Online Scams Vol. 1: Words that mean it’s probably a scam.

In the late 1990s, the Internet really captured the collective imagination as a way to make a ton of money. There was the classic depiction of a “Dot-Com Startup,” a company made up entirely of hip, cynical recent college grads (or even precocious dropouts) who made instant millions by apparently wearing cargo shorts to work and spending the entire day playing foosball in open-design offices with weird artwork all over the place.

I’m still not sure how their business model worked (and ultimately, it didn’t), but that was the popular image. The ones who were smart enough to sell before anyone noticed they were just playing hackey-sack all day made a lot of cash.

You’ve also got stories like Google and Facebook and Twitter—sites that were started by small groups of people, that became massive online juggernauts.

Yep. The Internet has definitely made quite a few millionaires. We all know it, and that’s why so many people are getting ripped off: online moneymaking schemes.

First off, the people who have truly made lasting fortunes on the Internet did so by offering something unique that lots of people wanted. They created something. They didn’t go to a website and sign up for an “affiliate program” that required them to give their credit card numbers.

That’s why I’m doing a little series this week on the world of online scams. Today’s topic: words that are a pretty good sign you’re looking at a scam.

If the URL (address line) of the site, or if the name of the site have any of the following words in it, you are very likely going to lose money very quickly if you hand over your credit card information:

  • fun
  • free
  • profit
  • money
  • million
  • cash
  • fast
  • rich
  • wealth
  • internet
  • online
  • web
  • immediate
  • instant

Just…don’t trust these sites. I don’t care what they’re called. FunInternetProfits, InstantOnlineMillions, FastInternetCash, whatever. I’m just making those names up, but I can almost guarantee they’re real sites (do NOT visit them, though. You’ve been warned).

For one thing, what website has the word “Internet” or “online” in its name anymore? Do you really need to specify that in 2009?

For another, why is it that “fast cash, no work!” sounds like a complete rip off when it’s an ad in the back of Rolling Stone, but when it’s on a website, people fall for it? Anyone can put up a website, folks. Terrorist groups that operate in complete secrecy have websites. There is no vetting process for having a website.

There is also a special case: scams that try to latch onto Google. There’s one called Google Works that I know of specifically. They start by charging you $1.97 for…well, they don’t really tell you. Then they take $69.97 from you every month. See, they’re taking money from you. That’s the opposite of profit.

There are many more of these Google scams. Google Cash is one I’ve heard of, but I’m sure Google Profit, Google Millions and Google Wealth are out there somewhere. They’re all scams. Don’t even try.

Now, Google does run an affiliate program called AdSense that’s legitimate. A lot of bloggers use this on their sites. It generates little ads that are probably related to the content of your blog. In this case, you’re hoping visitors to your site will click on these ads, which will generate a few cents for you. However, unless you’re running a site that gets a few hundred thousand visits per month or more, you’re not going to make a whole lot from it.

The other problem with AdSense is that sometimes ads for scams using Google’s name show up. That means ads for Google Works and other scams are using Google’s legit advertising affiliate program to lure people. I think Google needs to pay more attention to the people they allow to advertise through their program, don’t you?

Also an exception: there is a site called Get Rich Slowly, a blog that provides excellent financial advice from a guy who’s gone from a heavy debt burden to debt free over the course of a few years. He’s not selling anything (unless he has a book out that I don’t know about), and he’s not offering a way for you to make money. You go to the site to read articles and learn. Make sure you’re at getrichslowly.ORG, not COM. The COM is somebody trying to sell website addresses (a very 1995-style business venture). Avoid.

Identity Theft Myths: Online banking and shopping are unsafe

I know, most people already know that shopping and banking online are pretty darn safe. Amazon wouldn’t be the leviathan it is today if people were still afraid to shop online. However, there are still some folks out there who think doing anything online is an open door to getting your identity stolen.

The truth is, it’s probably safer.

