Indiana Attorney General sets up new fraud alert system

The Indiana AG’s office has a new system for fraud alerts via email. You should sign up for this. I just did it myself.

All you have to do is visit the Indiana AG website and click the red “Consumer Alerts” button to begin. You can just enter your email address, or set it up with a password.

We’ve got a long weekend ahead of us. I’ll be back on Tuesday. In the meantime, stay vigilant out there.

Fake virus scan pop-ups

I don’t normally write a lot about specific computer-related issues, mostly because I don’t have the technical chops to really get into a lot of detail.

However, there is something I feel needs to be addressed: fake virus scanning software.

Have you ever gone to a website and had a realistic-looking window pop up, telling you that your computer has been infected with a virus? Usually, it will tell you to “click here” to run a “free virus scan.”

That was malicious software. If you “click[ed] here,” it very likely installed some form of spyware or adware onto your computer.

These are nasty programs. At best, they can annoy you by highjacking your homepage. so that when you open a web browser, some weird “search” page appears that logs every single thing you search for and spams you accordingly. It can lead to constant pop-up advertisements, misdirection to fake websites, and more.

At worst, they can install spyware, such as a keylogger that tracks every single thing you type on your computer, including logins and passwords. Big trouble if you happen to log in to do some online banking or bill payment.

When these fake virus scanners show up, there is always a button to “cancel,” but frankly, I don’t trust it. It could be set up to do the exact same thing as the “Install” button. I always click the “X” in the upper-right corner of the window.

Then I shut down my web browser, disconnect from the Internet and run an immediate virus scan, because I also don’t really trust that “X” I just clicked. Perhaps I am overreacting, but spyware freaks me out. Better to overreact than to give someone access to my online accounts.

If you already have a good virus scanner (I use Norton Internet Security) and are keeping your updates current (and I know you are, right?), they usually run pretty silently in the background. They might throw out a pop-up window if you’re heading straight into serious trouble, but it won’t look like just a regular “Windows window,” and it won’t ask you to install anything (you’ve already installed the software) or talk about “free trials.”

No matter what brand of virus protection software you’re using, I would also highly recommend Spybot Search & Destroy. This is a program designed specifically to target spyware, adware and other malware. Most likely, your primary virus scanner will catch everything, but it never hurts to have a little backup. Spybot S&D is free, but beware of software with a similar-but-not-quite-the-same name. I’d recommend you only get it from the site linked above.

Whatever you do, don’t be taken in by fake virus scanners.

Mystery Shopper Scams Forever, Continued

Yesterday I posted the text of an email our CEO received from “US_Surveys Inc.” and challenged you to see how many “this is a scam” warning signs you could spot.

Here are the answers I came up with:

  1. The “From” and “To” field both contained the recipient’s email address. Now, she didn’t send this thing to herself, so that means they were spoofing the “From” line. If this was really from a company called “US Surveys,” wouldn’t you think it would say “From: [somebody]@ussurveys.com,” or similar?
  2. It was set on “high priority.” They want you to think it’s a limited time offer, and if you don’t act now, you’ll lose out.
  3. Wonky spacing and punctuation (“Our company(US Surveys)” and “Secret/Shopper”) throughout. Most real companies take a little more care when sending official communications.
  4. Look at the payout: $100 for 30 to 60 minutes of work. That means they’re promising $100 – $200 per hour. I hate to break this to you, but real secret shopper jobs don’t pay anywhere near $200/hour.
  5. This: “The requirements for this position is to be no younger then 21 years old.” Bad grammar is a red flag (as is poor spelling).
  6. They want you to have an account at a certain financial institution (Citibank). The only jobs that usually require you to use a certain financial institution are when you work for that financial institution.
  7. They want you to open a new Citibank account, to be used “for this position only.” That’s even weirder than #6 above.
  8. The contact person uses a Gmail address. Gmail is a free email service like Hotmail, Yahoo!, etc. Real companies have their own email addresses (okay, small local businesses use free ones sometimes, but they’re usually not trying to get you to fall for a mystery shopper scam).
  9. The corporate “branding” isn’t consistent within the message. They’re “US Surveys” one minute and “US_Surveys Inc.” the next. Real companies are a lot more careful about how they refer to themselves.
  10. The whole concept of the message. Companies don’t just contact strangers out of the blue for job openings. Even companies that do the “recruiting” thing make you fill out an application and hand in a resume first. Okay, companies with $200/hour positions might contact you if you’re a well-known expert in your field, but their credentials will be visible (and you’ll already know who they are). They also won’t be in the mystery shopper business. Rocket science or brain surgery would be more like it.

So these are ten things I found that should tip you off that it’s a scam. I’m sure there are even more, but ten is such a nice, round number.

This message has made its way around the world—we’ve had a pretty big jump in traffic here the past two days. I hope everyone is realizing that this email is fraudulent, and nobody ends up wiring money to these clowns. You may have lost your job in this lousy economy, but losing several hundred dollars to a scam isn’t going to help you one bit. Keep looking for a real job (or strike out on your own), and stay positive.

