Fraud’s Warning Signs

Anyone who tries to defraud you online – or even on the telephone – is literally banking your carelessness. Take a good look at emails and links and listen carefully on the phone. You can spot the fraud, and if you’re not sure, disengage and call the person you think contacted you – on the telephone – or send a new email, totally separate from the thread.

It’s important to be on “high alert” because the hackers and scammers are at the top of their game, and their targets include trusted advisors, such as accountants and tax preparers. We should state that these people should have secure systems in place and should know not to send or request sensitive, confidential information through email.

But at the end of the day, you need to take ownership of your privacy, so here are some tipoffs that a communication might not secure or might be out-and-out fraudulent.

First, does your accountant normally contact you by email? If not, that ought to raise a red flag. Second, can you absolutely verify that the email is from your accountant? While some email systems are good at spotting something fishy (or phishy), a scammer is betting that you’re not going to pay attention. Check the properties of an email address. It could very well be that cybercriminals were able to recreate the look and feel of an email from your accountant, but unless they actually got into the accountant’s server, a phony email will have a phony email address.

Attachments can be another tipoff to fraud. You should be suspicious if you get an email with attachments that are supposed to be forms, such as a tax form you need to fill out or a return to verify, are you being asked to provide your Social Security number and maybe your birthday? Can you open it without having to go to a secure website and enter a password? That doesn’t pass our initial smell test.

If your accountant does contact you about sensitive information or forms, are you referred to a secure website? Do you have that link with your access credentials safely stored? In a safe world, you can log into your account by entering the website address from your browser and entering your credentials.

If something doesn’t look right, you should always be able to call your accountant on the telephone.

And just to go one step farther this spring, here are some other things to be wary of.

Are you getting emails supposedly from someone you haven’t heard from in ages? And does have a short subject line, such as “hi”, with no message but a link? That’s a sign of fraud and clicking the link could open a breach in your system that can expose your sensitive data.

Are you getting Facebook friend requests from people who are already your friends? That’s generally a fraudulent request by someone looking to get into your system.

Anyone using fraudulent methods to get into your computer system may also be planting some kind of virus or malware to help infect other computers. If you think you may have clicked a link by mistake that could lead to a breach of your system, shut down your computer and disconnect it from the internet. Then call us – 973-433-6676 – so that we can apply our tools and expertise to minimize the damage and clean up your system.

Tax Season: The Next Scam Season

I don’t know whether more money changes hands during the holiday shopping season or during tax season, but a lot is at stake between now and April 17 as people prepare tax returns. It’s a busy time of year for scammers, most of whom want to use fraudulent information to get your tax return money.

Probably one of the most common scams is someone calling from the IRS to say you owe back taxes. This happens every year and all year long, too. But there’s just one thing we want to remind you about, even if you know it: The IRS does not contact you by phone. Nor does the IRS contact you by email, a form of communications a scammer will use in a phishing expedition. The IRS sends you a letter.

The other scams you are likely to encounter are calls or emails from people or companies offering to prepare your tax returns and even provide you with an advance on your refund. The email scams are more insidious because if you click on a link, it could automatically trigger a breach of your computer that reveals sensitive information. If you follow through on a phone call or link, the scammer is going to request your Social Security number and other info that goes on a tax return. If the scammer is offering to advance you money from an expected refund, they’ll want your banking info, too. Once a scammer has this and other personal information, it’s easy to get credit cards and loans and commit crimes in your name.

From a computing point of view, we again remind you not to open emails from people you don’t know who offer help during the tax season. Delete them immediately. Do the same with an email from someone you know that seems out of context because it’s so easy to spoof an email address. For example, would you really expect Norman Rosenthal or Sterling Rose to prepare your taxes?

You can protect business and home networks and computers by making sure you have new, strong passwords for all networks and accounts. Strong passwords are long and contain a combination of upper- and lower-case letters, numerals and special characters. With the breach at Equifax, the risk of fraud is higher, and one of the problems it can lead to is that someone will file your tax return before you do.

