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The Common Scams People Still Fall for All the TimeConsumer Protection


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Grandparent scamThe top site for classified ads in the U.K. conducted a study recently that should send a wave or two to this side of the Atlantic. When it comes to scams, it’s all about the bait. Gumtree found that even with the forethought that a listing was a scam, more than a third of their users would still go ahead with a transaction. As my mother would say … Actually, she’d probably just shake her head.

It doesn’t matter where they happen. Scams are as international and ubiquitous as the human capacity to be tricked. And while some scams are super-nova dumb, that does not always mean that most people who fall for them are.

Scams rely on a simple fact of life: People are busy. Most of us aren’t Zen masters of meditation. It’s hard to fully occupy each and every moment because we lead distraction-filled lives. We’re not constantly up on the fire tower scanning the horizon for smoke, and that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, there are some real slime balls out there who rely on this problem of ours.

Here are some recent scams that are making the rounds:

Amazon Phishing Scam

In this scam, you get an email from Amazon. It informs you that there’s been a problem of some sort. Don’t focus on what sort, because it’s these nuances that will get you got. If you get an email from Amazon telling you that there’s been a problem with an order, or that a recent order was canceled, it’s time to focus. It could be a scam.

How it works: There’s a link in the email that leads to a site that looks identical to Amazon, but you’re not anywhere near the site. The scammers are looking to get your personal information to use in the commission of identity theft, and your financial information to drain your credit card or bank account.

What to do: Visit your Amazon account by logging in directly. Do not use the link in the scam phishing email.

[Editor’s note: Keeping track of your credit scores can help you spot signs of fraud early on. A significant decrease in your scores could be a sign that someone has gotten hold of your information and using it without your permission. You can check your credit scores regularly using Credit.com’s absolutely free Credit Report Summary.]

Smishing Scams

Smishing isn’t terribly different from phishing, but if you’re not expecting at least the possibility of a smishing text, you might fall for it. The text arrives and appears to be from your bank. It could be from your internet provider. Generally, it’s from somewhere that can negatively impact your life, and that would also be in possession of your mobile digits.

How It Works: The smishing text informs you that someone has tried to access your account or it’s been frozen (again don’t get caught up on the details, the account or anything else), and your password or some other data needs to be updated. There’s a link to use where you can authenticate yourself by entering your personal information (for example, your Social Security number), and secure your account.

What to Do: If you regularly use your smartphone to access the internet, bear in mind that there are hidden dangers everywhere, and pause before you pounce on text warnings.

Sweepstakes Scam

You get a phone call from someone very cheerful, and maybe even a little breathless in the delivery of their blue-sky greetings. You’ve just won the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. You’re a millionaire or a $500,000-aire. The prize patrol is 20 minutes away, so get dressed and be ready for your photo op with a beach towel-sized check.

How It Works: This scam preys on the wonderful human trait that, no matter how our day or month or year is going, hope springs eternal. Part of your prep for the prize patrol, however, requires that you pay the processing fee upfront. There could be many explanations for it, but the bottom line is you’re going to have to spend money to collect the prize.

What to Do: Hang up, and don’t bother changing your clothes. If you really have money coming to you from the sweepstakes or lottery, they are legally obligated to get it to you.

IRS Phone Scam

You get a phone call from the IRS, which is not entirely far-fetched anymore because Congress directed the IRS to collect back taxes with help from collection agencies. So, you could get a legitimate call from one of these four collection agencies: CBE Group of Cedar Falls, Iowa; Conserve of Fairport, New York; Performant of Livermore, California; or Pioneer of Horseheads, New York.

How It Works: The caller says you owe taxes (never mind the particulars as this is the nuance stuff that fuels any good scam), and if you don’t pay you’re going to be arrested (or some other bad thing will happen). Payment can only be made through a prepaid debit card or gift card, because of the particular kind of hell you created with your fictional bad behavior. You are informed that the purchase of whatever card you are told to buy is linked to the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System.

What to Do: Hang up and wait for a letter from the IRS notifying you of the situation, or call the IRS directly to inquire about any taxes you may owe.

The Grandparent Scam

Here’s one that doesn’t prey on the attention deficit disorder called daily life, but rather, it plays on the heartstrings. This scam relies on the sharing of information on social media, and the universal inability among some people to recognize a relative’s voice.

How It Works: A targeted grandparent gets a call asking for emergency funds, either directly from the grandchild who is actually a scammer armed with family names gleaned from your social media account — or someone representing them (a lawyer, bail bondsman, police officer). The story is good. All scammers are good storytellers. The ask is doable. They need money wired now.

What to Do: Never wire money unless you are absolutely certain where and to whom it’s going. If possible, double check a request with another relative. If you’re told secrecy is necessary (because a parent or sibling will be mad), just say no. Bigger picture advice: Don’t overshare. Set your privacy as tight as it will go, and don’t let people tag you in photos. And while it’s hard to sift through these days, get rid of any friends on social media who aren’t actually friends. Perhaps you should use this as an opportunity to prune a few friends too. You know, the ones that are always asking you for money.

The One-Ring Scam

This one is simple. Your phone rings once. That’s it. The scam relies on a couple things, though. First, there’s a curiosity factor. Second, there’s the very real possibility that most people have not memorized every area code used in the United States. But forget that, because caller ID can be be gamed with a spoofed phone number. Here’s what you need to know: Your phone rang once.

How It Works: You call back the number, and you’re automatically charged for a service that you didn’t want, or money is otherwise sucked out of your phone account to appear at the end of the billing cycle.

What to Do: If your phone rings once, assume the conversation that didn’t happen wasn’t worth happening. Wait for whomever called to leave a message, and never (ever) return fire.

There are more scams happening all the time, and no way to chronicle every one of them. But the baseline behavior of pausing and thinking for a moment, “Could this be a scam?” is your best protection to keep fraudsters at bay.