Six online scams that work more often than you'd think

By this point in your life, if a recently deposed Nigerian prince hasn’t hit you up for a little assistance getting a hold of his absurdly 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 international lottery

Wouldn’t it be great if a random country decided to hold an international lottery, where you didn’t have to do anything to participate, they’d just collect all of the email addresses in the world, pick one and then give that lucky person a lot of money? For doing nothing?

It’s easy to scoff at the idea, but unfortunately quite a few people fall for the “international lottery” scam. The reason why people fall for what seems like an obvious ruse (not that Argentina isn’t super excited to give random strangers large wads of cash) is completely understandable: people need money and we all hold out hope that something amazing and unexpected will happen, especially in times of dire need.

Like a lot of these scams, the first line of defense should always be skepticism and a quick Google search. Scammers tend to cast a wide net, so it’s usually quite easy to find out how legitimate that amazing opportunity really is.

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.

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 film 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 online girlfriend 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.

For more information on scams and scammers:

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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