With protection in place, you can use the internet for all of your tax-related activity, starting with IRS’s official website https://www.irs.gov/. In addition to being able to get tax forms and answers to questions, you’ll find links to help you find and verify information about tax preparers, including 10 tips for choosing one.

If you are preparing your own taxes, we recommend you use one of the established software providers to reduce your risk of a security breach, especially when you file online.

While we don’t prepare taxes, we can help you keep your networks and computers secure. Call us – 973-433-6676 – if you think your system may have been compromised. Call us or email us if you have any questions about system security or security settings for any software you use for tax preparation and filing.

Smarten Up! The Spoof is On

I was at a client’s office when the email – to her as president of a service organization – arrived, asking for a wire transfer of money. Other members of the organization got the same message, and some actually sent money. A scammer had spoofed a name or email address that was recognizable. This is becoming a growing problem. Is technology making us stupid?

The answer is “no,” but it is making us careless because it gives us the ability to do too many things too easily with too little forethought. That, in turn, leads to doing stupid things – and that’s what spoofers and other Internet-based thieves are counting on now and will continue to do so.

Email seems to open the doors to your computer and your data more conveniently than anything else. The biggest breach opportunities come when you click on something or follow through on instructions because you didn’t take the time to look carefully at an email and when you send sensitive information in an unencrypted email.

Spoofing is the most effective way to get you to open an email and link yourself to trouble. It’s remarkably easy to recreate a company’s logo and attach a fake email address to it. When many people see what they think is a legitimate logo, they just click to open. If nothing jumps out as a red flag, they’ll continue to a bogus website, and BINGO, it’s too late.

People are particularly susceptible to spoofs at this time of the year. Online merchandise sales continue to grow at holiday time, and merchants or shipping companies often send tracking info so you’ll know when your packages should arrive. If you take a little time to look at the message, you’ll probably see that the domain attached to the shipper or merchant bears no resemblance at all to the company. You might also note that the message itself is generic – and it likely has misspelled words or syntax that just doesn’t fit how we converse in the United States.

If you want to verify the tracking on a package, you can go onto the merchant’s or shipper’s website and enter a tracking number you received when your order was confirmed. If you don’t have that number, there is often a way to get the information.

Similarly, as we move from the holiday season to the tax season, be especially careful of financial-related information. There’s a reason why your financial advisor doesn’t let you leave trade information on voicemail or email. They don’t want your financial data left out in the open, and you should feel the same way. When financial advisors and institutions – and even healthcare providers – have messages for you, they generally tell you to access them on their secure websites – and require you to sign in.

DO NOT click a link on an email you think was sent to you by anyone who wants financial, health or other sensitive personal data. If you know the website, open a new browser window and go to the website by typing in the website address. Even if the domain name in an email looks correct, something like “account@mybank.com” can really link to “you’vebeenscammed.com.”

And, of course, never, never send user names, passwords, credit card info, bank accounts, Social Security numbers (even the last four digits) or other personal information in an email. Unless you and the other party have activated a mutually agreed-upon encryption process, the data is wide open. Email messages can go through multiple communications systems, and it’s impossible to know when a data thief is waiting to pick off any number of random messages at any point. They can pick off thousands in the blink of an eye and then take their own sweet time pulling out key info and wreaking havoc.

It all goes back to convenience vs. security, with a dose of distraction thrown in for good measure. We’ve had clients accidentally open a door to their computers, and the invaders took their info and denied the owners access to their systems. Fixing it on the computer end generally requires a visit from us, and then there’s the nerve-wracking hassle of working with other companies to close your breaches. When you have to go through all of that, it’s more than just an inconvenience.

We’re not telling you anything you don’t know. We are telling you to take a deep breath and a closer look at your email and the links inside them. We’re also telling you not to send sensitive information in emails. If you think you may have had a breach in your security, we can help you patch up your computer system. We can also help you set up an email encryption system. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us with your questions or to have us help resolve an issue.