Over the past few weeks, I’ve come across a number of different scams both directly and through online communities targeting people with different accents and people who are new to the country. You should be careful, so here’s what to look out for with scams in America targeting foreigners.

There are plenty of scams and scam-artists out there and this is by no means an exhaustive list, but my idea was to put together some of the scams that I’ve seen in the last few weeks to make sure you’re staying ever vigilant.

Social security scams

Social security (and the social security card) is one of the most misunderstood things for people moving to the US because it’s a distinctly US thing. Here’s my intro to social security (including how to get a card) to start things off in case this is very new to you.

Because of this, it’s very easy to scam people who are new to it into giving up their precious information.

So here’s a list, straight from Social Security about what they want you to know:

You must always remember that you’re in control. Also remember that Social Security will never do any of the following:

  • Call you to demand an immediate payment;
  • Demand that you pay a debt without the ability to appeal the amount you owe;
  • Require a specific means of payment, such as requiring you to pay with a prepaid debit card;
  • Ask you for your personal information or credit or debit card numbers over the phone; or
  • Threaten you with arrest or deportation.

So keep this in mind (most importantly that they very rarely ever call you – if at all).

I’ve also collected a bit of a list about who you should and should not give your social security numbers to, and that’s just as important (because again, it’s confusing)!

Voice recording scams

This one seems to be popping up all over the place in expat communities and foreign support groups (there are also lots of legitimate requests, so I’m not painting them all with the same brush, I’m just saying be careful).

There are offers all over the internet for people to be paid if they simply take 30 minutes to record things in their foreign accent. It’s easy to believe because your accent might be unique and they’ve got a great story about a marketing campaign that’s happening and they need “authentic” voices! This also sounds great because free money!

What they end up doing though is recording you saying a bunch of lines like:

  1. Your first name
  2. Numbers one to ten
  3. A funny saying from your home country
  4. What was your first car like?
  5. Spell your last name
  6. Tell a funny story about your last birthday
  7. What was the date of your last birthday where that funny thing happened?
  8. What’s your address so we can send payment!
  9. Say “Yes”, “No”, “Hold on”, “Wait!”, “Confirmed”
  10. Your first pet’s name

What they end up doing is taking all of this and turning it into a sound board, and they’ve now got most of the data (and your voice) to call your bank or telephone company and transfer your details away (including #4 and #10 which are common security questions).

If you’re going to do one of these, be sure to find one with a reputable and confirmable history, and be very careful about what you say throughout.

Telephone company scams

I seem to be getting a lot of these lately, where “Verizon” will call me and tell me that they just need to authenticate my account.

So they start by saying “To ensure your safety and security, can you please confirm your full name and date of birth”.

Sounds great, but what you realize quickly is that this is not Verizon at all (even if they’ve ‘spoofed’ “Verizon” when the phone rings).

See tip #2 below.

Gmail and internet scams

This one is a real pain because once you lose access to your email, lots of other internet services flow from it!

You might get a call from “Google” who will say that there’s been some funky activity on your account and they want to authenticate you. Sounds ok, I guess, and they quickly jump in with “But don’t worry, we won’t ask for your personal details, that would be scam” (see above) “instead, we’re going to text you a unique code, which will authenticate you in our systems”.

This is something you’re familiar with, so it sounds legitimate!

What in fact they can do though is try to “recover” your email account, and one of the steps says “Text you a unique code so you can reset your password”.

You tell them the unique code and voila, they’ve got your email account, changed the password and they’re off to the races resetting everything else they can find.

General tips in avoiding scams

Here’s my top list to avoiding scams in the US:

  1. Question everything and everyone. Even if you’ve spoken to this guy from Verizon before, or even if you’ve got no reason to feel suspicious, be ever vigilant!
  2. Call people back before giving up information. If, for example, your phone company calls you and asks you to confirm your details before they continue, there’s chance that they’re fishing for information. Say to them, politley, that for your security you’re going to hang up the phone and call them back (if they’re legitimiate they will 100% understand). Do not just call the number that called you, but instead, go online, find their official website and phone number and call back that way. Once you get onto someone, you can authenticate what you were told and continue on safely.
  3. Give out only what is absolutely necessary. Sometimes it feels like you’re in for a penny, in for a pound when someone is asking for your full name, mother’s maiden name, and your favorite type of dog! But as often as possible, find out what you absolutely have to share, not just what they’re asking for. In some cases it will not be necessary for you to repeat all your information again.
  4. Watch out where you are when entering passwords. The sheer number of people who I see standing on a busy bus or train entering their passwords slowly is astonishing. Stop that. Also, when you’re standing on the sidewalk with your credit card in hand reading out the numbers, everyone can hear you, including you repeating your CCV code. Stop that, too.
  5. Don’t use your phone number for 2 Factor Authentication (but definitely use 2 Factor Authentication [2FA]). I realize I’m opening a whole can of worms here, but 2FA is when you put your password in and then it asks for an extra set of random numbers. You should not use texts for this, because if your phone number is taken, you’re stuffed! Instead, you should download an
  6. Don’t use a single password for everything. The difference between Eagle1 and Eagl31 is absolutely 0 to someone who wants your data. You should use a password manager and have random passwords for everything so that if one is compromised, nothing else is.
  7. Use a password manager to store everything. Go to 1Password.com and buy it already. This will keep ALL of your information secure, and does the 2FA from above all automatically (on your phone AND sync’s with your computer). Stop writing things in Google Sheets.

Why you should care

This all sounds like a LOT of hassle but take it from someone who helps people who have had their identities stolen: It’s a nightmare. Especially living in a foreign country.

Imagine this scenario:

  1. Everything is fine
  2. Suddenly your phone says “No service”
  3. You pop into a phone company and ask them what’s going on, and you confirm the same pin number and password with them you use for everything
  4. Your phone number isn’t in their system anymore, it was transfered away to another carrier, they can’t do anything
  5. You go to work and attempt to login to your email but it won’t work saying “Your password was changed 35 minutes ago” so you go to the recovery tool, which says it can text you a confirmation number (to the phone you no longer have).
  6. You’re freaking out a little now
  7. You go to login to your bank account (using that same password)
  8. It’s locked you out
  9. Now you’re really freaking out
  10. You go to the bank, and they confirm that your password was changed and they authenticated it was you because they texted you a code
  11. Your bank account transfered a few hundred dollars to another account then a few thousand
  12. It’s now 9:30am and you’re in a pickle.

Sure, this sounds far-fetched but it happens ALL the time.

Be careful out there!