Don’t try to get something for nothing

March 29, 2013

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.


Car Wrap Advertising Scam

March 1, 2013

There are times when a scam is completely new, but those instances are exceedingly rare. For the most part, “new” scams use tried-and-true methods to lure victims, and it usually doesn’t take long for a “new” scheme to enter familiar territory.

One “new” con is the Car Wrap Advertising Scam. It starts with an emailed offer to earn $400+ per week just to drive your own car with graphics from an energy drink or other company plastered all over it. It’s a novel offer, and it appears many of the emails are well-written and devoid of the broken English, weird tabbing/spacing and initial “Greetings!” salutation.

However, there are already three warning signs, and that’s without even looking at an actual example:

  1. The offer arrives via email
  2. They’re offering a lot of money for zero work
  3. Energy drink companies are, above all else, extremely image-conscious; they’re not going to send random people offers to wrap their cars if there’s any chance their logo might end up on some sketchy old pickup with rust holes a house cat could climb through.

So that last one’s a bit trickier, but still: at this point your inner “Scam Radar” should at least be registering that something isn’t quite right.

What happens if you respond to the message?

They send you a cashier’s check for a few thousand dollars. They tell you it’s your first payment in advance, and that the excess is for the graphic designer who will be applying the graphics to your car.

Can you guess what the victim’s next instructions are? (Hint: at this point, your inner Scam Radar should be on the brink of blowing up, because you’ve heard of this one before.)

If you said, “Wire the excess money to a stranger,” you win a shiny new silver dollar.*

It’s the secret shopper scam all over again: cash this check, wire it to us, find out a week later the check was fraudulent and you’re out several thousand dollars.

So today’s lesson is: beware of old scams wrapped in new, hip, edgy energy drink graphics.

*You don’t actually win a shiny new silver dollar.


A fictional story about a guy who did everything wrong one day

October 7, 2010

Hi there.

My name is Johnny, and I had a busy day today.

I woke up around eight because I had a new job as a secret shopper. I got an email a couple weeks ago, and they hired me on the spot when I responded. Yesterday, an envelope arrived with a check and my first assignment.

I headed to my bank around nine. At first, the teller didn’t want to cash the check because I only had six bucks in my account, but I whined and got in her face and demanded to talk to the manager until she relented. “That’s a cashier’s check,” I told her in no uncertain terms. “Those are the same as cash.”

I left the bank with $2,700 in my pocket and headed to the nearest Western Union location. The guy there kept asking me questions about the money I was wiring, so I finally told him it was for a relative in Canada, just like the secret shopping company told me to do. It was a little annoying the way he wouldn’t leave me alone. I’m going to put that in my report for sure.

By the time I was done, it was only ten o’clock. I had made $150 for less than an hour of work! I could get used to this lifestyle. I decided to head home.

The phone was ringing when I came in the door. I ran to answer, and this guy from the county courthouse was telling me I was going to be arrested for not appearing for jury duty.

“But I never got a letter that said anything about jury duty,” I said.

“That doesn’t matter,” he replied. “The fact is that you didn’t show, and an officer will be stopping by later today to make the arrest.”

“But…isn’t there some way I could just do jury duty another time? I didn’t miss on purpose.”

“Let me see what I can do, sir,” the man said. After a minute on hold, he told me I could just pay a fine and the whole thing would be taken care of. I gave him my name, date of birth, Social Security number and some credit card information to pay the fine. I was relieved when I hung up the phone. Crisis averted.

The mail had arrived, but it was nothing but a pile of credit card offers. I threw these in the trash unopened. Nobody’s going to rip me off.

I sat down on the sofa to unwind with some TV. It was mostly talk shows at that time of morning, but there was a news broadcast between commercials that caught my eye. It gave some phone number you could call to get your debts eliminated. I have a lot of debt, so I wrote down the number. It seemed like a strange place for a news alert, during the commercials, but whatever. There was a ticker on the screen and some footage of the President, so it must be some kind government program, right?

