Maybe there really is no such thing as a dumb question

Maria Hoover, SBJ Features EditorSometimes, I worry that my job has made me too suspicious of the world around me. As a journalist and an editor, not only do I find facts for reporting the news, but I also question the facts and scrutinize them carefully to make sure that they’re correct – and that they make sense in the bigger-picture scheme of a story. It’s difficult to accept many things at face value, because I want to know the who, what, where, when, why and how.  My newsroom colleagues and I have been accused at times of questioning everything – and that’s OK, because we do.

At other times, I’m also thankful for my questioning nature, because it comes in handy in terms of not being taken advantage of by unscrupulous people who, unfortunately, are a fact of life.

Case in point: On a recent Sunday morning, I was on my way to church when I got a text message informing me that I’d won a $1,000 gift card from Wal-Mart and needed to visit a Web site to claim it.

My first thought –“Wow!” – was followed very quickly by, “Wait a second.” The fact is – and I’m betting the senders of the text message are fully aware of this – Wal-Mart did recently offer chances to win $1,000 gift cards for people who visit a Web site at the bottom of their receipts, if the shoppers would answer a brief survey about their shopping experiences.

I have filled out some of those surveys before, and they’re pretty simple, asking about the store layout, customer service, or merchandise that couldn’t be found. And the only personal information requested was basic contact information, including e-mail and phone number.

However, when I got the text message, it occurred to me that it had been several weeks since I’d filled out the legitimate survey. Using my iPhone, I decided to dig a little deeper and click the link contained in the text message. It took me to what looked like a legitimate site, but it asked for all sorts of contact information, and at that point, my red flags began waving in earnest. After all, if I’d filled out some sort of entry, be it a survey or otherwise, it would seem that the “company” would have at least some sort of information about me.

I got off the site and googled the term “Wal-Mart gift card scam,” and found out that there are scams aplenty that use the  name of the Arkansas-based megaretailer. Among them, some simply ask for personal information such as Social Security numbers, that could eventually be used for credit card fraud. Others direct “winners” to download software to enable them to claim their prizes – but what they’re really doing is giving scammers a way to record keystrokes and online in a bid to,  you guessed it, access sensitive personal and financial data.

It seems, too, that the folks at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. are aware of fraudulent uses of the company’s name to entice consumers. The Wal-Mart corporate Web site provides a rundown of recent fraud alerts tied to the company’s moniker.

While I’m no expert on fighting fraud, it occurs to me that consumers can protect themselves, too. If you choose to enter legitimate sweepstakes giveaways, try to keep tabs on the timing. Most announce winners in a fairly quick manner. Be wary of any Web site, text message or phone call that asks for sensitive information such as your Social Security number, where you bank or bank account numbers. And, perhaps most basic, remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

It must have been the Ozarks’ turn to be baited by the latest text scam. In the days after I got the text message, my husband, co-workers and several friends reported receiving the same message. I’m just glad that my questioning nature made me cynical enough to go check the facts before I shared private data with people who have no business receiving it.

I remember having teachers in grade school who encouraged me and my classmates to be inquisitive about the world, and to not be afraid to ask questions. More than once, many of us have probably been told, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.”

When it comes to protecting our identities and finances, that seems to be exactly right. If something like this happens to you, start digging, and ask away.

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