The cardinal rules for avoiding fraud: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And never make hasty financial decisions out of fear or greed. Here are some other precautions:
Never provide money or personal information to someone you don't know. If you buy items online, use a payment option that provides protection, such as a credit card. Never send cash, a wire transfer or prepaid gift cards.
Be suspicious of any call from a stranger asking for money, even if they claim to be with a law enforcement or government agency.
Don't pay upfront fees or provide private information for the promise of a big payoff, such as an investment or prize money.
Don't click on a link in an e-mail or open an attachment unless you are absolutely certain who the sender is and that the link or attachment is safe.
If contacted by a familiar organization such as your bank or a government agency, verify by hanging up and calling the organization. Find the number online or elsewhere — don't use the phone number or link provided by the original call or e-mail.
Don't trust caller ID. It can easily be "spoofed" to show a fake name, a number that appears to be in your community, or even a number that belongs to a relative.
End the call. Don't feel obliged to be polite. When it comes to protecting yourself, there is no such thing as being rude.
Don't send money in an online romance. Romance scammers persuade victims that the relationship is real. They'll eventually ask for money for, say, an emergency expense — or to spend on travel so the couple can meet. Sadly, the scammer won't show.
Tell a trusted friend or family member. If you get a call or e-mail asking you to send money or provide personal information, get a second opinion from someone you trust before taking any action.
When using public Wi-Fi, as in a coffee shop, don't open your e-mail or check your bank account if it requires typing in a password; someone using the same Wi-Fi could capture it.
Consider freezing your credit. A freeze restricts access to your credit report, making it nearly impossible for someone to open a new account or line of credit in your name. Credit freezes are now free for everyone. To request a freeze, contact each of the nationwide reporting companies: Equifax, 1-800-349-9960; Experian, 1‑888‑397‑3742; and TransUnion, 1-888-909-8872. You're also entitled to a free annual copy of your report from each. More information on freezing your credit is on page 12.
Report the crime. Don't let embarrassment stop you. If you think you've been defrauded, you can help protect others by contacting local law enforcement, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (www.ic3.gov). Or contact the Minnesota Department of Commerce with any concerns about a posssible fraud or scam at 651-539-1600 or 1-800-657-3602.
Know the red flags. A free copy of the Commerce Department's financial fraud prevention toolkit can be requested by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 1-800-657-3602.
Sources: Minnesota Department of Commerce, AARP.