I went to the computer to write up my report for the secret shopping job. I hate my computer. It came with this virus protection software, but the only thing it’s done for the past two years is tell me my subscription is expired. It’s annoying. Plus, when I opened my web browser (Internet Explorer 6) and tried to visit a website, this window popped up offering a free virus scan. I clicked “OK” and it found like ten infections. The software that came with my computer doesn’t even work!

After the scan, there was a window that wouldn’t go away, so I just closed the browser and checked my email. There, a miracle happened. It turns out I was entered in the lottery up in Canada, and I won! $2,500,000, all for me. I called the claims agent right away. It turns out there are some taxes and fees I have to pay first, but that’s okay—they’re going to mail me a check. I think I may retire from secret shopping. After all, with two-and-a-half million, I’m going to be pretty much set for life.

I’m not going to tell anyone about it, though. I don’t want everybody asking me for money.

My name is Johnny, and I made at least ten mistakes today, if not more. Can you spot them all?


There are ways to earn money online; start by ignoring almost everything on the Internet

October 1, 2010

It’s easy to get bogged down in all the negatives when you’re writing article after article about scam and fraud prevention. “Here’s how not to get taken,” you tell people, and leave it at that.

However, the truth is that not everyone on the Internet is meant to steal from you.

Okay, most, but not everyone. The key is to be able to tell the difference.

I read a nice article from CBS News today (Work at Home and Make Money – REALLY!) that not only gives great tips on avoiding work-at-home scams, but actually offers suggestions of legitimate companies that can help you earn money from home. I’ve never really seen that before.

One of the things you’ll immediately notice is that none of these companies scream about anyone making $5,000 per week. In some cases, you have to have some pretty good knowledge of a topic, or even certification. In others, you’re basically selling your stuff on eBay (if it’s just old stuff) or Etsy (if it’s something vintage or handmade).

Nobody is getting rich off these systems. If it’s fabulous wealth you’re after, you’re going to have to be a lot more inventive. But if your goal is simply to supplement your income, there might be something useful in the article.


Fraud Prevention Templates: scams involving money wiring.

March 25, 2010

I’ve written upwards of 140 posts about scams, fraud and identity theft since last July, and it seems like there are a lot of schemes that are based on the same idea, only with different details.

For example, consider these two scenarios:

  1. Rental Scam: a landlord is sent a cashier’s check for far more than the first/last month’s rent and security deposit. The crook tells the landlord to just wire the overage back to him. Later, the check is returned as fraudulent.
  2. Mystery Shopper Scam: a job seeker is sent a cashier’s check and instructed to cash it and wire the funds back, allegedly to check out the customer service at Western Union. Later, the check is returned as fraudulent.

They’re two different scams, but they hinge on that counterfeit check, and they both involve wiring money. So let’s extract a general rule of thumb here, a Fraud Prevention Template:

Anyone who sends you a check and instructs you to cash it and wire money back to them is attempting to commit fraud.

That’s it. If you’re in a situation that involves a check and wiring money back to the maker of that check, you’re about to become a victim of fraud if you continue. The actual context doesn’t really matter.

Someone contacts you via Craigslist to purchase an item you’ve listed. They send you a check for $2,000 more than you wanted for the object. They tell you to just cash it and wire the funds back. It fits the template.

You get a letter that says you won the Canadian Lottery, but you have to pay taxes and fees first. The letter includes a check with instructions to cash it and wire the funds back to them. It fits the template.

The best part of keeping this one simple rule in mind is that you don’t even have to carry any other information around in your head. You don’t have to know that a legitimate lottery never asks winners to pay in order to claim a prize, or that you can’t win a lottery you never entered, or that it’s illegal to play foreign lotteries—you’ve got a check in your hand, and some clown is telling you to cash it and wire the money back. You know right away you’re dealing with a con artist. Fraud averted.

I’m going to come up with a few more of these templates over the next few weeks. It’s a lot easier than trying to memorize the details of every little variation.

Don’t worry, though; I’ll still be on the lookout for all those variations to write about, too.


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