How To Scam-Proof Your Life
SID KIRCHHEIMER lists his phone number under a different last name. He takes his outgoing mail to the post office. He never fills out warranty cards. And he would never, ever cash a money order to help out a deposed Nigerian king.
In simpler times — say, when phishing was just a misspelling for a sea-based sport — Mr. Kirchheimer might have been considered paranoid. These days, he is just being smart. He knows that con artists often cold-call public phone numbers, so he hangs up on anyone who asks for him by his listed name. He knows that identity thieves raid mailboxes for checks or credit card numbers, so he avoids public mail drops. And he knows that even reputable companies often sell the information their customers provide on warranty registrations.
“Your receipt gives you all the protection that you need, anyway,” he said.
Mr. Kirchheimer, 48, is the author of “Scam-Proof Your Life,” a compendium of tips for foiling the bad guys (AARP/Sterling Books 2006). So it is probably no surprise that he sees rip-offs lurking in every corner.
That many are perfectly legal does not make them less irksome. Credit card companies that confiscate all your earned frequent-flier miles if one payment is late? A scam. Contests to win a “free week at an oceanfront hotel,” only to deliver a room that is eight miles from the beach, and a roster of assorted fees and taxes that add up to more than the retail value of the room? Definitely a scam. No-haggle prices at car dealerships? Well, not a scam — but “you can usually negotiate a much better price,” Mr. Kirchheimer said.
But it is the illegal schemes, particularly the ones that prey on the vulnerable elderly, that really get Mr. Kirchheimer’s blood boiling. Every day, it seems, he hears of another person who sent money to that deposed Nigerian king in return for a promised payoff, or put down a deposit to claim a phony sweepstakes prize. He hears of older people who were given an estimate of $200 for a repair job, and are then charged $5,000 by the repairman. “They forgot to get it in writing, and he insists they remembered it wrong,” Mr. Kirchheimer said.
The growing popularity of online dating has created yet another scheme: people posing as Russian models or expatriate Americans. Sometimes they wangle plane fare or other payments from their besotted correspondents. Sometimes they ask their marks to cash money orders or postal checks. Always, they disappear from cyberspace as soon as their targets’ checks clear.
Mr. Kirchheimer recently talked about the dating swindle in the Scam Alert column he writes for the AARP magazine. “I got more than 200 letters in less than two weeks,” he said, “and only three were from people asking how anyone could fall for this stuff.”
Mr. Kirchheimer’s hatred of swindlers does not come from personal experience. So far, he has sidestepped any would-be crooks. But he grew up surrounded by people who worked very hard for their money, and the idea that anyone would grab it away just sticks in his craw.
Sid Kirchheimer and his sister grew up in Philadelphia, the children of Holocaust survivors. His father, a farmer in Germany, was a window washer who worked six and a half days a week. His mother cared for her elderly parents, sewed all the clothes that her children wore — and held down a full-time job as a social worker for a hospital. As a teenager, Mr. Kirchheimer spent many vacations and weekends working in the sporting goods section of a local department store. “My whole family had a killer work ethic,” he said.
Mr. Kirchheimer never much liked school, but at his parents’ prodding, he enrolled at Temple University. He majored in business, but his fondest memories are of working on the Temple newspaper. “It was 1975, I had lived through Watergate, I’d seen Dan Rather reporting from Vietnam, it just all looked so exciting,” he recalled. His first article, about a union that struck the college, clinched the deal. “I saw my name in print, and I was hooked,” he said.
Journalism did not lose its appeal, but college did. He dropped out in his junior year.
He did a brief reporting stint at The Philadelphia Journal, now defunct, then moved to Florida to “surf and sail as well as work.” He got a job at The Clearwater Sun, then The Orlando Sentinel. One day Christine Lang, a local English teacher, dropped off some information at the paper. They married less than a year later, and have three children.
Mr. Kirchheimer’s career took them to Denver, where he reported for The Rocky Mountain News, then back to Pennsylvania, where he worked for Rodale, the publisher. Then he became caught up in dot-com fever. In 2000, he helped start a Web site — just in time for the Internet bubble to burst. He was out of a job “just as my son got accepted to college — how’s that for timing?” he recalled. He called a friend at the AARP magazine and has written for AARP ever since.
Most of his columns have been cautionary tales — stories of people who were badly taken by con artists. But for his book, Mr. Kirchheimer asked famous swindlers, people like Frank W. Abagnale (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch Me if You Can”), for advice on how to thwart them. (Mr. Abagnale now runs his own fraud-prevention consultancy.) And over lunch at Sofia’s, an Italian restaurant on West 46th Street in Manhattan, he shared many of those tips with a reporter.
Realize that time is on the crooks’ side, not yours. Many schemes involve an exchange of checks or money orders — the swindlers send you theirs, it clears, and you send your check for the amount. Don’t. Banks make funds available before they collect the money from the issuer of the check. If they cannot collect, they will dun you. “Online dating, the Nigerian letter, phony lotteries — there are at least 10 scams that operate that way,” Mr. Kirchheimer said.
If you suspect that your identity has been stolen, call the Department of Motor Vehicles first. “Anyone with a halfway decent printer can make a phony Social Security card or birth certificate,” Mr. Kirchheimer said. They can take it to the local D.M.V., pose as you and get a replacement for their “lost” driver’s license — with their picture on it.
Watch that spelling. Scam artists often use authentic-sounding Web addresses to gull you into providing personal data. Wellfargo is not Wellsfargo; bilIion is not billion.
Don’t think that you must comply with every request a merchant makes. Do not let car dealers hold your driver’s license while you go for a test drive — they are checking your credit while you are away. Do not write your account number on a credit card payment check — someone could steal the check and use the number to make phone and Internet purchases.
Order checks with just your first initial, but sign them with your full name. “That makes it harder for a thief to fake your signature,” Mr. Kirchheimer said.
Remove the hard disk before you trash an old computer. Mr. Kirchheimer is always surprised at people who diligently shred documents, yet leave their computer archives intact. “Deleted files are easily retrievable by anyone with a larcenous streak and a modicum of tech savvy,” he warned.
Sign your checks with a uni-ball gel pen. Crooks use acetone — the active ingredient in nail-polish remover — to take the name of the payee and the amount off of an intercepted check, leaving just your signature on what is effectively now a blank check. Uni-ball ink resists such check-washing.
Never ignore the small print. It is where credit card companies describe all the ways you can incur a late-payment fee — or where airlines concede that, if your flight is canceled for a reason other than weather, they must put you on the next available flight, even if it is a competitor’s.
Don’t use your mother’s maiden name to identify yourself to credit card companies. Maiden names are listed on birth certificates, which identity thieves can easily get from public records and use to “prove” that they are you. “If someone insists on that maiden name, just make one up,” Mr. Kirchheimer said.
Take comfort in knowing that some much-discussed schemes are urban legends. Few, if any, camera phones are sensitive enough to enable someone to capture your credit card number from a photo taken as you paid for groceries. Telephone companies are not making cellphone numbers available to telemarketers.
And identity thieves do not routinely go Dumpster diving. “No more than 3 percent of identity theft cases result from scammers going through trash,” Mr. Kirchheimer said. “They’re much more likely to use computer spyware, to steal outgoing mail or to buy information from other crooks.”