You Don’t Get Something for Nothing

Sometimes we get specific around here, with lurid details of a single type of fraud and all its permutations and variations, and how to avoid it.

Other times, however, it is helpful to zoom out and talk big picture, core principles that can help you avoid getting swindled by a con artist.

Here is one such principle to keep in mind: nobody ever really gives anybody something for nothing.

Have you ever had a job where your function was literally to be on the payroll, but provide absolutely nothing of value to the employer? Of course not. You may have had jobs that were easy, but whenever you’re getting paid, it usually means you’re giving back something of value in return in the form of mental or physical energy. (Whether you’re getting paid enough is outside the scope of this article, of course.)

But of course, when you say something like that, people start coming up with exceptions. Sure, a friend might just give you something they’re not using anymore, or a parent might hand you a sawbuck for no reason in particular when you’re a kid. So let’s refine it a bit: strangers aren’t giving free money to people on the internet. Here are a few forms these scams can take:

  • A fake Instagram profile claiming to be a recent Powerball winner, giving away free gift cards to anyone who asks. Every photo of the (actual) winner was a screenshot taken from the same television news report. $700 million and he doesn’t even have his own camera.
  • A fake “money flipping” investment where you use a peer-to-peer app (Zelle, CashApp, etc.) to send a stranger money, then they magically multiply it by 10 and send it back. Naturally, only the first half of this transaction ever actually takes place.
  • Every single “Bill Gates/Jeff Bezos/Mark Zuckerberg/Warren Buffett/Elon Musk/etc. had an email lottery and you won” (or “…is giving $500 to everyone who shares this “) social post, forwarded email or text message ever created.
  • “$295 per assignment!” for 10 minutes of mystery shopper work. Sure, at first glance, this may not appear to be a “something for nothing” type of offer, but $295 for 10 minutes is $1,770 per hour, which is $3.7 million per year, and that seems a bit steep.

Every one of these schemes has a different goal. Some are just trying to get a social media profile thousands of likes or follows, then sell the profile to someone else. Others are just quick-hit, “take the money and run” arrangements, and of course the old counterfeit check scheme never really goes away. The key is to never fall into the trap of thinking that the internet is full of benevolent strangers simply aching to give money away to random people. It is not, and it never has been.