Consumer Protection

How to Avoid Common Scams

By Amy Loftsgordon, Attorney
The most potent weapon against fraud is a savvy consumer.

Criminals are very clever when it comes to defrauding people. More often than not, scammers use new technology along with old tricks to try to get your money or personal information.

In this article, you'll learn about some of the most popular scams out there. By learning to recognize fraud, you can take steps to avoid becoming a victim.

Popular Scams: Know What to Look For

The following popular scams try to trick you out of your money or personal information.

Work-From-Home Scams

Many different kinds of “work-from-home” scams exist. You might be asked to pay for a list of work-at-home job opportunities, or the "job" might require you to pay for supplies or training materials. In the end, there's no job at all. Or you might do some work, but never get paid.

In another common work-from-home scam, the potential “employer” asks you to provide personal information, like your Social Security number, and then uses it to steal your identity. (Learn what you can do if you’re the victim of identity theft.)

Phishing Scams

Phishing is when a scammer uses fraudulent emails or texts, or copycat websites, to get you to provide personal information, like your bank account numbers, Social Security number, or your login information and passwords. The scammer will then use your information to steal your money or your identity, or sometimes both.

Scammers also sometimes use phishing emails to get you to click on a link that provides the scammer with access to your computer or network. The scammer then installs programs like ransomware that can lock you out of important files on your computer. (To learn more about phishing and other scams that can come through your computer, see Email Scams and Frauds.)

Advance-Fee Loan Scams

Advance-fee loan scams involve a lender "guaranteeing" you a loan or a credit card, regardless of your credit rating or history. The trick is you're asked to pay a fee up front to get a loan application. Or you get a debit card rather than a credit card.

Email Extortion Scams

In one common email extortion scam, the scammer sends you an email that's supposedly from a hacker who’s broken into your computer and used your webcam to record a video of you while you were watching porn. The scammer threatens to send the video to all of your contacts unless you pay a ransom of, usually, $1,000 to $2,000 in Bitcoins. What makes this scam believable? The email references a real password you’ve previously used.

But the scammer probably just got your password from a publicly available database of old leaked passwords and email addresses. Given the number of data breaches at popular websites like Yahoo and dozens of others over the years, it’s not surprising that scammers have access to your old passwords. If you haven’t changed your password in years, the bluff could appear more realistic.

Donation and Fundraising Scams

Millions of Americans lose billions of dollars to scammers and fraudsters who ask for money for a worthy cause, but the money never makes it to the people who need it.

Foreign Lottery Scams

You're told you won millions of dollars in a lottery or sweepstakes in a foreign country, and you're asked to send some money to process your claim. You pay but never get any money. Or, you're asked for your bank account number so the money can be wired into it. That doesn't happen, either, but scammers now have your bank account number.

In another version of the scam, the scammers actually send you your supposed winnings in the form of a very legitimate looking check. In return, they request that you wire transfer a small fee to cover the taxes on your windfall. By the time you find out that your winnings check bounced, or was a forgery, the thieves have received your money.

College Scholarship Scams

In a common scholarship scam, the scam artist says that you've been awarded a scholarship (one that you never applied for) but I need your bank account or credit card numbers to hold it, or you have to pay a fee for the scholarship.

What You Can Do to Protect Yourself From Scams

Here's what to do to protect yourself from scams.

  • Don't give anyone you don't know and trust your Social Security, bank account, or credit card numbers.
  • If a job offer or business opportunity seems too good to be true, it’s likely a scam.
  • Be wary of any offer involving mailing or wire transferring money.
  • Don’t give in to pressure to take immediate action. Legitimate businesses usually won’t push you into acting quickly. They have nothing to hide, so they aren't afraid of you thinking things over.
  • Be cautious of callers claiming that you’ve won a vacation package. These kinds of offers are likely travel scams.
  • Don’t fall for “lotteries” or “free trials” that ask for your bank account number or request money from you.
  • Research job offers, charities, and travel deals separately from the information provided.
  • Check with your local Better Business Bureau about any charity or business you've never heard of before.
  • Don’t open emails from people you don’t know, and don’t open attachments from senders you don’t recognize or in suspicious-looking emails from known contacts.
  • If you think you're the victim of a scam or if you've received a suspicious offer, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), local law enforcement agencies, and your state attorney general.

When to Talk to a Lawyer

This article describes just a few of the scams and frauds you might encounter. There are many more, and you can be certain new ones are hatched every day. For detailed information about different kinds of scams, see the federal government’s website on commons scams and frauds. Also, check out the Better Business Bureau’s BBB Scam Tracker. This website shows which types of scams are most prevalent and where they’re commonly happening.

If you're already the victim of a scam, consider talking to a consumer protection lawyer. A lawyer can advise you about your rights, and you might be able to sue the scammer if you've been defrauded out of your money.

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