In general terms, when someone commits fraud, they are essentially cheating someone else in some way. Perhaps they misrepresented material facts in order to get someone to sign a contract, or they stole someone’s identity to take out loans in their name. Most cases of a person trying to deceive someone else to get something they wouldn’t otherwise have is fraud.
Fraud can be tried in both civil court, as a tort, or in a criminal court, as a crime.
A government entity, whether at the state or federal level, will bring a criminal fraud charge to a criminal court. The goals in a criminal court are typically punitive; it’s the court looking to punish someone or protect the general public from someone who may be dangerous. The fraudster can end up with jail time or probation through criminal charges.
This contrasts with a civil fraud charge, where the fraud victim is the one to bring the case to trial. The goal here is to financially compensate the victim for the losses they incurred from the fraud, whether it is through economic damages like stolen money, or non-economic damages like emotional distress the fraud caused. Jail time and other such penalties are not sought in a civil case.
Fraud can take many forms and can cause varying levels of damage. Each type of fraud requires its own methods of protection. For most types of fraud, there’s a wide range in penalties from small fines to a few years in jail to decades in jail. Depending on the fraud’s severity and the jurisdiction it happened in, criminal fraud can be a misdemeanor or a felony.
Some of the most common frauds are:
Identity theft is a big example. Someone uses another person’s identifying information, like their name, birth date, and social security number to create accounts in that person’s name. The fraudster is the one who has access to these accounts, but it’s the victim who has the accounts tied to their name and credit score. As a result, the fraudster can charge high amounts to credit cards and take out loans that they never make payments on. Then, when the penalties for the delinquencies arise, it’s the victim who takes the hit.
Often, a victim doesn’t even know that someone has stolen their identity until the damage has been done. Perhaps debt collectors start calling on behalf of a credit card they’ve never owned. Sometimes they go to make a big purchase and get denied for financing because their credit score has plummeted from overdue payments and maxed out credit lines.
If your identity gets stolen, it can take a lot of time and money to track down the perpetrator. Sometimes, you could still end up on the hook for the money “you” owe, even if you didn’t use it. It can be a devastating crime.
One of the best ways to protect yourself from identity theft is to carefully guard your private information. Use complicated passwords on any online account you have, and don’t reuse the same password over and over again. Limit how publicly you post personal information on social media. Never share protected information with an unknown source. You should also monitor your credit score to look for unusual reports.
Like with identity theft, someone committing credit card fraud seeks to spend money they won’t pay back while putting you on the hook for it. Sometimes, though, your whole identity isn’t compromised, just a specific credit or debit card.
If a credit card fraudster is able to get your card numbers, they can make purchases on your account. This can happen when someone sees your credit card for too long and takes down the information. But more often, credit card fraud happens when someone accesses any accounts that have stored your credit card information.
Hacking and malware are growing problems for people. The technology to prevent it keeps getting better, but then tech criminals just find new ways to get around those protections, too. To keep your online account information safe you should never allow a website to store your credit card numbers. The minor inconvenience of typing in your card numbers for each purchase pales in comparison to the inconvenience and damage of a stolen card.
You should also take the usual protections to safeguard your computer from intruders. Never click on links in an email from an unknown sender. Don’t put personal information into an unsecured website. Avoid sketchy “free downloads” and pop up ads. Limiting possible avenues for a hacker to get into your tech is a great way to stay protected.
Some credit cards will even offer fraud protection and can help refund purchases made without your knowledge.
Unlike frauds that illegally gain access to financial information, embezzlement cases often involve money that the fraudster had legal access to. They don’t use that access properly, however.
You’ll often hear about embezzlement in a corporate context. Someone has access to a company’s financial information, like an accountant, then uses that access to steal money from the company’s accounts.
Embezzlement can take a long time to detect. While some brazen thieves will take or misappropriate large amounts of money at a time, others will take small amounts of money over longer intervals, hoping that if no one looks too closely, they won’t notice that money is going missing.
This can be a harder crime for the fraudster to hide from, as the company can often deduce who is stealing once the theft is discovered. If companies aren’t carefully checking their accounts, however, the theft may go undetected.
To safeguard against embezzlement, it’s important to always have multiple people verifying financial information. Keep receipts and detailed financial records, then have them audited regularly. Supervise staff who can access company money. Invest in software that can detect and then alert you to unusual transactions.
The sad fact is, not everyone can get their money back once they’ve been defrauded. The fraudster may have spent the money and have nothing left to collect from. Sometimes, they cover their tracks too well and you can’t find out who did it.
You need to act fast once you suspect you’re the victim of fraud. You should call the police to report it so they can open a criminal investigation into the matter, and contact all of your financial institutions to freeze your accounts. Your banks and creditors may be willing to work with you to help in your recovery efforts.
Working with an attorney who has experience in fraud cases can help you decide what actions you need to take, and can hopefully help you recover some of your losses.
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