When it comes to recognizing and avoiding scams, one question that can be helpful is, “Who initiated this contact?” In many situations, the answer can be the difference between a legitimate transaction and fraud.
Scammers are proactive if nothing else—they usually don’t set up shop then wait around for people find them. There is often a “sales” element to a scam, in which the con artist has to actively approach a victim in order to offer the bait.
In other words, if the other party initiated contact, your chances of falling for a scam are increased. Let’s look at a few scenarios.
Scenario #1: Home Repairs
Think about what usually happens when your home needs repairs. You, the resident, usually start out by noticing that something needs to be fixed. You assess what needs to be done, and then make a decision as to whether you’re going to perform the repairs yourself. If you choose the DIY route, you go out and purchase materials and tools, but if the work is beyond your abilities, you’ll call a contractor, roofer, plumber or other service provider.
Now look at a home repair scam: it starts with a knock on your front door. When you answer, a stranger informs you that your gutters need cleaning, your driveway needs to be repaved, or that your siding needs fixed. You weren’t even aware there was a problem. From here, the scam takes one of a variety of paths: they may start with a minor repair for a reasonable-sounding price, then start adding on tasks (never completed) until you’re stuck with a bill for thousands of dollars. In other versions, they’ll talk you into a major repair job, collect a large down payment for the service, and then never show up to perform the work.
Notice who initiated contact in both of these examples: in the first, you called a contractor. Of course, there are shady contractors, but in general you’re going to get the service you paid for. In the second, they contacted you, and it turned out to be a scam.
Scenario #2: Lottery Scams
Here’s how a legal, legitimate lottery works: you visit the nearest convenience store, grocery store or gas station, where you purchase a lottery ticket. You wait for the little TV segment with the big tumblers full of ping-pong balls, and check your numbers against the ones drawn on television. Then you throw the ticket away, because you probably didn’t win a dime.
During a lottery scam, however, you are suddenly informed via email that you have won some lottery in the U.K., Canada, Australia or South Africa that you didn’t purchase a ticket for. If you respond to this message, you will be told that you have to pay taxes and fees before you can claim the prize. You wire a few thousand dollars overseas and never hear from them again. You’ll always lose in this situation.
Once again, the question of who initiates contact is a strong indicator of the legitimacy of an offer.
Scenario #3: Employment Scams
When you’re looking for a genuine job offer, you research local employers who are hiring, update your resume, write cover letters and send these out. If they’re interested in hiring you, they call you in for an interview (or several), and they make a decision based on your qualifications.
Employment scams work the other way around: you just check your email one day, and there’s an offer for a high-paying, work-at-home style job waiting for you, from some company you’ve never heard of. If you jump on this out-of-the-blue job offer, you’ll eventually be asked to cash a fraudulent check and wire the funds out of the country, leaving you with a loss of thousands.
“Who initiated contact?” isn’t always a foolproof method, and it doesn’t apply to every situation, but it’s a good idea to keep the question in the back of your mind. You might be glad you did one day.