Our fascination with fraud seemingly never ends. Eight years after Bernie Madoff confessed to the biggest investment fraud of all time, a single utterance from the Ponzi-meister in prison can still grab headlines. Financial fraud is a staple of prime-time TV, including CNBC's "American Greed" and the new Bravo series "Imposters," about a serial con woman and her victims' quest to track her down.
What is it about the financial ruin of others that keeps us glued to our screens?
It could be because the stories make us feel smart. We could not possibly be taken the way those poor Madoff saps were, right? We would see that scam artist coming a mile away.
That may be the case. But the moment you truly start to believe that, the con artist has scored his first victory. It means you are complacent. Remember, "con" is short for confidence. Once a crook has yours, he has an easy path to your wallet.
With that in mind, here is a refresher on the most common scams, and how to protect yourself.
Your most valuable asset can be stolen without a gun. The market for stolen identities is brisk, and no wonder. With even a few pieces of personal information, a crook can rake in big money at your expense.
According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, here is what identity thieves are most after these days:
- Social Security numbers. With those nine digits, a crook can collect a tax refund in your name (and make it impossible for you to collect yours), get a job and obtain credit — while ruining yours. Don't give out your Social Security number unless you absolutely have to. Don't carry your Social Security card with you, and never put your number in email.
- Bank account or credit card numbers. At the risk of stating the obvious, if a crook has these, he has access to everything. Be careful about online forms that ask for this information. Never supply the numbers in communication you did not originate. And check your statements often to monitor for fraud.
- Driver's license numbers. Increasingly used as an alternative form of identification, your driver's license can allow criminals to apply for credit, board a flight and much more. Make sure you know where your license is at all times. Guard the number just as you would your financial account numbers.
- Insurance policy numbers. Both medical and auto insurance numbers are in demand, the center says. A scammer can file claims in your name, potentially blocking you from your coverage when you truly need it.
- Date of birth. The more information a crook has about you, the easier it is to pretend he is you.
- State or employee identification number. See all of the above.