Avoid Identity Theft, Online Fraud, and Scams

People who have been running small businesses since before the advent of websites and online marketing understand that fraud is nothing new. Before spammy email offers became the vogue, scammers used to mail and fax unsolicited offers to anyone who was on a list of small businesses obtained from the state licensing board. One popular email scam, which promised millions of dollars, was actually adapted from an offer previously sent through the mail.

Today, the Internet has made it much easier for scammers to ply their trade, whether they work through email, realistic-looking websites, or viruses and spyware. Online identity theft and other forms of Internet fraud have become pervasive, despite valiant attempts to stop them.

As a member of the online community, there are several steps you can take to avoid identity theft or other forms of online fraud:

  1. Keep your virus scanner up-to-date. The "bad guys" write hundreds of new viruses every day. Most of them get stopped by good antivirus software, but newer ones may get past advanced security features, especially when antivirus (or antispyware) software is not running the most current version. Most of the time, you can set your software to update and scan every night.
  2. Watch out for emails and text messages from "legitimate-looking" businesses. Some scams will send you to websites that look very much like your own bank. Many of these emails or texts will tell you that your account is suspended or overdrawn to get you to try and log in to the account, at which point the fake website will have your username and password. There are also fake messages that are sent to Google™ AdWords users that are very convincing, but that abuse your password. If you depend on AdWords advertising to make sales or get leads, Google may shut your account down for weeks while it sorts out the damage done by the scammer.
  3. Hang on to your password. If you're contacted by your bank—whether by phone or email—then they don't need to know your password. The same is generally true with PIN numbers, Social Security numbers, and credit card information.
  4. Be wary of emails promising money. Even though this is obvious to most users, anyone who is promising riches in exchange for "confidential" help with an offshore bank account is probably trying to take your money. Also, lottery winners do not get notified by email, and it would be very unusual to win a prize for a contest you didn't enter.
  5. Watch out for "free" software, such as screensavers. Many free screensavers and tools that download onto your system include spyware. Some of this software will just run annoying ads, but other versions will slow down your computer, or keep track of every site you visit and everything you type into your keyboard. This is how the "free" software pays for its development and bandwidth costs.
  6. Make sure the website is secure. If you see a "lock" icon or an "https:" prefix on the address bar where you enter your credit card information, then the site should be safe. Another security feature includes a green address bar (found on some sites), which signifies that the site is secure.
  7. Be careful with the phone. One recent phone scam tries to get people to renew their car warranty, and it uses a computer to call people, whether or not they actually have a car. Another scam will call your phone and then hang up; when you call back the number on your Caller ID, you're presented with a sales pitch. There are even a few cases where people who are posing as relatives call you, claim that there is an emergency, and then try to get you to wire cash to them.
  8. Scrub your social media profile. Con artists can find out a lot of information on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and blogs. For instance, your date of birth and your mother's maiden name may be easy to find for a casual reader. Burglars have even taken to using location-based social media to know when you aren't home so that they can make an unannounced visit.

In the same way that a self-defense class can't ensure that your next trip to the convenience store is a totally safe one, no list of tips can make for a safe online experience 100% of the time. However, your ability to notice potential scam attempts and educate your peers about them can help make the online business world safer, which in turn is an advantage for anyone who owns a small business and has something to sell on the Internet.

It also pays to assure your customers that your own website is legitimate by designing security features into the shopping process. If your site can convey an "extra" level of trust, and your business doesn't throw out any red flags similar to the warnings above, you may find an incremental increase in your online customer base. In the long run, combating online fraud will result in more people who aren't afraid to make buying decisions through Web-based services, and this will have a positive impact on the entire world of online marketing.