I knew there was going to be trouble.
The plain clothes officer had eyed me as soon as I stepped onto the subway platform. Slowly moving in my direction he flashed his badge, an indication a good time was about to be had by all.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“What am I doing?” I thought to myself. “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m waiting for the train just like everyone else,” I wanted to shout.
But I kept my cool. The last thing I needed was another Rodney King moment on my hands. These plain clothes
thugs officers traveled in packs and their harassment of young black men was a common occurrence in this uptown Chicago neighborhood.
So like a “good citizen,” I tried my best to contain the growing sarcasm echoing in my responses to his interrogation.
Yes, I provided him with my license and waited, biting my tongue as he copied down my address. I even resisted the urge to chew him out when he asked for my social security number.
But in the middle of reciting the number, the back recesses of my brain reached out and slapped me straight upside my head, just in the nick of time.
Had I really seen the photo identification portion of his badge? Where exactly was the rest of his wolfpack? Why didn’t he have a gun? What police officer asks for a license and social security number?
Having only recited part of my social security number, I unleashed a full verbal assault on the “officer.” As he made an attempt to quickly scurry away, I shouted my threats of calling the real police so that the whole platform could hear.
Yes, I had almost been scammed. I had given my name, birth date, home address, and nearly my full social security number to a complete stranger.
The new age conmen have developed sneaky ways to get past our BS sensors – you know, the warning systems that tell us that just perhaps that nice Nigerian gentleman won’t give us a half million dollars after all.
Today’s cons are more sophisticated. Designed to get beyond our basic desire to get something for nothing, the new 2.0 scams frequently take advantage of our unquestioning respect for authority.
We’re socialized to respect symbols of authority, whether it’s the doctor’s white coat, security guard’s patch or policeman’s badge. Sometimes the misrepresentation of authority is blatant as in my case above. Other times it’s implied.
An “IRS agent” calls claiming that your income tax return is incomplete. To process your refund she needs your social security and bank account numbers.
Your local “bank fraud manager” calls warning you that someone has attempted to withdraw a large sum of money from your account. Of course to “verify” that you are the owner of the account, they’ll need to ask you for your account number.
The “county clerk” contacts you. You’re informed that you failed to show up for jury duty and that there is a warrant out for your arrest. Of course you’ll argue that you never received a jury duty notification. In order to “verify” this, the county clerk will naturally need your social security number, birth date, and other private information.
I recently received an email from “PayPal” claiming that my account had been used by someone else. In order to safeguard my account I was required to confirm my banking details by clicking on a link that took me to a legitimate looking, but fake “PayPal” website. If I’d taken the bait I would have been yet another victim of identity theft.
What makes these types of scams especially deceptive is that the cons frequently use personal information about us (home addresses, job titles, names of spouses, etc). This acts to validate their legitimacy. But much of this personal information is simply obtained from commercially available databases.
The best way to protect yourself is to verify. If an “official” approaches you in person, whether it’s a policeman or technician appearing at your door to “upgrade” your cable service, ask for photo identification.
If someone initiates contact with you by phone, email, or text, find a legitimate contact number from another source (phone book, company website, etc) and call to confirm the story.
Con artists have stepped up their game. To protect ourselves, we need to do the same.
Have you ever been the victim or known someone who has been the victim of a con or identity theft? How did it happen? What tips do you have to help others avoid the same fate?