Category Archives: General Scams

Two Quick Ones: Popups and “Please Open”

Just a couple very, very short fraud prevention tips to keep in mind:

  1. In most cases, legitimate websites will not ask for your username and password in a popup window. If you’re looking at a popup window that’s asking for this information, it’s time to double- and triple check that you’re actually on the website you thought you were visiting.
  2. If you get an email with the subject “Please open,” don’t. I know….rude, since they asked all polite an’ stuff. But don’t open the message, or any attachments. Just don’t do it.

The IRS doesn’t tell you to load up MoneyPak cards

Today’s post is real simple:

If you get a phone call from someone claiming to represent the IRS, informing you of all the trouble you’re in due to unpaid taxes, you are almost definitely dealing with a scammer.

If the next thing they tell you is “don’t tell anyone” and “go load up a bunch of MoneyPak cards and call me back and give me the card information,” you are DEFINITELY, without any shadow of a doubt, dealing with a scammer.

The correct response is to hang up the phone. This latest round of IRS telephone scams appears to involve particularly aggressive callers, but remember: it’s just a voice on a phone. They can’t freeze your assets or confiscate your property because they’re not the IRS.

You can report the fraud at if you feel like it, but the main thing is: hang up the phone.


Talking to children about fraud prevention

I’ve been doing fraud and identity theft presentations for adults and high school and middle school students for several years now, but recently I realized I’d never presented to elementary school-aged kids, and had nothing prepared if the opportunity would arise.

Kids need to know this stuff, too. Sure we can all say, “Well, the parents shouldn’t let them on a computer without constant supervision in the first place,” but that’s not how it generally works in reality. Kids end up downloading things and talking to strangers and everything in between, and they work fast. You look away for five minutes because staring at a kid playing Minecraft in the name of “constant supervision” is one of the most boring things human beings are capable of doing, and suddenly your browser’s homepage has been hijacked and some weirdo knows your phone number.

So they need to learn, but what to tell them, and how to present it in a way they’ll understand?

I’ve been working on those questions while trying to come up with a fraud prevention presentation for the elementary school crowd, or at least the 3rd through 5th grade set. I’ve narrowed down a few things that I think are important:

1. Everything you see online was put there by a person

Kids trust everything and everyone. When they go online, they assume everything exists by benevolent magic. Show them a “Click here for free _____!” popup with Mario on it and they’re going to install anything it asks them to. What they need to understand is that everything they see was made by a person they don’t know and can’t see, and that not every one of those people are good. People lie because they make money tricking children.

2. Popup windows are not to be trusted

A popup window is probably bad news, especially if it offers free games, powerups for games, or prizes. Kids will accept anything if you tell them it’s a prize. Ask the tiny blue plastic mug I won at the school carnival in 1984. I still had that thing five years later.

3. A “virus” is a type of program that hurts your computer, phone or tablet

I’m still working on how to explain this one, but the gist is that the people who make things for you to download sometimes hide other programs inside it, and these can hurt your computers and devices, or even steal money from you.

4. Keep your passwords secret!

Parents need to know their kids’ passwords, but the kids need to know NOT to let anyone else know them. Not even their best friend. Not someone who asks for it really nicely. Nobody.

So this is a work in progress right now, but those four points seem like something a kid would be able to understand if explained properly. I’m sure I’ll rework some of these and add to it, but it’s a starting point.


Overpayment scams affect businesses, too

I thought I was onto some clever application of the “duck test” for the title of this post, about how “if it looks like a scam and quacks like a scam,” but I really couldn’t make it sound anything other than monstrously insane, so I dropped it and went with the title you see above.

Anyway, the old repayment scam has been explained a thousand times here, there and everywhere. You’re selling something on Craigslist (for example), and a buyer contacts you, usually from out of state. They send their payment, but instead of $200, it’s a cashier’s check for $3,200. “Cash it and use the extra for shipping, then wire the rest back to me,” they say when you contact them.

What happens next is fairly predictable: you cash the check, send the item, wire the excess money (thousands of dollars) to someone, then find out a week later that it was a counterfeit check and that you’re on the hook for the loss caused to your financial institution.

