How to Avoid Scams and Defend Against Them

By:  Tom Hilton   |  Posted: November 9, 2020   |  Updated: April 5, 2023



While at our house in Europe last year, I got a text message on my smartphone alerting me that I had just ordered $322 worth of vitamins in Sofia Bulgaria over the Internet.

I called VISA, froze the card, and used my Mastercard till we returned stateside the following month.


International scams are usually messy to clear up, especially if your card was sold to multiple scammers. But a timely response on my part only took 15 minutes on the phone which prevented anyone from making purchases subsequently.

Without my bank’s alert service, there might have been a dozen purchases all over the world within 48 hours. In my case, 2 months later, my account was credited $322.

This article is part of a longer series entitled “Scams & Older Adults: What to Do?


Defend Against Scams

There are proactive things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones from being scammed or hacked out of 10’s of thousands of dollars. Let’s start with the easy stuff first. Computer and smartphone app viruses are no different that the flu. You prevent them by getting vaccinated – installing an anti-virus software service.

Of course, vaccination does not protect you from everything.

  • You need masks – strong passwords.
  • You need to wear protective clothing – install and use VPN services.
  • You need to be hygienic – use two-factor authentication.
  • You need to backup files on a separate disc or website to rescue you if you suffer an attack.
  • You need to keep healthy by practicing safety rules (see below); and,
  • avoid contact with infectious people and places – recognize potential scams.


1. Get Vaccinated.

The best way to protect your smartphone, tablet, laptop, and home PC is to install a reputable anti-virus software and VPN service like Kaspersky, Norton, McAfee, or Malwarebytes.

I have used Kaspersky, a Russian firm, for over 15 years. My software-engineer spouse worked for two anti-virus companies. Both used Kaspersky to help keep their detection services up-to-the-minute. What is good enough for the pros is good enough for me. My PC and smartphones (1 for US and 1 for EU) have never been infected or hacked.

Most major anti-virus services offer plans to protect all your family electronic devices for an annual fee. Many, like Kaspersky, also include VPN (virtual private network) service. When traveling, I switch on my VPN and log onto the Internet using encryption that cannot be captured over Wi-Fi. When I go to download a photo, or some other file infected with malware, or try to open a malware website – Kaspersky stops it and tells me why. If I still want to proceed, I have to confirm that I really want to leap into the abyss.


2. Use Two-factor Authentication Whenever Possible.

Basically, 2-factor authentication requires you to log in, enter your password, and then have the site text your smartphone a 6-digit authentication code before it lets you in.

Some sites also offer to email the code. That is less safe because the odds that your PC and smartphone were both stolen or hacked is low. Two-factor authentication is annoying, but adds protection.

One note of caution. All 2-factor text messages start with a 6-digit number. That is not your code number. Read the message. The number will be the second 6-digit number in the message.


3. Use Alerts Whenever Available.

There are two types of alerts that can protect you from credit/debit card and financial account fraud:

  • first are Bank alert messages and emails;
  • second are smartphone App Alert messages.

Both can be programmed to send alerts to your smartphone with or without an email backup. My introductory story alert came via both at once.


a. Bank Alerts.

You can be forewarned or at least warned right away as long as you avail yourself of your financial institution’s “alert services.”

Most banks and credit card companies allow you to set up alerts that text your smartphone about any transactions. You can reduce the number of alerts by setting an amount below which they do not alert. I use $300. Many banks will, if you select the option, even alert you when automatic bill-pay payments are issued.

Most service providers offer text messages when they bill your account every month such as: “Verizon has just charged your checking account $93.47 for your August service. Thank you.”

Or, if I had them charge my credit card to pay the bill, I might get a text: “From MyBank: Transaction for $93.47 was approved on credit card ending in 8899 to Verizon at 3:15PM.”

Had I not known about some debit to one of my accounts, a quick call to my spouse could determine if the transaction was neither of us and I could call the bank to freeze the account until I can go down and sort things out.

