Palm Beach County is tops in the nation for identity theft and scams, and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Volunteers Against Scams Team (VAST) is urging residents to be vigilant in protecting themselves.
The scam-fighting volunteers led a presentation on “How to Avoid Scammers” held Thursday, July 11 at the Royal Palm Beach Cultural Center, sponsored by the PBSO’s District 9 substation in Royal Palm Beach.
According to VAST’s Herb Rein, the team was created to fight the growing risk of identity theft and scams, so that they could educate and inform residents on how best to avoid scammers and not let them prey on their emotions and bank accounts.
The Volunteers Against Scams Team is made up of scam-fighting educators. Started 10 years ago, the unit has grown from nine volunteers to 35 members. They are put in place to warn vulnerable seniors, often by calling them to tell them about the latest scam making the rounds, or to conduct presentations like the one in Royal Palm Beach to help residents protect themselves.
“More than 50 percent of people who are victimized once get targeted again,” Rein explained. “Once you’re a victim, your information is out there on the internet.”
Volunteer and cyber expert Dennis Devlin was among the speakers.
“I grew up in the 1950s,” Devlin said. “We did business face to face. You knew the person you were buying something from. There was trust, and it was based on relationships. Today, we do business on the internet and the cell phone. Rarely do you know the person at the other end of the transaction.”
The tendency for many people, particularly those who are older, is to trust — even when that trust is not earned.
“Tonight, we are talking about trust — making you skeptical about whom you trust,” Devlin said. “The three things that need to be in place for a crime to take place are means, motive and opportunity.”
While means and motive are beyond the control of potential victims, Devlin explained how to deny scammers the opportunity.
“The means are that there are very sophisticated people out there who are good at tricking you into giving out information. What’s their motive? It’s financial,” he said. “The opportunity is what we have some control over. We want to talk about reducing the opportunity.”
Two-factor authentication is a secure way of using the internet and passwords, Devlin explained. By taking an extra step, you can avoid the possibility of someone else doing damage to your financial stability. When a password or username is stolen, two-factor authentication will alert you on your phone that someone is trying to get into your account.
“If your bank or credit card company offers you two-factor authentication using your cell phone, take them up on it,” Devlin said. “It’s a much more secure way of doing business.”
Sometimes, people don’t realize how little information people need to know about someone to steal their identity.
“If I can steal your Social Security number, what can I do with it? I can take out credit in your name. I can open accounts,” Devlin explained. “Don’t use a debit card online because someone can empty your bank account. Use credit cards, they are safer. How many of you use Facebook and tell everyone you will leave your house on vacation for the next month? Don’t do that.”
He explained that information can be stolen without the victim even knowing it.
“When you give your credit card to a waiter in a restaurant in Europe, they bring a card reader to your table. So, your credit card never leaves your possession,” Devlin said. “What happens in this country? You hand them the credit card, and you don’t know where it goes. These are ways your identity can get stolen.”
He also gave tips for limiting exposure to fraud.
“If you are going on vacation, take one bank card and one credit card,” Devlin said. “You can’t lose what you don’t have. If you’re not carrying something around with you, in the glove compartment in your car, you can’t lose it.”
Also, destroy all unnecessary financial information.
“Your shredder is your best friend,” Devlin said. “When you put something out in the garbage, as soon as it gets to the curb, it’s a public document. Anyone can come along and take it. It’s easy; everything that has our name on it goes right into the shredder. It’s an easy way to protect yourself.”
Sometimes information can be stolen before it even gets to you.
“Guard your mail. If you are going to be away, stop your mail,” he said. “Every morning, I drive in our community. I know what normal looks like. If I see somebody’s mailbox overflowing, that’s a sign they are not home. Also, be careful with outgoing mail. There should be more locked mailboxes.”
Devlin also urged people to be more vigilant in reviewing their credit information. “How many of you look at your credit report at least once a year? Each credit reporting company will give you a free report once a year,” Devlin explained. “So, this means you can do one every four months. If you see things that are suspicious, contact your credit company. The longer you wait when a crime happens, the harder it is to fix it.”
If you believe that your information has been stolen, or even if you are just concerned about it, there are actions you can take.
“A credit freeze is where you lock access to your credit,” Devlin said. “If you have a credit freeze in place, there is a pin that you can lock it and unlock it. This is the safest thing you can do. You can also put a fraud alert on your credit file. If someone wants to check your credit, or you want to open new credit, they have to verify it is you. This is a very prudent thing to do.”
If you think you have been a victim of fraud or a scam, call the PBSO’s non-emergency number at (561) 688-3400.