Q: During the last year, I canceled my home phone service in order to save money and now I use my cell phone as my primary telephone. Over the past few weeks, I have been receiving phone calls from phone numbers I don’t recognize and e-mails claiming there are people I know that are stranded in other countries that need my assistance. Yesterday, I received a strange text on my phone telling me I won a gift certificate but I don’t remember entering any contests. Should I reply to these messages and calls?

A: It seems like every day we are hearing about new phishing scams that try to get us to reply to some false contest or ad. In the beginning it was e-mail messages that asked us to reply to the message with some of our personal information so someone could take advantage of us and empty our bank accounts or ruin our credit.

Lately we have been seeing different types of phishing schemes — those that target our smartphones. Whether it’s a phone call from someone (family or friend) claiming to be in jail, a text stating you have won a contest and need to reply with personal information in order to claim the prize or an offer for an instant loan. Recently, I too received a text message telling me I have a secret admirer who is trying to get in touch with me and I can find out who they are by replying to the text. And, oh yeah, the text will only cost me $2.99!

Let’s face it, the more we use modern technology like smartphones and tablets in our everyday lives, we will come across more and more phishing (or smishing when SMS messages are involved) scams. The easiest action is to ignore the e-mail or text messages and delete them. Sure these types of text messages and e-mails are annoying, but if you reply to these messages you could be setting yourself up for a headache and/or large phone bill later down the road.

Here are just a few tips to keep in mind when you receive suspicious e-mails and text messages:

• Be aware that headers can be forged easily, so the posing sender may not be the real sender.

• Avoid providing or filling out forms via text wireless devices because the data is not secure.

• Realize that Internet scammers can create realistic forgeries of websites, so avoid clicking on links in an unsolicited text message. Go directly to the company’s website and fill out information there.

• Ensure that a website is secure by checking to see whether there is an “s” after the “http” in the address and a lock icon at the bottom of the screen. Both are indicators that the site is secure.

Citizens can check the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Homeland Security websites for additional tips on phishing and other cyber security information.

If you receive a phone call from a number you don’t recognize, let it go to voicemail. If the message in the voicemail sounds fishy, delete it. But if you want to call the person back, do a little research before calling them back. Go online and check to see if there is information on phone scams, and see if the message you received is similar to messages that have been reported as phone scams.

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department issued a warning to citizens about a phone scam that was being used by jail inmates. The inmates would call a citizen claiming to be an officer and would tell them a family member had been in an accident or arrested. The citizen would then be instructed to call a number for further information. The number they would call would have a prefix of *72 before the actual phone number. By dialing *72 before the phone number, you would be forwarding all future calls to the phone number listed after the *72 prefix. This would allow the inmate to receive calls (including collect calls) to the inmate’s phone but the charges would be billed to the citizen’s phone! If you want more information on this scam, go to the California Public Utilities Commission’s website at www.cpuc.ca.gov.

While we are talking about cell phones and tablets, let’s talk a little more about security. Cell phone and tablet hacking seem to be on the rise these days. In addition to watching out for phishing and phone scams, we need to be careful about how we are using our devices. What I mean is most of our devices utilize a 3G, 4G (which is on the rise) or wi-fi signals to conduct business during our day-to-day activities. Oftentimes we utilize public wi-fi (offered by restaurants, hotels, shopping malls, City Hall, etc.) signals to transfer data when a 3G/4G signal is unavailable or not fast enough for the job.

Next time you use a public wi-fi signal, ask yourself:

• What kind of security does the host of this signal provide to their users?

• How many other people are using this same signal when I’m using it?

• Who is monitoring the usage of the signal?

• Who is watching what I am doing on the Internet while I am using the wi-fi signal?

• What am I transmitting on this public wi-fi signal that can be seen by others? My advice is, unless you can verify the security of the wi-fi signal, don’t use it, especially if you are going to transmit personal or sensitive data from your device.

This column was written by NRO Artis Williams, (Beat 7, Sunset Park Neighborhood). He can be reached at (424) 200-0687 or artis.williams@smgov.net.

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