But did you know that scammers also target businesses with the same tactic?

And if you’re a business owner, you might fall for it because what might strike you as suspicious during a private sale might seem less so in a business context. I’ve heard of several cases where retail businesses, attorneys and rental property owners have been victimized by this scam.

However, the principle applies in every context, whether in a person-to-person or a business transaction: if someone sends you a cashier’s check and tells you to cash it and wire money back to them, you’re almost always dealing with a con artist.

How law enforcement doesn’t operate: scam alert from the BBB

If you live in the United States (I can’t vouch for other countries), there are certain ways in which law enforcement is carried out, and ways in which it generally is not.

Here’s one way law enforcement doesn’t work: if there’s a warrant out for your arrest, they usually don’t call you first and tell you.

Here’s another: if you’re accused of a crime, you can’t pay a fine to avoid charges (if you can, it probably means you’re bribing someone, and they’re accepting the bribe, and you’re both in a lot of trouble, mister. Bribing the police. That’s not right!). The fines (and other consequences) generally happen after you’ve been convicted, which is supposed to occur via due process.

The Better Business Bureau is warning of an active scam that has already claimed several victims. The fraudulent phone calls use spoofed caller ID to extort “fines” from victims, by money orders and prepaid debit cards. They’ve got the full lowdown here, but the proper response is one you’ve seen before: don’t give any money or personal information (even if they have some already—victims have reported the callers having information about loans), hang up, call the real police (because others are likely getting the same calls).

The problem is that such phone calls can incite a moment of panic, and panic makes it hard to think rationally. But if you’re aware that such scams exist, you’ll be able to stop, take a breath, calm down and remember how reality works before you become a victim.

File Under “Things That Were Just a Matter of Time.” New scams using Affordable Care Act to harvest personal information.

Okay, so if you live in these United States, you may have heard of a controversial little thing called the Affordable Care Act.

Yeah, okay, before you head to the bottom of the page to sound off, I’ve already turned comments off for this post. I’m not here to express my opinion of the legislation, and I’m not fielding others’, either. Our opinions are irrelevant for the moment. Besides, certain post topics generate TONS of bot-generated spam comments, and I have a hunch this might be one of them (you should’ve seen how many came in when I wrote about Açaí berry scams a few years ago…it was seriously ridiculous).

Here’s all we need to know, and it’s pretty easy to agree upon: The Affordable Care Act is a Thing That Exists. (That’s only a matter of opinion if you’re into really fabric-of-universe-level philosophical discussions.)

And, as a Thing That Exists, it was only a matter of time before someone started up a scam based upon it.

Lo and behold, the FTC is reporting exactly that. Scammers are calling potential victims to “verify” information. For example, “So I see here that your routing number is __________, is that correct? Okay, good, so now we just need your account number…”

Here’s the deal with the Affordable Care Act: if you’re one of the people who is going to need to use the exchanges to obtain insurance, you’re going to be the one contacting them. According to the FTC report, “If someone who claims to be from the government calls and asks for your personal information, hang up. It’s a scam. The government and legitimate organizations you do business with already have the information they need and will not ask you for it.”

That sums it up pretty nicely, both in this specific instance and as a general rule.

2 people are not spying on you

Have you seen this (or something similar) show up on a website lately?

I said DON'T click on it!

If you use MyFitnessPal, WeightWatchers Online, YouTube, or any of about a million other sites, chances are that you have.

Here are some things about which you can rest assured:

  • It’s just a stupid banner advertisement
  • It seems to be showing up a lot more often since this whole mess with the NSA started and got everyone paranoid about their online privacy
  • Nobody is spying on you*
  • It probably leads to a website that will infect your computer with spyware, at which point someone will be spying on you
  • Even if it doesn’t, you don’t want what they’re selling
  • It tells EVERYONE they have “2 people” spying on them
  • YouTube, MyFitnessPal, WeightWatchers, etc., have no way of knowing whether anyone is spying on you or not
  • Do not click on it, whatever you do

*Actually, there might be people spying on you. I mean, I have no idea who’s reading this. Spies do exist, right? You might be involved in all kinds of international espionage, sabotage, subterfuge, the works. You might be tuning in to those weird “numbers stations” every night and actually have the key to decode them for all I know. But in that case, you’d probably say, “Two? Ha! More like two hundred!” if you saw this particular ad.