Mystery Shopper Scams Forever: Play along at home!

The President/CEO of our credit union got this charming little email message today. I’m just going to post the full text here, and you see how many warning signs you can spot that this is not a legitimate job offer, and is in fact a scam:

From: [CEO’s email address here]
Sent: Monday, August 31, 2009 8:03 AM
To: [CEO’s email address here]
Subject: Regional Representatives Needed
Importance: High

Our company(US Surveys) is glad to let you know that we now have a vacancy for the Secret/Shopper Position.
This is a part time position as it requires no longer then 30 minutes to an hour to complete an evaluation.

For each assignment you carry out you will receive a commission of $100. Most of the time a shopper gets assignments on daily basis.
The requirements for this position is to be no younger then 21 years old and to own a Citibank account.

Regarding the account, it is recommended to apply for a new one that you will use for this position only.
If you need more information about applying for this position you can reply to [removed]@gmail.com.

Thank you,
US_Surveys Inc.

Needless to say, she wasn’t interested. Tomorrow I’ll post my list of warning signs that this thing is an attempt at fraud. There are tons of them.

Seriously, if there was a Mystery Shopper Scams Hall of Fame, this one would have its own room dedicated to it. It’s just a classic example.

Score one for us: federal robocall ban takes effect September 1st

They were already supposed to be illegal in Indiana, but telemarketing robocalls are banned on the federal level starting Tuesday.

Basically, a robocall involves an automatic phone dialer and an automated message. You’d get a robotic-sounding voice (hence the name) telling you, for example, that the warranty on your car was about to run out, and to press “1” to extend it. The implication was that the call came from the automaker itself, only it didn’t. Quite a few people have been suckered out of a few thousand dollars each because of these things.

There are some exceptions to this new rule, of course. You should still sign up for the national Do Not Call Registry, as well.

Online Scams Epilogue: How to actually make money on the Internet

So, how do you make money on the Internet?

Perhaps I’ve given the impression that it can’t be done, but that’s not true. However, the answer may not be what you want to hear.

Basically, you have to have something or create something that other people want, and figure out how to deliver it over the Internet.

The easiest way is the most obvious: sell things on eBay. If you have a supply of antiques, collectables or anything else lots of people desire, create an eBay account and go for it. It’s probably not going to be a full-time career or bring you millions of dollars (unless you’re extremely shrewd), but it can be a source of income that doesn’t involve a ton of work on your part.

Other than that, you pretty much have to create something. If you make things by hand, there’s a site called Etsy that allows you to put up a “store” for your wares. Again, it’s probably not going to be a career, but it’s a way to leverage a hobby into extra income.

The blogging world has some success stories. A lot of sites (I Can Has Cheezburger? comes to mind) that have become cultural icons are essentially using a fairly standard blog format. They mostly generate income through advertising revenue (and some of them get book deals later on).

It’s tough to do, but it can be done. Remember; Google, Yahoo!, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter were all created by small groups of people with ideas for sites people might like.

So that’s how you make money on the Internet: create content that people want, or sell a service or product. Perhaps there was a time when putting up a page with nothing but paid links to other sites would have worked, but those days are long gone. The Internet just isn’t “neat” enough anymore, in and of itself, for that sort of thing to work. You’ve got to create your own business on the Internet. It’s not easy, and you might fail over and over, but I hear it’s a pretty sweet life when it works.

Online Scams Vol. 3: Work at home scams are everywhere

Crooks these days. They’re nothing if not adaptable.

Have you seen the number of work-at-home “jobs” being offered on the Internet these days? They know what’s up. A lot of people are losing their jobs and are looking for something new. And it’s a great American tradition—recession (or depression) takes your job, start your own business!

However, the fact is that most people don’t have the right kind of entrepreneurial “spark” needed to start a successful business venture. It takes a certain kind of grit, a deep belief in yourself and your “product,” the ability to hold your head high when faced with failure (and to learn from that failure and move on, instead of taking it personally and wallowing in it), and the kind of positive attitude that, frankly, tends to get obliterated when you’re worrying about how you’re going to pay the mortgage next week.

Let’s face it: starting your own business is way, way tougher than working for someone else. How many times have you seen someone start their own little store because they were “tired of working 40 hours a week,” and you check out their new digs and they’ve got no clear vision for their business, they’re trying to be everything to everyone, and they’re only open five or six hours per day because they’re trying to make owning a business easier than working for someone else? How long did they last?

And I think most of us, deep down, know that. “I’d love to work for myself, but yeesh! 18 hour days, seven days a week?” It’s okay to admit that you’re not a natural born entrepreneur (can you become one? Of course. You can become anything you intend). But most of us know—it is a path of great resistance.

Send in the Work-at-Home-Scam Clowns.