Think about your monthly bills. Your paper bill starts by passing through who-knows-how-many hands. Then it sits in your mailbox unattended until you take it (assuming it’s still there). Later, you write out a check (with your full name, address and account number on it), place it in an envelope with your bill (which has yet another account number on it), and leave it unattended in the mailbox with the little red “Hey There’re Checks In This’n!” flag sticking up. Assuming nobody steals it from your box, it once again passes through who-knows-how-many hands on the way to its destination. At the end, a human being (i.e., an entity capable of error) has to manually input your payment and handle your paper check.

If you receive and pay online, however, you receive an email that only you can see. It probably won’t even have your full account number in the message. You go online to pay the bill, logging in with a password only you know. Your payment is taken from your account right away, and it is processed by a machine, which will usually only make an error if you make an error.

Additionally, the security at online retailers and financial institutions is unbelievably tight. The only time anyone really runs into trouble is when they fall for a phishing scam and give their passwords out to other people, or when they use a site that shouldn’t have been trusted to begin with. Your credit union, bank, and the major retailers are fine. If you’re not sure if a business is trustworthy, check them out on the Better Business Bureau.

Identity Theft Myths: Thieves will use your information for years

There are still enough people who believe this one to consider it widespread enough to talk about here.

There was a case back in the 1990s where a woman was a victim of an identity thief. This person used her name for over a year and a half, and ruined her credit (and a big chunk of her life in general). I remember seeing the story on one of those “news magazine” programs (20/20 or something), and I’m pretty sure there has been at least one made-for-TV movie about it.

It’s probably on Lifetime every now and then. The title is something like [Adjective] [Noun], the [Person’s Name] Story. Then again, all their movie titles are like that. They’re like Mad Libs.

Anyway, these days it’s far more common for thieves to take your identity for a “joyride” of a couple weeks’ duration. They’ll rack up all the charges/goods/services they can, then move on to the next victim. Oh, it’s still just as big a pain for you to fix, but cases of long-term cloning over the course of months and years are rare now.

Part of the reason is technology. People catch the theft much sooner, and more and more financial providers have built-in safeguards, which can provide some protection, or at least early detection. I think another reason is that identity theft has increasingly become the realm of organized crime. With a backlog of identities to work with, they can use them for a short time, then move on to the next identity before the fraud alerts start showing up.

None of this is exactly comforting, I suppose. Like I said before, it still takes you a long time and a lot of hassle to clear up any identity theft. But those widely publicized cases of long-term identity theft are the exception rather than the rule nowadays.

Hit these links

Let’s take a break from the Identity Theft Myths series today, and instead look at some other topics from other places on the web.

“Is Facebook becoming Phishingbook?” explores a social media scam that seems to be growing lately. Summary: if you’re Facebook friend tells you they’ve been mugged in London and need you to wire money, don’t.

Excellent advice from Craigslist. There is a lot of fraud happening through this popular site. Summary: only buy/sell locally, and never wire money. Ever.

“10 Ways to Avoid Sneaky Work-at-home Scams” is exactly what it sounds like. Summary: the economy is weak and these scams are only going to become more common.

“Beware of Cash For Clunkers Scams.” I’ve covered this here before, but the Eastern Michigan BBB has some more information on the topic. Summary: CARS works by taking your heap, junker or jalopy (or “hoopty,” in the parlance of our times) to a dealer and trading it. There is no pre-registration or anything.

We’ll return to the Identity Theft Myths next Monday. Until then, have fun.

Identity Theft Myths: Identity theft is a high-tech crime

What springs to mind when you hear the words “identity theft?”

Be honest, now.

For a lot of people, the first thing they think of is their home computer. Because of the constant emphasis on computer security (and a few made-for-TV movies, I don’t doubt), many people are under the impression that your identity gets stolen because you were on the Internet and a hacker broke into your computer and got your personal information.

Of course, hackers exist. What used to be the demesne of nerdy college kids and spoiled brats with powerful computers and too much unsupervised time has become an important tool for organized crime.

However, not all identity theft occurs online. You don’t have all your credit card numbers, account numbers, passwords, Social Security number and other information stored on your computer anyway, do you?