Don’t try to get something for nothing

Sometimes you walk a fine line when you’re writing about how-to-not-get-swindled. On one hand, a victim is a victim, and it’s not nice to place blame on them. On the other, there are scams that prey upon some all-too-human tendencies  (which we all have within us, make no mistake about it) to be a little avaricious.

When it comes to this category of scams, here’s the rule: don’t try to get something for nothing.

Think about all the fake iPad scams you’ve heard about. A guy approaches you at a gas station and offers to sell you a brand new iPad for a super-low price. You find out later that the box contains a mirror or some other non-iPad object.

It’s no fun to get conned, but ask yourself: is there anything about a guy selling iPads at a gas station that doesn’t scream “This is not legit!” when you really think about it? Apple doesn’t sell its products from cars at filling stations.This is either a scam or an attempt to unload stolen goods. You’re almost better off with the mirror.

What about the Pigeon Drop scheme? Forget the whole “Let’s have this person hold your good-faith money while we do this-or-that to divvy up this satchel of cash we found” angle…how many movies do you have to watch to know that “satchel full of money” equals “drug dealers/hit men/bank heists/things you don’t want to get within ten miles of”? Honest people who find big stashes of currency contact law enforcement, because there’s no way that cash is not evidence of some major crime. It couldn’t be more obvious if it was in a big white sack with a huge dollar sign printed on it.

The rule applies to all manner of scams and rip-offs. $437 sounds a bit steep for an hour of work, doesn’t it? Then don’t fall for the secret shopper scams. Brand-name prescription drugs for a tenth of the cost? Sounds too good to be true! That’s because it is.

We’re all looking out for ourselves on some level. If I see a ten-dollar bill bouncing merrily down the sidewalk on a windy day, I’ll pick it up. But I’ll also check around me to make sure nobody was chasing it, or standing there with that distraught look that can only mean one thing: their tenner just blew away. (For the record: this never happens to me…I’m much more likely to be the one with the distraught face.)

However, moving forward, remember this: if someone approaches you offering something for nothing (or next to it), take warning. You’re either about to be scammed or become an accomplice.

The irony of online banner advertisements

Earlier this year, an article about the Iraqi Dinar Scam appeared on Here’s a screenshot:


First, let me go on record here: I disagree with the author’s use of the word “stupid” in the title of this article. It’s arrogant. Falling for a scam doesn’t make you stupid; it is my deeply-held belief that everyone is vulnerable to scams. Every single one of us has some magic combination of situation, emotion and opportunity capable of leading us straight into Scamsville. My goal with this site has always been to eliminate as many of those possibilities as possible; to make your own scam-combination-lock as difficult to decipher as possible. But we’ve all got a tell. Somewhere. I can’t emphasize this enough.

But this particular scam isn’t really my focus here. Yes, the Iraqi Dinar Investment Thing is very much a scam. The fact that entities selling it have to classify their businesses as a service for collectors of exotic currency (and not as a foreign exchange investment) to get around regulations should tell you something. Now you know. Go forth and tell others.

No, my focus today is to point out one of the absurd ironies of online publishing and the keyword-based online advertisements that accompany it. Because, on the very same page as the article shown above, this advertisement appeared, plain as day:



Yep. An advertisement for a business involved in the very scam the article spends several hundred words discussing.

No, I didn’t click on it. I don’t trust these businesses enough to even expose my computer to their websites. So I can’t give you any further details on this particular “offer,” but I can assure you: it involves you paying a few thousand dollars for a mound of paper that’s going to be worth the same nothing ten years from now that it’s worth today.

So here’s your takeaway for this Friday: for the most part, just don’t click on advertisements that appear on websites, even when those websites are reputable (I mean, Forbes wasn’t exactly founded a week ago, you know?). Even if the ads seem relevant to what you’re reading.

