By now, almost everyone knows that an unsolicited email from a Prince from some foreign land is a scam. He doesn’t want to involve you in some sort of plan where you will end up rich. In fact, he doesn’t exist, and the email is just a scam to get valuable information from you, or somehow separate you from your money.
But scammers have become a lot more devious and, frankly, good at what they do – fooling people into trouble. And they work for the scammer – they can send out thousands of emails for almost no cost, and if only a few fall into their trap, they’ve made a profit. Recognizing and avoiding these scams is an important skill for anyone who uses email.
Here are some tips to help you avoid failing for the scam.
Know the psychology (Anxiety) - The scammer is trying to raise your anxiety as much as possible. He/she/they is hoping you will panic that your account is being breached, your money is being stolen, your personal information is being sold, someone is using your credit card, your government benefits are at risk, and you are going to be in BIG trouble if you don’t act NOW! The scammer knows that panicked people make bad decisions, and more easily fall into traps.
This is especially true for scammers saying there is an “issue” with an online, payment service, package delivery, auction or web-based merchandise account. These services are so impersonal and do so much communication electronically, they are ripe for scammers to fake that they are representing those companies.
So, the first thing to do if you get an email or text that is raising your anxiety or saying that there is an immediate problem is to stop, take a breath, and deal with it when you have a clear head and can examine the email rationally.
Know the psychology (Amazing Deals!) – Free money? Huge discounts? Miracle drugs or weight loss consumables? Get rich quick plans or incredible “secret” business or investment opportunities? There is an old adage – if it sounds too good to be true, it is almost always NOT TRUE. Be skeptical of any email that promises too much.
Don’t click where they want you to click – Many people don’t realize that when you see a link on an email or text, it may not do what it says it will do. It may not connect you to a helpful agent, or a webpage with more information, or a needed form. It may instead download malware or ransomware on your computer or lead you to speak with the scammer personally. If you feel you need to speak with someone, get their contact information from an outside reliable source instead of the email or text – for example, the company’s website, the customer service information on a bill, or the phone number on your credit card. Never rely on the email or text itself for contact information, and don’t click anything unless you had pre-arranged with the sending party that he/she/they would send you a link.
This is also especially true for attachments - files added to emails. Unless you know what it is, who it is from and whether it is safe, do not click it.
Check the email sending address – Let’s say I own a company called Jeffrey. A scammer knows that a lot of people misspell Jeffrey as Jeffery. To fool you into thinking the email comes from “Jeffrey” he might use the misspelling. It’s easy to overlook, but the email you think is coming from a trusted company may actually be coming from a scammer. Also, watch for added information in the domain name. For example, if a company’s domain name is ZZZBusiness.com, and someone sends you something from ZZZBusiness.office.com, it may look legitimate, but there is a good chance it’s a scam.
As a side note, be careful on your own spelling and typing whenever you go online. Scammers know people can misspell or mistype web addresses, and a scammer will take advantage of that. Also, be careful you are using the correct email suffix - .com, .net, .biz, .org and others are all different, and someone using the incorrect name may very well be a scammer.
If they insist on gift cards or cryptocurrency, it’s almost certain to be scam – Let’s say you have gotten into a conversation with someone you think is legitimate, and they ask for gift cards or a cryptocurrency (such as Bitcoin) to get you out of the trouble they day you’re in, or to pay for their services. This is a huge red flag. These resources are harder to trace, and nearly impossible to get back. Wire transfers and pre-paid debit cards are also favored methods of resource acquisition for scammers. Be very skeptical about anyone who insists payment only in these forms, and not something more traditional and traceable like a check or credit/debit card. And never send any money in any form top anyone unless you are sure of who they are.
Fun is fun, scams are not – Another type of email to be skeptical about is those offering entertainment - jokes, funny videos and others. So many people go online for entertainment, and scammers look to take advantage of this by getting you to link on a link that loads some malware or ransomware on your computer, or gets you to give them money or valuable information. It is far better to get your entertainment from a known source than an unsolicited email.
They want your number…Social Security number – One of your most important pieces of personal information is your Social Security number. There is a set of scammers who would love to get that number along with other information, which they can then use to hijack your social security account or impersonate you. So, it is crucial for you to be extremely careful to whom you give this number. If someone initiates a call to you on their own and asks you for that number, there is great cause to be skeptical that this might be a scam.
Note that the Social Security Administration will almost always first contact you in writing by US Mail or by text (only if you have chosen that option, and you still be very careful with texts) and not by phone. If someone who calls you asks for your Social Security number or threatens a cessation of benefits if you don’t give them that number or payment by one of the methods listed above, it has a good chance of being a scam.
No, really, who Is this? – Scammers love to make you think they are from an entity with whom you have done business, or someone else you trust. They will call or write and say “I’m from the credit department,” or “I’m from the loan (or mortgage) department,” or “I’m from the benefits department,” which is really, when you think about it, is saying nothing. The department of what? If you need to ask that question, it may be a scam. If they do not or cannot immediately and clearly say the company or agency they are claiming they are from, it is more likely a scam.
These are only some of the ways scammers work in ever increasing and sophisticated methods of trying to unduly take your money or cause you harm. Good ways to avoid becoming a victim of a scam is to take care and be skeptical of unsolicited phone calls, texts, letters and emails while always staying calm and thinking things through or getting professional help before handing over money or valuable information. For technical issues, investment in a top-rated anti-virus/malware software package is a good investment, and perhaps even engaging a computer security firm if you have high assets or more complex and sensitive information stored on your computer. And, of course, a Daily Money Manager like me at Kavod DMM can also be a great help in spotting scams and saving you money.