• 75°

St. John investigator shares tips on social media safety & Internet scams

LAPLACE — Det. Lt. Michael Shard, certified financial crimes investigator for the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Office, estimates that 75% of the service calls his unit receives relate to social media and Internet scams.

Shard has seen people lose a significant amount of money by placing too much trust in people online.

“The most important thing is discipline,” Shard said. “You have to maintain a social media footprint with people that you are personally familiar with. There are so many instances of false online accounts.”

According to Shard, scammers will either create a fake account or take over an account of somebody you know and start seeking out that person’s friends.

“Once they’re confident in knowing that you believe the account is real, they might start saying things like, ‘Hey, I need help with money. Can you send me $50?’ They’ll test you with smaller amounts,” Shard said.

Eventually, a scammer will ask for credit account information, banking information, or some form of tangible financial information needed to access your accounts.

Online schemes can fall into several categories:

  • Dating websites have become notorious for financial schemes. In these “romance scams,” individuals will establish a relationship prior to seeking out your personal or financial information.

“People will start sending pictures of their driver’s licenses or Social Security cards. Don’t ever do that,” Shard said. He added that romance scams are not linked to any particular age groups, as he’s seen victims from ages 18 to 75.

  • Alternatively, scammers may ask you to deposit a check for them. The excuse might be that they are overseas or in the military, but Shard warns that these scammers are actually tricking victims into laundering money.

The Oxford Dictionary defines money laundering as “the concealment of the origins of illegally obtained money, typically by means of transfers involving foreign banks or legitimate businesses.”

Shard said there are instances where the victim can be held liable for laundering money, especially if they’ve been warned that it is a scam and they continue forwarding the money anyway.

  • With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shard said there has been an increase of financial crimes related to COVID relief and “work from home” schemes.

“There are promises that you can get ‘x’ amount of money, and all you have to do is call somebody. They might ask you for your driver’s license or anything that’s needed to get your information,” Shard said.

He warned consumers against trusting advertisements that make claims of making a lot of money with little effort, such as “make $1,000 from $10.” Once a person provides their banking information, scammers are known to deposit fraudulent money into a victim’s account.

“Anything that seems too good to be true, you should not fall for. Employers who are legitimately doing work have their own responsibilities and would ask you to fill out something like a W-9 form,” Shard said.

  • Consumers should also be aware of credit repair schemes. While these can be legitimate businesses, many utilize false advertising and can’t deliver what they promise. Shard recommends checking with the Better Business Bureau and verifying that the business is legitimately registered.

Shard invites the public to call him at 985-359-8764 or 504-494-2782 for help determining if an online company is legitimate.

  • The same precautions should be taken when buying or selling items online. Shard recommends visiting an Internet Exchange Center monitored by police while making exchanges with strangers. St. John Parish’s Internet Exchange location is in the parking lot of Dunkin’ Donuts in LaPlace. Those who feel unsafe may be able to request a deputy be present for the exchange.

Avoid making exchanges at night, and always have a way to verify the seller’s identity. Since people often get scammed online by buying “unboxed items” that turn out to be an empty box, Shard suggests having the seller unbox the item in front of you before the transaction is complete. If you pay in cash, ask for a receipt. If someone is paying you in cash, check to make sure the serial numbers on each bill aren’t the same.

Shard offered additional tips for online and social media safety:

  • Suspicious emails will always have attachments or a highlighted blue hyperlink. Clicking on the link/attachments will allow scammer to implant a virus on your phone or computer. Do not open emails from people you don’t know, and protect yourself by purchasing a reputable anti-virus program for your computer.
  • Try not to share too much personal information, such as your date of birth or where you work, on Facebook. Privacy settings can be adjusted under “settings and privacy” to limit how much strangers can see on your profile.
  • Shard does not recommend posting resumes online to LinkedIn or other public websites, as this information can allow hackers and criminals to gain enough information about you to open a seemingly legitimate account in your name.
  • Avoid posting when you are going on vacation or where you are going to be at a given time. It could be seen by predators or unscrupulous people looking to burglarize your home when you are away.
  • Be wary of posting pictures of your children, as these images can be easily saved and shared by predators.
  • Have age-appropriate restrictions for children using cell phones. Being nosy and monitoring what your children have access to is the best policy.
  • Always have “two-step verification” enabled to log-in to personal accounts. This way, you will be sent an email or text message with a passcode to log in. Shard suggests creating an email account solely for account registrations. Google Voice can be used as a secure second phone number for registration/verification without giving your personal number.
  • The St. John Cyber/Financial Crimes Division can intervene in cases involving online extortion. If someone threatens to post your private information or photos online if you do not send them money, you should immediately report that individual to authorities.

The following websites have additional resources on Internet and social media safety: Fraud.org, missingkids.org, ftc.gov, nclnet.org, privacyrights.org, staysafeonline.org and cisa.gov.