Do you?

Tell me you don’t.

Anyway, a huge chunk of identity theft occurs through very un-high-tech channels. Your purse or wallet get stolen, and you were carrying your Social Security card with you. That’s an open door.

Or you received a load of credit card offers in the mail and simply tore the envelopes in two (or not at all) and threw them in the trash. That night, somebody picked through your garbage and found it. It’s the dark side of Dumpster Diving—what used to be a fun way to drive around college towns in June and score free microwave ovens is now a common route for identity theft.

If picking through garbage isn’t gross enough for you, there’s this little factoid: between 10 and 25% of identity theft victims knew the person who stole their identity. That’s your friends and coworkers. It could even be your family members.

The wide range in this percentage seems to depend on who is doing the research. You see both numbers in different reports, but there may be an age-related factor: younger people tend to know the person who stole their identity more often (as many as 40% of people under 30, according to some data I’ve seen). The point is, a lot of identity theft happens because somebody left their purse unattended at work.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can ignore online safety. Keep your virus/spyware protection updated and don’t fall for those phishing attempts (which I know you won’t because you’ve been reading the FPU, right?). But look at the low-tech ways you might be making yourself vulnerable. Get a crosscut shredder today if you don’t already have one, and get that Social Security card out of your wallet, already.

Identity Theft Myths: You don’t have to worry if you have bad credit

I’m going to do a series on identity theft myths over the next couple weeks. I might not end up doing them all in a row, though.

A lot of people think they don’t have to worry about identity theft if their credit is lousy. “Use it all you want,” they think. “You’re not going to get approved for anything anyway, and you can’t make my credit any worse than it is.”

Wrong.

For one thing, even though our current financial situation has made it a little harder to obtain credit, there’s still a possibility that somebody, somewhere will grant the identity thief credit using your information.

However, identity theft isn’t always about obtaining credit and making purchases.

Someone could use your information when they get arrested. When they don’t show up in court, the police could appear on your doorstep, and they’ve heard “you’ve got the wrong guy” a million times, so that won’t help you much. Trying to get a mistaken police record cleared up is a hassle you want to steer clear of.

Someone could also use your information to obtain employment. There is a story I see all the time about a woman who applied for a job at Target, then found out she already worked there, according to their records. Someone was working there using her social security number. I actually haven’t seen a version of this story specific enough to indicate it’s anything more than a made-up anecdote, but the fact is that people steal identities in order to obtain employment. Perhaps it doesn’t hurt you at all, and perhaps you never even find out. However, what if they commit a crime while on the job? It could end up following you.

There’s also medical identity theft.  This is the scariest scenario, because it could cost you your life. When someone uses your identity to obtain medical care, you could end up with insurance companies and hospitals calling to collect payments on services you did not receive. Worse still, incorrect medical records attached to your name, including information such as chronic diseases and allergies, could kill you. What if the fact that you’re severely allergic to a drug gets removed from your record, and you’re brought in unconscious and unable to speak up?

So, even if your credit is less-than-perfect (or just plain awful), don’t assume you’re safe from identity theft. Just because they can’t buy a car using your name and information, doesn’t mean they can’t use it for something (or sell it to someone who can).

Unfortunately for the rest of us, thieves are resourceful that way.

Scamming the scammers: a really, really bad idea

One of the cool things about running this site is that I get to see the search terms people have used to find their way here. “WA Surveys” has been a surprisingly common search that has led visitors to the FPU, and “mystery shopper scam” has brought in some traffic. I hope I’ve provided some value to those folks.

However, you also get some weird ones.

The other day, the search term that led someone to the Fraud Prevention Unit was “i want to scam the mystery shopper scam.”

This was a little disturbing to me.

I know what some people are thinking; “Well, they’re crooks, so it’s alright to try to rip them off, right?” And I can understand the impulse—vigilante justice, give them a taste of their own medicine, free money in a down economy, etc.

