Six Online Scams That Work More Often Than You'd Think

adult woman using a tablet

By this point in your life, if a Nigerian prince hasn’t hit you up for a little assistance getting a hold of his enormous inheritance then you must be doing something wrong.

Scams, unfortunately, are a way of life. And they’ve been a way of life pretty much since humans first had anything worth stealing from each other. Every great leap forward in communication technology is usually accompanied by an equivalent leap forward in scam technology.

The trouble with scams is that we tend to think that we’re impervious to them, because only “suckers” fall for scams and we’re no suckers. The truth is that the scams we scoff at are far more effective than we’d like to give them credit for. Or think of it this way – scams take time and money to set-up and pull off. Scammers wouldn’t make the effort if it wasn’t incredibly fruitful.

So set aside your pride for a moment and take a look at these six online scams that work more often than you’d think. You might be saving yourself a huge headache down the road.

The fake virus (that becomes a real one)

While technology becomes increasingly complex, technology makers are working overtime to make their technology as user-friendly as possible. As consumers though, we all operate at different levels of technical expertise, where some people have fun building their own computers from scratch and others struggle to find the on/off switch.

So it’s easy to see why the “fake virus” scam works so well. Users get a message on their computer, seemingly from their anti-virus provider, telling them that their computer is now infected and requires a special update to clean. Sounds serious and plausible. 

The message, however, is actually from hackers, and is disguised to look like an anti-virus software pop-up message. Once users engage with the warning (or worse – feed it their credit card information in order to buy the needed update), they inadvertently allow malicious programs onto their computer, causing damage to their computer and opening themselves up to potential identity theft.

The solution here is first to know what anti-virus software is currently installed on your computer – if you get a notification from a program that you've never purchased or that didn’t come pre-installed on your computer then that’s a fake. If you’re still unsure about a pop-up warning, close the window and then manually open your anti-virus program and run a scan. If the issue is legitimate, it will show up in your scan results.

Good intentions gone wrong

Most successful scams prey on our needs – for money, for companionship, for security. Some scams, however, prey on our desire to help others.

In the wake of disasters and tragedies, people are often searching for a way to help, and the easiest way to help (especially situations in other states or foreign countries) is to send money. Scammers see these tragedies as an opportunity to con good-hearted people out of that relief money and the popularity of crowdfunding platforms makes it that much easier to collect cash for fake causes.

The Department of Justice has some great tips on avoiding disaster relief scams, but the easiest way is to simply be proactive. Scammers usually solicit donations while masquerading as a charity. To avoid that trap, pick an established charity that you trust and bring your donation directly to them. The scammer never has a chance that way.

The security breach that wasn’t (but is now)

The 2013 comedy Identity Thief begins with the protagonist being told – over the phone – that his identity has been compromised. Eager to fix the situation, he provides the operator with all of his personal information, and thus actually compromises his identity.

The online version of this is very similar: hackers send you a message, seemingly from a trusted source (usually your bank) and then offer to correct things for you. They just need to “confirm” your account and identification information. Once they’ve got that, your money soon follows.

As is usually the case with scam prevention, know who you’re talking to. If you aren’t sure, pick up your phone and make sure the issue is legitimate.

The new job

Being unemployed can be downright terrifying. Living without the security of a steady income is a wrenching experience – one that scammers happily exploit.

There are a lot of permutations to the scam. Sometimes an employer thinks you’re great, but needs you to buy a credit report before they can set-up an interview. Sometimes you can do all of your work from home, they just need a personal check to set-up your direct deposit. Sometimes they “accidentally” overpay you for services rendered and need you to send them a money order for the difference – except their check is going to bounce after you’re sent the money order.

When it comes to these scams – research, research, research. Know who you’re talking to and make sure you’re dealing with a real, reputable company. Like most scams, a quick scan online will tell you everything you need to know.

The phishing email

"Phishing" is a form of scam that involves tricking a victim by impersonating someone they would trust. Scammers can cast a pretty wide (and sometimes creative) net with this general idea. I've personally received emails from my "CEO" asking to help him out by buying gift cards.

Because, at first glance, these emails seem to come from people we know, victims are sometimes tricked into taking actions without a closer examination. But a closer examination is usually all it takes to see through this particular kind of scam. Read these strange pleas closely and you'll notice the mistakes (odd grammar, misspelled names, incorrect details, etc.) that signify a fake.  

The companion in need

As I said before, scammers love to prey on our human needs, and the need for love and companionship could very well be the most driving desire of all.

Dating websites are an increasingly common, normal way to meet new people and potentially find your match. They’re also a breeding ground for scammers and con artists.

These kinds of scams come in a lot of varieties, but they usually boil down to a fake profile used to build a relationship, followed by a request for money (in one form or another). The duped end up losing money, but worse, have to deal with the ramifications of having been emotionally manipulated.

Never provide your personal information to a stranger on a dating site! And don't send money to someone you've never met. That can be difficult - scammers are highly effective manipulators - but fight the urge. If someone says they're in trouble, help them find appropriate resources. Just keep your credit cards in your wallet.

Tagged in Financial scams, Psychology and money, Smart shopping

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, focused on creating and delivering valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

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