They sound great, don’t they? Stay at home, do some menial task that takes ten minutes, and let “the power of the Internet” (or something) do the rest. You’ll have so many Porsches by this time next year, you won’t know what to do with them all!

Of course I’m going to tell you they’re all completely full of baloney. Nobody is going to pay you hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for nothing.

“Oh, but they’re not paying you,” you’ll say. “You’re starting your own business!”

Well, at best you’re going to pay them a large amount of money for a “startup kit,” fees, or other such bull. You’re not going to assemble kits at home, you’re not going to enter any data, and you’re not going to get paid to stuff envelopes. You’re going to get ripped off.

Fraud.org (run by the National Consumers League) has a great article called “Tips for Avoiding Work-at-Home Scams.” I would recommend you take a few minutes to read the entire article, but the following is a summary of their tips:

  • Know who you’re dealing with
  • Don’t believe that you can make big profits easily
  • Be cautious about emails offering work-at-home opportunities (real companies do not recruit in this way. Ever)
  • Get all the details before you pay
  • Find out if there is really a market for your work
  • Get references for other people who are doing the work
  • Be aware of legal requirements (medical billing requires a license, for example)
  • Know the refund policy
  • Be wary of offers to send you an “advance” on your “pay”
  • Do your own research about work-at-home opportunities

I would amend that fourth tip slightly: just don’t ever pay someone else to work for them.

About.com also has a nice article on this topic: “Work at Home Scams.” I’d suggest you read this as well.

Finally, never, ever trust the phrase, “Other work at home sites are scams, but I found one that isn’t!” There are tons of fake blogs out there. I even found one by searching for “work at home scams.” It had a whole article, possibly culled from a trusted news source, about avoiding these traps. It claimed to be an article from a newspaper in Cleveland. As you read, you suddenly find you’ve been eased into a sales pitch about how “this one isn’t a scam!”

Do they need to make it any more obvious?

Online Scams Vol. 2: A few more words about Google scams

Do a Google search on something. “Fender Telecaster,” whatever. We’ll go with that, since it’s a topic I’m interested in.

Hey, this is a blog, not a democracy.

Now look at the results page that appears. The two-thirds of the screen on your left contains your regular search results. The right third of the screen, however, is a list of paid advertisements. See how it says “Sponsored Links” at the top? That means those are not “pure” search results. Those are Google AdWords listings. Every result in this list is there because somebody paid to have it there.

Now look closely at your “regular” results. For most searches, you’ll see it once again again—”Sponsored Links.” There is a very pale yellow background behind the first couple results. Once again, the owners of those sites paid money for their businesses to appear there. The first “real” search result (if you use our “Fender Telecaster” example) is a page hosted at Fender.com, which makes sense.

My goal here is first to point out how there is just a massive amount of advertising on the Internet, even when performing a simple Google search.

Secondly, my goal is to point out that these advertisements are not from Google. No matter what those “Sponsored Links” say, they are not affiliated with Google (unless you search “Google” or “AdSense” or “AdWords,” which are legitimate).

Search “make money with Google” and a whole bunch of sponsored links come up on your right…and they’re all scams, as far as I can tell. “$100,000/month Guaranteed” my foot. That one even says it up front: you have to pay them to sign up, which is one of the easiest ways to detect a scam.

(By the way, do NOT click any of these links if you’re actually doing these searches along with me. This is your one warning. I am not responsible if you ignore it.)

Supposedly, Google is cracking down on these scams, or at least trying to stop them from appearing on their own advertising setup. However, as of today, these scams are still rampant, and they’re still using Google AdWords to lure people in.

If you are interesting in using AdWords to advertise your business, or using AdSense to make money from your blog or other website, make sure you’re at the actual sites hosted by Google. The links I provided above are the real ones. By the way, anyone telling you that you have to pay them to sign up for AdSense is scamming you, too. It doesn’t cost you anything to participate in that program.

Here’s a short list of Google scams I have heard of so far. Do not trust any of these, or anything that sounds even a little bit like them:

  • Google Works
  • Google Kit
  • Google Money System
  • Google Cash
  • Google Cash Kit
  • Make Money Posting Links on Google
  • Easy Google Profit
  • Google Treasure Chest
  • Scott’s Money Blog
  • Josh Made Cash
  • Earn Cash Fast With Google
  • Joan’s Money Making Story

This list probably doesn’t even scratch the surface. Those last four are fake blog sites that are supposed to make you think they’re written by somebody “just like yourself.” They even have an embedded program that figures out where your location is, and makes it sound like the blog’s “author” is from nearby.

So, keep your head about you when you’re running a Google search. Those Sponsored Links aren’t your most trustworthy source of information. And just don’t fall for anything that promises huge amounts of money involving Google.

Heck, even with AdSense, unless your blog is getting thousands of hits per day, you’re probably not going to make more than a few dollars. I’m not saying don’t do it. After all, passive income is the best income, don’t you think?

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.

Stay vigilant.