How to avoid internet scams

I love con movies almost as much as time-travel flicks. Diggstown? House of Games? Classics.

But the top-10 internet scams are rampid, and prey on our basic psychological vulnerabilities, and our lack of knowledge about technology and bank laws. I received a recent thank-you from someone whose wife was almost hooked by the Cambridge “Who’s Who” scam and was saved by my video. So I decided to dig up some of the top 10 scams of 2009, and provide some tips for avoiding them.

I’m imagining WVFF readers are generally immune to most of these, but we all know parents, spouses, neighbors, friends and siblings that don’t know that an urgent note from the bank could take someone to a convincing looking (but fradulant) website they trust enough to enter their username and password. And very few people know that when a check hits your bank account, it shows up on your statement immediately… but until the check is cleared (5-7 days)the money isn’t yours. It could be a bad check, and that short window is just enough to get people to make some understandable but costly blunders… even when trying to buy or sell something legally.

So pass this post along politely to someone who may be a gullible noob, but you love ‘em enough to protect them from a painful scam. Warning signs of scam vulnerability include the chronic forwarding of e-mails about new viruses, Neiman Marcus cookie recipes, Internet taxes, or baby carrots being permeated with chlorine… send them to SnopesUrban Legends (About.com), or Hoax-Slayer. I like hitting “reply all” with Snopes source because it saves other people and embarasses the noob enough to make them more savvy.

