Consumers were rightly shocked by the news that Wells Fargo will be paying $185 million in fines and penalties for opening accounts for customers without their knowledge. But the scamming was not the only unnerving part of the announcement. Wells Fargo employees had carried out their plan, opening roughly 1.5 million accounts, with few of the bank’s customers even being aware of what was happening.
In part that was because the Wells Fargo employees often opened and closed the accounts very quickly. But it also showed the degree to which many people are complacent about how protected their money is. You can have your money in an FDIC insured bank, steer clear of phishing emails, and hide your ATM PIN from people around you, and things can still go wrong.
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Luckily, there are a number of easy moves you or your loved ones can make to keep your money safer. Here are four of them.
1. Give yourself a one-minute monthly checkup. There is one document that comes your way every month that tells you if someone is charging you more for a recurring service, if you've been ripped off, or—yes!—if you have more money than you thought. Can’t think what it is? You're probably not reading your bank or credit card statement.
You’re not alone. Researchers at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2015 looked at what happens when people opt out of receiving paper credit card statements. More than one in four consumers had done so, the CFPB found, but only 11% were accessing their statement online. Put another way, “opt-outs are for the most part opting out of reviewing their statements entirely,” the researchers wrote.
Taking a minute to scan your statements is one of the fastest ways to monitor whether your money is safe.
2. Watch where you wi-fi. Online shopping is the new normal, with e-commerce sales increasing at double digit rates every year, and more and more people are using apps to conduct banking business. That makes it highly likely that at some point, you will shop or bank via a public wi-fi network.
Stories abound of cybercriminals scooping up credit card information and more from public networks, but you can protect yourself. For starters, check to make sure that any website you are on has the little green lock image to the left of its URL indicating an HTTPS connection, which is more secure. If you don’t see the padlock, your data may not be protected, so be wary.
If you frequently need to use public Wi-Fi, consider installing a VPN, or virtual private network, which creates an encrypted connection for your data. (Gizmodo has suggestions here.) Another good idea is to change your sharing settings before logging onto a public network.
3. Pay attention to payment apps. Person-to-person payment apps like Venmo and clearXchange are another source of potential vulnerability. If your friend picked up the tab for dinner the night before, these apps are an easy way to repay your debt. But scammers can benefit from them too, either by using stolen credit card numbers to make payments that are later reversed, or through other schemes to reverse payments after you have completed your end of a transaction. It’s a good idea to monitor your account or sign up for transaction alerts.
4. Use common sense. Especially if you live in a dorm or apartment with friends, never leave credit cards or financial statements lying around. Yes, this is basic advice, and chances are you trust your roommates implicitly—but your roommates have friends you may not know. Be sure to keep your Social Security number, account numbers, and passwords to yourself as well.
Unless you want to live in a bubble it is impossible to take every iota of risk out of your financial life. But if you make these simple moves into regular habits, you’ll go a long way toward keeping your money where it belongs—in your possession.