National Consumer Protection WeekMost people probably don’t realize it, but this week is National Consumer Protection Week. Held for one week in March annually since 1998, this event is spearheaded by the FTC with support from government offices and private organizations alike with one common goal in mind: to help raise awareness of consumer’s rights. As a consumer in the U.S., one of the most powerful weapons you can have in the fight against con artists, scammers, identity thieves and others who might try to take advantage of you (and your money) is knowledge of your legal rights and how to make smart decisions when it comes to personal finance. While there are a ton of different facets to consumer protection, we’ve put together a list of tips that you can keep in mind this week and into the future to become a more well-rounded, savvy consumer overall.

How to be a savvy consumer

Following these tips won’t guarantee protection of your information or identity, but they will help make you less prone to fall for scams, hacking attempts and more.

1. Never underestimate the need for good security. It isn’t just your email account these days that comes with a username and password. Everything from tax refunds to rental applications can be done entirely online, which means less paper to move around for you, but also increased risk of falling victim to cybercriminals. While it’s certainly imperative to make sure that any account related to your finances, health and sensitive personal information be secured with a strong password — as well as additional security features, such as two-factor authentication — the fact of the matter is that every account you open should be protected. You may not think that it’s important for your Netflix password to be complicated or unique from other passwords you use, but cybercriminals have been known to take advantage of weak points in people’s digital lives to gain access to their more well-guarded assets. Don’t fall for the temptation to choose convenience over security when it comes to your logins.

2. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Like the people they target, scams come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing that many share in common is the promise of something amazing for very little effort. As we’ve often written about on our scams blog, criminals can be crafty, and many do their best to lure victims into giving up their information and money by promising things that a person wants. We’ve seen everything from scams targeted at job seekers and students seeking scholarships to those aimed at people looking for love online and even kind-hearted souls trying to make a charitable donation. Whether you’ve seen an ad on a website or social media site or someone is telling you about a fantastic opportunity face-to-face or over the phone, it’s important to keep your wits about you and not jump into something just because it sounds great. Remember that you always have the option of hanging up, disconnecting or getting back to someone after you’ve taken some time to look into their offer — which leads us to our next tip.

3. Do your research. It can be tempting to take a person, service or website at their word, but that’s one of the easiest ways to get duped. Phone scams are an ever-present threat to people of all generations (yes, even millennials), and during tax season they tend to hit their peak as criminals prey on people’s anxieties surrounding the IRS. Callers pretend to be from the IRS and use threats and pressure to try and convince you to pay money you supposedly owe immediately; these types of tactics are also used by those operating tech support scams as well as debt collection scams. Again, hanging up is a great solution for these scammers, as is doing your research to determine whether anything they have to say has merit. Educating yourself on the tactics scammers use as well as how to keep yourself safe online will certainly increase your consumer savvy. Phishing, currently one of the most prominent methods used by scammers, is growing in sophistication which makes it more important than ever for consumers to stay aware when reading their emails and before clicking on links.

4. Know what’s on your credit reports. Your credit reports and scores are two of the biggest influential factors that determine what kinds of credit cards you qualify for, whether you’ll be approved for a loan, how much interest you’ll pay and sometimes even things like employment opportunities and your relationships. Just because you’ve seen your credit scores a couple of times or you’ve had no trouble getting approved for the credit you’ve applied for doesn’t mean you should assume everything is as it should be. An understanding of your credit means you can make savvy consumer choices when it comes to your finances, and it also helps you pinpoint any indications of potential disaster — such as an identity thief using your name to open utilities accounts three states over. You can access your credit reports for free once per year through AnnualCreditReport.com or choose to use a credit report monitoring service to keep a close eye on them all year round. The latter option is especially helpful for those looking to make improvements to their credit, as you may wind up wanting to check your credit reports several times throughout the year to ensure progress has been made.

5. Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself. Oftentimes, people who fall victim to scams or identity theft feel ashamed about it and don’t want to tell anyone. Even if they do confide in family or friends, they might be reluctant to reach out to authorities or organizations designed to help. It’s important to remember that you have rights as a consumer, and there are plenty of organizations that are willing and able to assist you. Criminals who perpetrate scams, identity theft and other crimes are in the business of tricking people, so it’s nothing to be embarrassed about if you become a victim. Fortunately, government agencies like the FTC and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are in the business of helping consumers when they’ve encountered unlawful behavior. In addition to contacting any businesses directly involved with a scam, it’s a wise idea to utilize reporting tools available to you to alert the government and authorities that a crime has occurred. This is one of the best ways to stop criminals in their tracks, and it can also be helpful to you in the long run. For example, many identity theft victims may find that having a police report is necessary to successfully reverse charges and have incorrect items removed from their credit reports. Older people are especially susceptible to scams, and also often likely not to ask for help, so relatives and caretakers should be aware of the scams that target them and how to get help.

You can learn more about protecting yourself and your money and being a savvy consumer both online and offline by following our personal finance blog.