  1. The Nigernian Scam: This evolving scam, which originated  back in the 1920s as ‘The Spanish Prisoner’ con involves someone begs for help in getting a very large sum of money out of the country. A common variation is a woman in Africa who claimed that her husband had died, and that she wanted to leave millions of dollars of his estate to a good church. In every variation, the scammer is promising obscenely large payments for your risk-free task as the “middleman.”  They will use your emotions and willingness to help against you. They will promise you a large cut of their business or family fortune. All you are asked to do is cover the endless “legal” and other “fees” that must be paid to the people that can release the scammer’s money. You will never see any of the promised money, because there isn’t any. And if money does hit your account, you should read about bank deposit timing in the “Overpayment Scam” listed in #5. Tip: Ignore or play with them and see how desperate they get.. record it for YouTube.
  2. Pre-Approved Credit for Upfront Fee: If you are thinking about applying for a “pre-approved” loan or a credit card that charges an up-front fee, ask yourself: “why would a bank do that?” Reputable credit card companies sometimes charge an annual fee but it is applied to the balance of the card, not at the sign-up. These people do not know you or your credit situation, so it’s odd they’d be willing to offer massive credit limits. Tip: Stick with a legitimate bank, or type the name in Google and add hoax/con to see if there are other complaints.
  3. The Lotto Winning:An intriguing email from someone claims that you won a huge amount of money. The visions of a dream home, fabulous vacation, or other expensive goodies cause you to overlook the fact that you probably never entered the lotto. The catch: before you can collect your “winnings,”  you must pay the “processing” fee of several thousands of dollars. Tip: tell them to deduct process fees from the winnings. A real lotto would not require you to “front” cash for administration.
  4. Verify Your Password Urgently (Pfishing): This is a common scam for noobs because it’s easy for a spammer to appear like your bank. Variations of this make it one of the most widespread Internet and e-mail scam. It is the modern day “sting” con game. “Phishing” is where digital thieves lure you into divulging your password info through convincing emails and web pages. These phishing emails and web pages closely resemble legitimate credit authorities like Citibank, eBay, or PayPal. They lure you (fear of account problems) to a phony web page where they snag your ID and password. Tip: Real banks almost never send these notices. Watch the URL carefully even if the site looks authentic. Better yet, go to the site directly or Google it — rather than following the link. Otherwise you’ll find someone has  accessed your account and fleeced you for several hundred dollars.
  5. Overpayment Scam:Nothing quite wins our trust as when someone overpays us for something. But few realize that a deposited check shows up on your account balance even before it’s “cleared.” So if I “accidentally” sent you a check for $10,000 for your $5,000 car, you might quickly pay me $5,000 back… before you realize that my $10,000 check appeared as a depositbut the check was fake. People lose the item they’ve sold, and the “overpayment” as well, not to mention the trouble you face with your own bank. Tip: Ensure with your bank that the check iscleared before you transfer goods or overpayments.
  6. You’re Hired!You have posted your resume, with at least some personal data accessible by potential employers, on a legitimate employment site. You receive a job offer to become a “financial representative” of an overseas company you have never even heard of before. You will be paid 5 to 15 percent commission per transaction. If you apply, you will provide the scammer with your personal data, such as bank account information, so you can “get paid”. Instead, you will experience some, or all, of the following: identity theft, money stolen from your account, or (similar to the “overpayment scam” you’ll get fake deposits, but must send back 85-95 percent back. Tip: Send them nothing until you know a check has cleared. Watch them sweat in the 5-7 days after they deposit, because they know they’re about to lose you.
  7. Disaster ReliefYou want to help victims of 9-11, Tsunami and Katrina. In times like these, good people pull together to help the survivors in any way they can, including online donations. Scammers set up fake charity websites and steal the money donated to the victims of disasters.
    If your request for donation came via email, there is a chance of it being a phishing attempt. Do not click on the link in the email and volunteer your bank account or credit card information. Tip: Contact the recognized charitable organization directly by phone or their website.
  8. Travel ScamYou’re invited to get a free or inexpensive trip… but you must book it today or the offer expires that evening. If you call, you’ll find out the travel is free but the hotel rates are highly overpriced. Some offer  rock-bottom prices but hide certain high fees until you “sign on the dotted line”. Others, in order to give you the “free” something, will make you sit through a timeshare pitch at the destination. Still others can just take your money and deliver nothing. Also, getting your refund, should you decide to cancel, is usually a lost cause, often called a nightmare or mission-impossible. Tip: Research the company, or stick with legitimate services like Travelocity, Expedia, and Priceline (but still watch for hidden fees and refund options).
  9. Send $5 to Five People, and Get Rich QuickIt’s a classic pyramid scheme: you get an email with a list of names, you are asked to send 5 dollars (or so) by mail to the person whose name is at the top of the list, add your own name to the bottom, and forward the updated list to a number of other people. The author of this scam letter painstakingly explains that, if more and more people join this chain, when it’s your turn to receive the money, you might even become a millionaire! Bear in mind that, most times, the list of names is manipulated to keep his name and his buddies on top permanently. Tip: Avoid it: It’s illegal, and you risk being charged with fraud – definitely not something you want on your record, or resume.
  10. Turn Your Computer Into a Spam Machine & Make Big Money:You send someone money for instructions on where to go and what to download and install on your computer to turn it into a money-making machine… for spammers. At sign-up, you get a unique ID and you have to give them your PayPal account information for the “big money” deposits you’ll “soon” be receiving. The program that you are supposed to run, sometimes 24/7, opens multiple ad windows, repeatedly, thus generating per-click revenue for spammers. Tip: Delete, avoid, ignore. You’ll waste money and make your computer a playground for thieves.

Some general tips to avoid and prevent cons:

  • If it’s not personalized to you (i.e. “a friend/colleague told me I could trust you”) it’s a scam.
  • If you are asked to call a certain number that isn’t listed in the e-mail, they’re covering their paths. It’s a scam.
  • If it’s a bank wanting verification of your account or username, never click the link to the fake page. It’s very easy to think you’re safely at your bank while they collect your username and password.
  • If they’re in a hurry, it’s likely a con. If they get emotional, cut your losses immediately.
  • Finally, don’t suffer silently. Social media is a powerful tool for making scammers accountable. Make a video, blog about it, share your story. Sure- you’re embarassed, but you can save a lot of people.