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How to Spot Scams

If you use a cellphone or have an email account, you’ve almost certainly been exposed to an attempt at mass marketing fraud. Common examples include being interrupted by an annoying robocall just as you start eating lunch, or waking up to a suspicious message in your email inbox that somehow slipped through the spam filter. Sometimes, the attempted fraud is kind of funny—the wording is so strange or the premise is so ridiculous (“An exiled prince needs my help transferring a million dollars? Really?”) that we’re left wondering how anyone could possibly fall for such an obvious money grab.

Unfortunately, mass marketing scams persist because they work—at least enough to justify the attempts made. In a 2015 Data Breach Investigation report conducted by Verizon, it was found that it takes an average of 82 seconds from the time a phishing campaign is launched for the first victim to fall for the trap.

Check out the infographic below with information on how to spot scams. Full text version is available below the infographic.

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This infographic is about how to spot scams. A full text version is available below.

How to Spot Scams

If you use a cellphone or have an email account, you’ve likely been exposed to an attempted scam.

  • “I’m a deposed prince. Can you help me out?”
  • “This is the opportunity of a lifetime…”
  • “Congratulations! You’ve won the grand prize!”
  • “I’m collecting donations on behalf of…”

Types of scams

Familiarizing yourself with common scams can help you spot them before they turn into costly mistakes.

Unexpected money

  • The setup: A wealthy person asks the target for help with the transfer of a large sum of money, or an estate lawyer notifies the target of a large inheritance from a distant relative
  • The swindle: The target is required to pay fees, write a check or provide bank account access in order to complete the transfer of funds; the target never receives the money

Unexpected winnings

  • The setup: The target is notified that they’ve won a lottery, a contest, a sweepstakes or some other prize giveaway
  • The swindle: In order to claim the (invented) prize, the target is instructed to pay a lottery tax or provide personal information

Buyer-seller fraud

  • The setup: The target comes across a tempting online listing for a premium item at an extremely low price
  • The swindle: Scammers collect the payment but never deliver on the product; multiple accounts and fake reviews are used to disguise their deceptive practices

Fake charities

  • The setup: The target is contacted by a charitable organization and asked to make a donation
  • The swindle: Scammers pose as existing charities or invent fake ones and then pocket the donations

Dating schemes

  • The setup: The target is charmed by a new online sweetheart and develops an emotional bond with them
  • The swindle: The new sweetheart is actually a scammer; once the relationship has developed, the scammer asks for expensive gifts, travel or cash

Get-rich-quick schemes

  • The setup: A job placement service offers to find a position for an unemployed target, or the target is approached by a businessperson with an investment opportunity
  • The swindle: The scammer collects placement fees for their fraudulent job placement service, or takes off with the target’s investment money

Threats and extortion

  • The setup: The target receives urgent demands for money from a government official or from law enforcement, or the target discovers ransomware on their computer
  • The swindle: The scammer poses as an authority figure to scare the target into paying them; the scammer holds computer files hostage to pressure the target into paying them

Identity theft

  • The setup: The target is asked to log into their account or confirm their password, or the target is contacted by a friend or relative and asked a series of questions
  • The swindle: The scammer impersonates the target’s personal and business contacts in order to gain personal details that can then be resold or used for identity fraud

Reporting scams:

If you believe you’ve been targeted by a scammer, contact the following:

Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3): ic3.gov
Federal Trade Commission: FTC.gov/complaint

Scams are often under-reported because of embarrassment or shame.

Staying safe

Buy some time: In an emergency, it’s natural to act before you have time to think. It’s no coincidence that many scams are designed to encourage an immediate reaction, before you have a chance to spot any red flags. Allow yourself to take a minute to assess a situation, even if it seems urgent.

  • Use the address bar: Get in the habit of visiting websites directly instead of following links contained in emails. It takes only a few extra seconds and helps you be more mindful about your online activity.
  • Cross-reference: It’s perfectly reasonable to verify the identity of the person or business you’re in contact with. Use a means outside of the original communication, like doing a separate web search or returning a call through a publicly listed number.

Sources: FBI.gov, USA.gov, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission