organisations that you don’t recognise

If you receive an e-mail from a company/organisation that you’ve never had any dealings with, then read the e-mail very carefully and if there are any attachments on the e-mail, don’t open them.

If the e-mail is asking you to supply any sort of personal detail, or banking information, passwords etc. then it is best to assume that it’s a scam e-mail.

If you’re in any doubt, simply go to the organisation’s website and find their phone number, and then give them a call to check if the e-mail is legitimate. Any organisation should be thankful for your call, so don’t feel embarrassed.

E-mails that don’t refer to you by name

Scam artists generally only have a list of e-mail addresses to work from, they very rarely know the name of the owner – so scam e-mails often start with a generic “Hello” or “Dear Sir”.

Most organisations, if they have need to e-mail, will refer to you by name, e.g. “Hello David” or “Dear Sarah” and often your full name.

E-mails with spelling mistakes and poor use of English

Read any e-mails that you receive carefully. If there are spelling mistakes, or any paragraphs that don’t make sense, this is often a sign of a scam e-mail. Many scams originate in foreign countries where English is not widely spoken or written.

E-mails offering something that sounds too good to be true

There’s an old saying that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is – and it is never more true than with scams on the Internet.

The classic scam is for an African prince to e-mail with a sad story of a relative’s death, and a complication in the will meaning that to access their vast fortune they have to send it via a third party – and they want you to be the go-between in return for receiving a substantial cut of the money.

If someone came up to you in the street with a similar story, the chances are you’d laugh and blow it off as a joke – yet often people fall foul of these scams online.

Most scams like this also fall foul of the first three rules on this list – so stay alert!

Can you do anything to protect yourself against scams like this?

Yes, you can. Some scams rely on the victim opening attachments on scam e-mails, which will infect their machine with a virus and set the scam in motion. You can protect yourself against these by installing an anti-virus package on your computer or, if you already have one, by ensuring that it’s kept up to date.

Windows 8 from Microsoft includes a good anti-virus package as standard, and Microsoft also provide a free one for Windows 7. There are other good software packages available, some free and some that cost a small amount to purchase, typically around £25-30.

Apple computers are generally more resistant to viruses and other nasty software, both as a result of their lower popularity in the computing world as a whole and the robustness of their operating systems, but it always pays to be safe so installing anti-virus may be worthwhile.

You can also protect yourself in other ways – make sure that the passwords that you use for your online activities (especially banking!) are strong – use a combination of letters and numbers, and ideally use both upper case and lower case letters. If you have difficulty remembering passwords, then you may find it easier to use a passphrase instead – a short sentence that is memorable, for example “MyCatLikesWhiskas” or “ANiceCupOfTeaAndASitDown”. Scammers rely on people choosing easy to guess passwords, so do your best to make yours are harder to guess!

Further reading

Warwickshire Police and West Mercia Police have today launched their #BeCyberSmart campaign which has lots of information on scams and how to protect yourself – and of course, the police can provide advice over the phone if you have any doubts about an e-mail you’ve received.

Visit the #BeCyberSmart campaign