Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Inventive scammers require vigilance

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Dear Sir,

Please be informed, that you are subject to a penalty for the failure to file income tax returns prior to January 31, 2012.

Please take into account, that IRS (Section 6038(b)(1)) specifies a pecuniary penalty to the amount of $10,000 for each (Form 5471) that is filed later than the deadline stipulated for filing the income tax return, or does not include the exhaustive data defined in (Section 6038(a)).

No penalty will be due on the stipulation that the company shows that the failure to meet the deadline for filing was based on ample grounds.

Please enter our unofficial site for more information.

Sincerely yours,

Internal Revenue Service United States

Department of the Treasury

If you were a U.S. citizen living in Canada, that would be a pretty scary email to receive, especially with its aura of authenticity. The only real clue to it being a fraud -- likely only obvious to a linguist -- is the phrasing that shows English is the second language of the writer, and that it was not written by a bureaucrat.

This is just the latest form of fraudulent "phishing" emails I've seen, increasing in number weekly. The more common is a legitimate-looking email supposedly from one of the major banks or a "security" firm, claiming your online account has been compromised or some such thing. You either need to click on the link provided or reply to the email with your password to ensure continued protection.

All of these requests are fraudulent. Do not respond, and do not click anything.

Your real financial institutions will not request you to send them your password, ever. Do not respond or send information in response to these scare tactics.

While those approaches appeal to fear, many frauds appeal to greed.

If I offered you $1 million for nothing, I hope you would think that offer would be too good to be true.

However, what if I put a catch on the offer that made it sound legitimate? For example, what if I said I needed your help to liberate a $30-million fortune that belongs to me, but is trapped overseas, and in return I would pay you $1 million as a reward?

That type of offer is made all the time by email and, very sadly, a number of people rise to the bait each year. The loss could be a relatively small amount of money paid as a fee to be involved, or it could be huge losses, resulting from turning over banking information to the predators.

This is often called "the Nigerian letter scam." There are many clever variations, and I have received some purportedly from a Canadian soldier returning from Afghanistan, with a plausible story about finding money recovered from terrorists.

Another legitimate-sounding fraud involves phoning you and asking you if you are having a problem, or a "slowdown," with your computer. Since most people will honestly say yes, and the fraudster has a great-sounding explanation for why and a solution to fix it, it's not difficult for them to get into houses to work on people's computers. It only takes minutes for them to find your passwords and financial information and be able to raid your accounts.

There is no end to the cleverness or originality of the fraudsters, so you must be continually vigilant. The approaches can come on the Internet, but also by phone or door-to-door.

It's a good idea to change your passwords from time to time and avoid the easy ones like your pets' names. To be very cautious, you can even purchase a credit monitoring product from the credit bureaus, such as Equifax or TransUnion.

If you suspect an approach from a fraudster, call a stop to everything immediately and contact a knowledgeable family member, a legitimate financial adviser or financial institution you know, or even the police.

Don't hesitate due to embarrassment. Some of the smartest and most sophisticated people in history have fallen prey to hucksters and frauds. But do everything you can to avoid joining that group.

David Christianson is a fee-for-service financial planner with Wellington West Total Wealth Management Inc., a portfolio manager (restricted).

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2012 B6

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