You can also schedule weekly account summaries texted to your phone and/or emailed to you. Not only does it help catch bogus charges quickly, but it also can help keep track of your spending.


b. Smartphone App Alerts.

Nearly all banks and credit/debit cards today offer smartphone apps to enable you to bank without needing to be sitting at a computer. This service is also a helpful way to monitor elder parents who have a history of being scammed or have been diagnosed with early dementia.

Normally, all participants need to be joint holders and usually are required to meet with a bank manager to set up alert protections. You can program your phone to get the alerts, but turn them off on the phone of parent or your loved-one so as not to confuse them.  If your loved-one is not mobile, ask for their power of attorney and you can get a bank officer to make you joint on their accounts.

Finally, although it can get annoying, many banks let you set a spending limit on credit card and checking accounts.

This service is frequently used to teach teenaged offspring how to manage credit when they go off to college. The same service works on elder loved-ones who need monitoring help. If the time-period amount is exceeded, you will get a call asking for your approval of a transaction. For example; you might get a call asking if you want to proceed with a $1,000 donation to the Save the Bluebirds Foundation. If you think that is a scam, you can freeze the transaction until you can discuss the matter with your parent or loved-one before unfreezing the transaction.


4. Stop Using a Debit Card.

Debit cards are a scam enabler.

The only reason somebody should have a debit card is if their credit score is so low even VISA will not issue them a credit card.

Banks and businesses love debit cards because they reduce fees they pay to the credit card companies every time you use them, and, businesses get the cash instantly. However, debit cards offer way less protection against fraud and theft than credit cards do. If you are gypped, you risk no refund. If your debit card number and PIN are skimmed, shimmed, or otherwise compromised your checking account is likely to get drained quickly, and your protection against loss usually ends in 48 hours.

Even if you do catch it quickly, all the legitimate checks you wrote that are not yet cashed will run up overdraft fees – and that is assuming you have cash elsewhere to cover those checks. No elderly person should have a debit card for the above reasons.

Think that you’re safe? Look at your bank’s ATM card closely. It might also be a debit card. If that is the case, be smart and use it only on ATMs for cash advances. Better yet, see if you can get the bank to terminate the debit function except for ATM use.


5. Follow the Spender.

If you really are concerned about an elderly parent running amok, there are a variety of apps for smartphones that might help you know if they are driving when they should not be driving, or if the burglar alarm or a medical-alert device was triggered.

Apps like Cadillac OnStar and Mercedes Me services available on higher-end autos can not only tell you when they entered the car, but even track where they are right now and tell you if they forgot to lock the car. Or, if they locked their keys in the car, you can use the app to unlock the car for them.

Even if you do not have a fancy car, you can download an Android phone tracking app such as the popular “Phone GPS Tracker – Free” from Doubtless, iPhone has similar apps.  Though designed for parents of teenage drivers, they work just as well for Dementia and Alzheimer victims who often wander oblivious to time of day, their location, or vulnerability.

You can set most  tracker apps to alert you when they leave a circumscribed area.



Safety Rules that Help Avoid Scams

While PC and smartphone apps offer a fairly reliable wall of protection from being hacked and scammed, they all rely on our prudent behavior to fully protect us. If we let our guard down, bad guys can still catch us off guard and fool us into giving away the keys to our kingdoms.

Below are a few common-sense rules to protect you from attack by phone, PC, or even postal mail.


A. Phone Scams: SAFETY RULES:


1. When Called: No Personal Information

When called, never volunteer or provide or even verify personal information over the phone.

HINT: If a business/doctor/utility, etc. needs to correct an error in their records, offer to go down to their place of business in person; or to go online and log in to your account as usual – then edit your profile or whatever needs correcting.


2. When You Call: Expect a PIN

When you call a service provider or merchant to update contact or other personal information, you should always be asked for a PIN or password to verify your identity as their registered customer.