In fact, lots of web browsers now have plugins available that will block banner ads from view altogether. Adblock for Google Chrome is popular. I used it in the past, but since I have to occasionally write articles on this stuff, I felt it was better for me to be able to see the ads. There was even a variant called “Catblock” at one point, which replaced ads with pictures of totally adorable cats. Which is just awesome.

“Does this fit with the way the world works?”

I saw a video the other day that featured Michael Shermer, editor-in-chief of  Skeptic magazine, talking about questions you can use to evaluate claims when it comes to science vs. pseudo-science. With a nod to physicist Carl Sagan, he referred to the method as a “Baloney Detection Kit.”

The fourth question in the Kit was:

Does this fit with the way the world works?

In other words, does the claim being made jibe with how reality tends to operate across a variety of situations?

What an excellent question to keep in mind when it comes to avoiding scams.

As I perused my Google Alerts for the latest news items about different types of fraud, I found that a lot of them could be avoided by simply asking that very question before acting. Here are some examples:

From Connecticut: Scam Targets Payday Loan Borrowers

In this scheme, a caller claims to be collecting on a delinquent loan, and tells the victim they will be arrested unless they make a payment over the phone right away. Is this how the world works?

Not even close. First, lenders don’t have the authority to decide if you’ll be arrested or not. The police in the U.S. are not employed by private financial institutions. Sure, if you commit loan fraud, they can contact authorities, but being delinquent doesn’t usually fall under that umbrella. Debtors prisons went out quite a while ago in this country. Second, whatever the circumstance, they don’t call you and tell you about an impending arrest in advance. You generally only get to know about it two seconds before it happens.

From Arizona: New Scam Claims that President Obama will pay Consumers Utility Bills

So the President’s gonna pay your light bill for you, huh?

Just like Reagan and Nixon and Kennedy all did, huh?

And he’ll be over tonight at six for dinner, with a marble rye and Trivial Pursuit, right?

Folks, this is not how the world operates. Presidents don’t pay your utility bills. In most cases, that one’s all on you. Don’t fall for it. They want you to surrender information so they can commit identity theft.

From Everywhere: The Exiled Nigerian Prince Scam

I won’t go into details about these scams, since most of you probably already know about them (here’s an old article if you don’t), but suffice it to say they fail the “is this how the world operates?” question with flying colors. Rich people don’t just give massive amounts of money away to random strangers. It would be nice if they did, but wishing something were true doesn’t usually do much to change the facts.

From Everywhere Again: Secret Shopper Scams

Offers for jobs that pay lots of money for minute amounts of unskilled work don’t appear out of nowhere in your email inbox. People who make $150 for an hour’s worth of work have advanced knowledge, skills or education to make their time that valuable. Cashing a check then wiring the money to someone doesn’t meet those requirements. Also, finding a job usually requires you to take the initiative first.

From South Carolina: Charleston police warn elderly against ‘found money’ scam

I suppose it’s possible that someone could find a wallet or briefcase that contained a large sum of cash. It still seems more like something that would happen in a movie than real life, but wallets exist, cash exists, and people who lose things exist. There’s no physical barrier to someone finding a vessel of some sort, bursting at the seams with cabbage.

However, upon finding such an object, there is generally a binary, either-or course of action that will follow, depending on the person who found it:

Honest Person: they’ll call the police and turn it in.
Dishonest Person: they’ll keep it all and run away.

There’s really not a whole lot of variation here. That’s just how the world works.

What won’t happen is that an honest person will find the cash, then offer to split it with a random stranger. Their concern will be for the owner of the money, or for helping solve a crime (because, let’s face it, big wads of discarded money have a distinctly criminal aroma about them).

What also won’t happen is that a dishonest person will find cash, then offer to split it with a random stranger. Their concern will be for their own gains and their own gains only.

Neither of those fit with how the world works, so if anyone in a parking lot ever tells you they found a big stash of money, don’t believe a word they say. That cash is a decoy, and they’re trying to get you to part with a chunk of “good faith money.” Politely decline, get a description, go somewhere safe, and rat ’em out. You just might save someone else from becoming a victim.