The equity in your home represents a lifetime of hard-fought savings, so it is especially cruel if you lose your equity or home by falling prey to scammers or identity thieves. That’s where the question about being pwned (pronounced “poned") comes in. Has your identity or important information, such as online passwords, been stolen by an individual or through a data security breach? At a recent FBI presentation, sponsored by Alaska Mortgage Bankers Association, the discussion focused on financial exploitation.
The presentation outlined warning signs of identity theft, and ways that various real estate sectors (financing, title and real estate professionals) could help promote awareness and guard against unscrupulous characters. The extra steps and questions you may have experienced as a homebuyer or seller are not an invasion of privacy, but for your protection.
The following are a few of the warning signs:
• Power of attorney signing documents, but inability to make contact with the actual buyer or seller.
• Unexplained payments to someone other than the buyer or seller of record without documentation.
• The sales price of a property is too good to be true.
• Wiring funds to a foreign or unknown bank, or to a name different than the principals involved.
The people most vulnerable to financial fraud and the least able to recover from such fraud include older adults. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey, more than 13 percent of older Americans were victims of financial fraud in 2014.
Sadly, the scammer may not be a stranger who stole their identity, but a known professional such as a caregiver, doctor or attorney. Even a family member or friend may be the culprit. The scammer often relies on establishing enough rapport that their motives are not questioned before the money or property disappears. The survey revealed that only one in 44 financial abuse cases had been reported to authorities, likely because of the victim’s embarrassment and loss of self-esteem, or unfortunately a reluctance to sever personal contact.
What can you do to protect a friend, neighbor, loved one and even yourself? First, be watchful of a vulnerable adult who has a sudden interest in any of the following: lottery prizes winnings, unsolicited checks in the mail that need to be deposited, fake charities, free meal seminars by unknown people or companies, or psychic readings.
If you feel uncomfortable in becoming involved in someone’s personal finances, realize that financial exploitation is often accompanied by physical and emotional abuse as well. You can file a confidential concern report by searching on-line for “Adult Protective Services Anchorage.”
For your personal protection you also have options. Here are just a few:
• Check haveibeenpwned.com. This site allows you to put in your email address to see what data breaches may have exposed your personal data.
• Set up notification with all of your financial institutions for mobile alerts for any changes to your accounts. Also check banking and credit card statements monthly for any unfamiliar activity.
• See what types of services or apps are available with your phone carrier to help reduce robo, unsolicited or scam calls.
• Shred personal information - don’t recycle it. Several commercial shredding services are available in Anchorage. Shred Alaska offers to shred one of their large personalized blue bags (partial or fully stuffed) for only $10 when you drop it off at their facility.
• Avoid email phishing scams. Don’t respond to links in emails, even if from an acquaintance’s email. Call to confirm. If the link is to a familiar website, go directly from your browser, not from the emailed link.
The following websites are also great resources and a trove of information if you have concerns or have been a victim: elderjustice.gov; identitytheft.gov; fbi.gov (or the local FBI office at 907-276-4441).
Financial exploitation is preventable, because everyone can help by being aware and getting involved to keep friends and family safe.