HINT: Calling to request a service appointment does not put you at risk. If the receptionist asks to verify your address and phone number, that is perfectly appropriate. If they also ask to update your personal information, tell them that you do not give out that information over the phone.


3. Open Accounts in Person

Always open service or merchant accounts in person.  Services like utilities can safely be established online as long as the IP address can be verified via browser search and it contains the name of the provider, e.g., search for “Miami water service.” The search results will produce:

HINT: The information you provide to set up new credit card accounts, open bank accounts, or set up other financial services enable electronic transfers right out of your bank account. Thus, you want to be very sure that you are providing account information to legitimate bank/service representatives.


4. Credit Card via Phone

When YOU call a service provider or merchant to make a transaction, it is risky to provide a credit card account number & 3-digit Card Verification Code over the phone.

Thus, make sure you are calling the main number and they are not the ones who called you.

HINT: If they called you, tell them you will call right back. “Whom should I ask for?” then call the main number you always use – not one they gave you over the phone.


5. Beware Calls Demanding Payment

Always be warry of threatening phone calls demanding payment.

Government officials communicate via certified mail, invite you to come down to their office, or send a summons for a court appearance.

When I answer the phone, and I hear a recorded voice in a stern tone: “Hello. This is the Internal Revenue Service calling to warn you that we are about to place lien on your house [or reposess your car, or garnish your wages, or whatever…]. If you believe this call is in error, please press the pound key now to speak with a representative.”  DON’T!  Just hang up.

HINT: If you press the # key, you will be speaking with a live scammer in Mumbai India or someplace else who will demand personal information in order to steal your identity.



B. Online Scams: SAFETY RULES:


1. No Clicks on Email Links

Never click on hyperlinks or download files from emails – ever!!!

Email addresses are easily spoofed. That hyperlink could send you to a spoofsite or download malware onto your phone or PC.

  • Instead of downloading a friend’s vacation pictures you might get a malware bot with the photo.
  • The phony monthly checking account statement you download could include a virus.
  • The spoofsite you thought was your bank just stole your login credentials.

HINT: Just click on the browser bookmark link you normally use to access your bank, utility, or other service account, type it in by hand, or use a hyperlink from your browser search results.


2. Use Two Factor Authentication for Financial Sites

For financial institutions, always activate two-factor authentication for login if available using your smartphone if you have one.

HINT: Somebody might have obtained your log in credentials, but steal your phone too?


3. Don’t Send Personal Information via Email

Legitimate service providers and merchants never request personal information to be sent via email – even if via a VPN-secured connection.

HINT: Enter personal information online ONLY if you logged on to the site using the hyperlink or bookmark link you always use.


4. Don’t Trust Caller ID.

Never trust caller ID. The Caller ID function of your smartphone is easily spoofed. The caller could be in Slovenia or Quebec.

HINT: This information is easily “spoofed” to fool your phone into making it look like the scammer is who they are pretending to be. Follow the above rules.


5. Callers Announcing an Emergency or Problem

Be warry of callers announcing an emergency or problem. Elderly callers are easily shaken up when called about an accident, arrest, hospital admission, assertions that your account has been compromised, etc.

HINT: Stay calm. Shaken up, you might start volunteering personal and account information like a credit card number to a scammer.

It is safest to take the caller’s number and say you will call right back. Then call the victim. It’s a scam if you call and hear something like: “High grandma! Mary, where are you dear? Having dinner. Is something wrong? Are you and grandpa okay?”



More: The “Scams & Older Adults” Series

This is part 3 of the “Scams & Older Adults” series. See the entire series below.

1. Start here: Read “Scams & Older Adults: What to Do?

2. Forewarning involves learning how scammers and crooks try to rob you. Read “How Scams Work“.

3. Forearming includes a variety of actions you can take to reduce your or your loved-one’s vulnerability to being scammed. Read “How to Avoid Scams and Defend Against Them“.

4. When to Step In and Take Control discusses situations when you need to be more proactive. Read “Elderly Scams: When You Need to Take Control“.




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