But it’s a really bad idea to even try. For one thing, the crooks perpetrating the scam aren’t going to feel your wrath at all. They just printed up a bunch of fake checks and sent them out to thousands of people. They’re usually not linked to any real accounts at all, and they’re certainly not linked to accounts owned by the criminals themselves.

But wait, there’s more!

At the point you knowingly present a fraudulent instrument (such as a cashier’s check) to a bank or credit union, you are committing fraud on a financial institution. That is a federal offense, and it carries a prison term if you’re found guilty.

This is serious, serious business.

Besides, a lot of these scams are run by organized crime operations. At some level, there are probably some violent people involved. These are not people you want to go messing around with.

Okay, there’s not a huge chance they’ll find out about your little attempted counter-scheme, but why risk it? You’re already not going to get to keep the money, and you might end up in a federal prison. Do you really need goons coming after you, on top of everything else?

Cash for Clunkers Scam: I just can’t stand it.

What does it take for criminals to put up a scam website these days, four minutes?

Honestly, if I just embedded an audio file of myself sighing heavily, and made that the entire post, I think you’d get my meaning. But I’ll go into a little more detail than that.

It’s ridiculous. Last fall they took advantage of the government’s “Stimulus Package,” because a lot of people only heard the word “stimulus” and instantly thought “that means I get another check!” Which it didn’t, by the way—shame on Washington for repurposing the same language. So the crooks started sending emails, making phone calls and setting up websites, asking for personal information to receive your “stimulus check.” And it worked.

Well, now they’re doing it with the “Cash for Clunkers” program we’ve been hearing about. That’s the program that gives you a certain trade-in on your old gas-hog car if you buy a new one with better fuel economy.

Already, there are fake websites telling you that you have to “pre-register” for your Cash for Clunkers rebate. These sites ask for your personal information.

You don’t have to pre-register for anything, and just like with your annual credit report, there is only one site to visit for Cash for Clunkers information: cars.gov.

If you’re getting your information from any other website, it is not official. If you are entering personal information, you are about to become a victim of identity theft.

There is a good, in-depth article on this latest scam here.

Another article about getting your credit report

There is an excellent blog site called Get Rich Slowly that I highly recommend. It doesn’t really cover fraud or identity theft—the focus is on personal finance. Getting out of debt, saving money, spending wisely; J.D. covers it all, and he speaks from experience (he went from a mountain of credit card to zero over the course of a few years).

However, since we’ve been on the topic of credit reports and credit repair this week, I thought I’d post a link to a GRS article from a couple months ago. The article is about Annualcreditreport.com versus the one with the silly commercials, and you can read it right here. He also links to an article from yet another site. There’s plenty to read!

Normally I like to create the content for this site, but that’s just because I like to write. When someone else has an article I think you should read, I have no problem linking to it. Definitely check out Get Rich Slowly. It’s good stuff.

The Internet is just crawling with these people

Just as an illustration of how careful you have to be when it comes to credit repair/credit counseling/etc. on the Internet, after I posted yesterday’s article I also updated the FPU Twitter feed. The update contained the words “credit repair,” because I was stating how many of them were scams.

This morning I had three new followers on Twitter.

Every one of them was from a credit repair scam business. The first one was obvious…every post contained the same URL, they were following a thousand people but had three followers. The second was from a place with a D- rating by the BBB. The third had a big, fat F.

Needless to say, I blocked all three. Then I found a few that I’d missed, hiding out in my list of followers. I’m not allowing these criminals (which is what they essentially are) to follow the FPU on Twitter.

They’re watching Twitter for the words “credit repair” and latching onto anyone who mentions it. Not on my watch.

I may start calling them out by name every couple weeks if it happens enough to annoy me. I’ll just post their Twitter names, their business names, and their ratings from the BBB. And a warning that the Fraud Prevention Unit recommends you do NOT contact these businesses.

If they are contacting you first, it’s a scam. Pure and simple. There are legitimate credit counselors in your area. Do the research if you need their services. You can’t afford not to.

Stay vigilant.