His advice: Limit your exposure, do your homework and be skeptical
AARP Fraud Watch Network columnist and Scam-Proof Your Life author Sid Kirchheimer has spent the past 13 years alerting and educating consumers about avoiding scams, from rigged carnival games to faux Internal Revenue Service agents.
Kirchheimer, 59, is the son of German-born Holocaust survivors who are understandably distrustful of authority figures and people they don’t know. “They’re very security minded, and they raised my sister and me to have a healthy skepticism of people until they prove to be trustworthy,” he said. Kirchheimer honed his skepticism while working as a reporter for newspapers in Pennsylvania, Florida and Colorado.
He left newspaper work for internet journalism gigs, then began writing for AARP, where he found his calling writing about fraudsters.
“It really does bother me when hard-working folks lose money to the dishonest and deceitful,’’ Kirchheimer said. He’s especially proud of a 2011 Scam Alert column in the AARP Bulletin about fake checks. Within a week, 20 readers sent him $45,000 worth of checks to determine their validity. After tracking bank routing numbers and addresses, Kirchheimer wrote or called each of the readers to explain why the checks were fakes.
“Honestly, nothing surprises me in terms of the type of scams — most are variations that have been around for years,’’ he said. “What is surprising is the more sophisticated computer viruses and malware. You click on the wrong link and boom, they can get into your computer and everything in it.”
While older consumers are considered the most vulnerable to scam artists, millennials might be more prone to being victimized, given their dependence on the internet, Kirchheimer said.
The internet has also made it easier to gain knowledge about potential victims, a prime reason Kirchheimer steadfastly cloaks his privacy. He uses multiple fake email addresses to prevent spammers from gaining access to his real identity and personal information and never opens suspicious links. Still, “it’s definitely harder to hide because there’s a lot of public information. In a half hour, you can track down anybody,” he said.
Kirchheimer doesn’t take phone calls from numbers that are unfamiliar. And he eschews Facebook.
For those fond of the social media app? “Don’t post anything you don’t want everyone to know, including your birthday and hometown, names of your kids or grandchildren. Or even when and where you’re going on vacation — someone can look up when your house is empty and where you’re staying,’’ he said. “So a burglar can find the house and another can call you at your hotel, say they’re the front desk and get your credit card number by saying they need it to cover your incidentals.”
His advice: “You have to have the mindset of ‘How do I sidestep this stuff? What are the simple measures I can take in my life not to get scammed?’ Don’t pay in advance. Use a credit card instead of a debit card, because you have more protections, and if you’re a good customer, they’ll jump through hoops to keep you happy. Don’t trust anyone’s word until they prove themselves worthy of that trust. Verify. And read everything you can that’s scam-related or consumer-related. If you know the facts, you’re less likely to believe in falsehoods.”