This January, a Good Samaritan saved my life – or at least my professional life. Out of the blue, I received an email from a stranger who had apparently been approached by “me” asking that they send money to me. Or rather, he was asked by someone operating an email account under my name, through a website that was also set up in my name. This gentleman thought the whole thing sounded rather suspicious, so he went to the trouble of looking up my real identity and alerting me to what was going on – such a hero.
That was just the beginning of one of the most bizarre things that have ever happened to me. After this kind soul reached out to me, I Googled my name and found that the first result was a website I had never seen before, touting my full name as a financial advisor offering “great investment advice” and encouraging people to send money. There was also a WhatsApp number that was being operated by an impersonator, again asking people to send money to “me” so I could invest it for them. And a Gmail account set up in my name. Scary stuff.
Though the contact information was all falsified, the identity thief was able to send the Good Samaritan my actual registration documents from FINRA, which are publicly available to anyone who searches for them. That added a veneer of legitimacy to the thief’s claims.
I investigated how this could have gotten started and found a YouTube video where someone had started recommending me as an investment advisor in the comments. They included the bogus WhatsApp number and Gmail address, rather than my Baird contact info.
But there was one tip-off that this was a scam for anyone paying close attention: It was under my maiden name. I had just gotten married a few months prior and changed my name already. That was one of the details that set off alarm bells in my Good Samaritan. He did a little research on me, then asked the ID thief, “Are you the same person?” When he didn’t get a reasonable answer, he did a little more digging – and found the real me.
Ok, so now I knew what had happened to me. The next question was: How do I shut this down? My first step was to call Baird headquarters in Milwaukee. The legal team was able to identify the person who had set up the bogus website and shut it down almost immediately. And I contacted the FBI to make them aware of the situation. That way if anyone reported losing money to my maiden name, they’d know how to track down the criminals – and that I wasn’t involved.
As far as I know, no one actually lost money to this scam. My Good Samaritan had the sense to do his research before he sent funds to anyone. Another potential client called me directly after being contacted by someone on WhatsApp claiming to be me. He was suspicious, so he found our real website and called us before getting any further with the identity thief, and we never heard of anyone else who fell for the ruse.
What was most frightening about this whole scenario was that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I hadn’t released private information to anyone or given away data without maintaining its security. The scammers were able to succeed using only publicly available data. The only way to protect myself was to stay vigilant and take note of any communications that look suspicious.
So what should you do if you find yourself in a similar situation?
- Call your Baird Financial Advisor to protect your banking and investment accounts, and any other places that might be breached.
- Baird has partnered with InfoArmor, a leading identity protection service, to help our clients protect themselves from identity theft. Talk to your Financial Advisor about how you can best use InfoArmor’s services.
- Don’t ever send money to someone without a phone call to verify that person’s identity. Even if the name you’re sending money to is someone you trust, get on the phone and make sure it’s not someone imitating that person.
Identity theft is a frighteningly common crime that can affect anyone, no matter how careful you are – as I have learned all too well. But you don’t have to be a victim. My story shows how easy it can be to get fooled by a bad actor, but as long as you do your due diligence, remain vigilant and use the proper tools and awareness, you can stay protected – whether or not you have a Good Samaritan on your side.
To help keep you and your family protected, here is more information from Baird on dealing with online thieves. Or feel free to give me a call to discuss your own cybersecurity strategies.