How to Stay Smarter Than Scammers

By Dave Wall

Scammers are constantly looking for new angles to exploit in their efforts to swindle unsuspecting victims. The Better Business Bureau says scams are a $50 billion burden on the American economy, a number that is very likely to grow as we continue to shift to a digital economy and online activity continues to grow, along with tools to perpetuate fraud.  In fact, scams reportedly already have an impact on one-quarter of U.S. households.  Surprisingly, while the elderly continue to be a major target, recent reports show millennials are actually more susceptible to scams than senior citizens.

Among the reasons scammers are so successful is they are able to convince their victims their intentions are legitimate. Often, they pretend to represent well-known, reputable brands and target people’s emotions.  But, there are several ways to avoid falling into these carefully laid traps, including knowing what information is typically requested by phone or email, and verifying requests for information separately with the organization before providing any personal details.  It also helps to be aware of what the latest active scams are.  Here are a few that are at the top of the list currently.

Publisher’s Clearing House imposters
This is one of the many prize scams and one that seems to never go away. “You’ve won!” is always an easy way to get someone’s attention. The financial part of the scam can some in one of two ways.  The first is a requirement to pay taxes and fees up front in order to collect winnings, which is typically requested via Western Union or some other wire service because they are virtually untraceable.  The second is by sending “winners” a fake check and request for fees to be sent back.  When the fake check bounces, victims have already paid the fake fees.  A simple rule to follow is if you are asked to pay fees for winning a prize, it’s probably a scam.

9/11 Victim Compensation Fund
This is a situation where scammers are trying to collect valuable personal information that can lead to identity theft and fraud. Callers identify themselves as being from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and tell people they may be entitled to compensation.  They ask for personal information, like social security numbers, bank accounts, medical histories, employment verification, and other details, claiming it will allow them to verify their eligibility.  Organizations like this will never ask for sensitive information like this over the phone.

Bitcoin schemes
Scammers are increasingly using the growth of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to cheat people. Basically, they are promising huge returns on a cryptocurrency invesment when victims also help recruit additional people into the scheme.  It’s a crptyo version of the old chain letter.  Others simply promote a cryptocurrency project, looking for investors with the promise of doubling or tripling the investment, but shut down the operations after collecting large sums of money.  Because people are required to send funds in cryptocurrency, the transactions become nearly impossible to track or recover.  Scammers often try to lure targets into investing in the latest tech trends.  In the first two months of the year, more than $1.3 billion had been stolen in cryptocurrency scams.

Chinese Consulate Impersonators
Another recent scam targets people with Chinese last names, pretending to be a representative from the Chinese Consulate and asking for personal information or even payments in order to avoid some form of trouble with the Consulate. While the current scam centers around the Chinese Consulate, scammers modify their schemes regularly and could very easily adapt this same scam to just about any population group.  Regardless of the form of payment or information requested, realize the consulate it not going to request sensitive information or payment over the phone or email.

FTC Computer Access
This one involves scammers identifying themselves as FTC representatives claiming targets are owed a refund that can only be done through remote access to their computers. Specifically, many of these calls specifically reference the FTC’s Advanced Tech Support refund program.  These and other requests to provide access to computers or install software are scams intended to allow access to computers and networks in order to steal personal (or corporate) information.

There are only a few of the latest scams that are being used to target unsuspecting targets. While it may be difficult to keep up with all of them, there are some keys to avoiding falling victim to them.

  • Do not provide sensitive or identifying information over the phone, email, or social media.
  • Never send money to someone you don’t know or haven’t met. Organizations won’t ask you to provide banking information over the phone in cases like these.
  • Any time you send money for purchased good or services, use secure, traceable payment options.
  • Avoid clicking unknown links or visiting unfamiliar websites, especially in emails you weren’t expecting or from senders you don’t know. Also be aware that email and caller ID spoofing is easy and intended to fool you into thinking the call or email is legitimate.
  • Make sure any online transactions are done on a secure site (the URL should begin with “HTTPS”).

Follow the old theory: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Follow these simple steps to reduce the risk of falling victim to these or any other scams. The bottom line is this: if you aren’t sure, independently verify with the organization that’s contacting you. You can always check the FTC’s list of latest scams to help protect yourself. If you suspect you are dealing with a scam, report it to the proper authorities immediately.