A New Year Resolution: 10 Top Tips To Beat the Scammers — Part 1

In the first of a two-parter we identify the key weapons to beat the scammers in 2009: Internet Scambusters #317

Is it possible to beat the scammers?

Absolutely — most of their tricks are well known and by taking a few simple steps, you can slash the chances of them catching you out. Although our advice won’t protect you 100% of the time, if you follow it, you will avoid about 99% of the scams out there.

We’ve identified the 10 most effective things you can do to spot and stop a scam. This week we outline the first five. We’ll share the rest next week.

On to today’s main topic…

A New Year’s Resolution: 10 Top Tips To Beat the Scammers — Part 1

Beat the scammers in 2009! If that’s not already among your New Year’s resolutions, maybe you should think seriously about adding it. Because all the signs are that the scammers are planning a BIG year in 2009.

They know the economy is in trouble and that we’re all looking for ways to save, earn extra cash or help those less fortunate than ourselves. And that’s all prime territory for crooks planning to hoodwink us into parting with our money.

Plus, more people down on their luck will mean more people tempted to try their hand at scamming.

And please don’t think that if you’re one of the lucky few who’ve never been targeted for a scam that you’re immune to these tricksters. Sooner or later you’ll encounter them — in your mailbox, your email inbox, on the phone or face to face.

OK, that’s enough gloom. We want you to be able to celebrate 2009, so we’ve put together our Top 10 tips to help you beat the scammers. We give you the first five this week, with five more to follow next time.

Tip #1. Be very skeptical — and trust almost no one

That’s right, we say trust almost no one. That’s because even people we think we know, including family and friends, may have innocently been tricked into becoming part of a scam.

They may pass on investment “advice” from someone they know. Or their identity may have been stolen so what you think is coming from them — an email for instance — is really from someone else.

A good example of exploiting our trust is the grandparent scam, where a victim gets a phone call supposedly from a desperate grandchild asking for money.

Thousands of people have been fooled into wiring hundreds or thousands of dollars to the scammer. You can find more on the grandparents scam on our site.

Another good example is identity theft. As we’ve previously reported, fully 50% of reported identity theft is perpetrated by relatives, friends and neighbors, or acquaintances of the victim!

That’s why we encourage you to be skeptical. Always ask yourself: What if this isn’t what it appears to be? What steps can I take to check it out and confirm it?

Here are the main keys to being a healthy skeptic:

  • Don’t believe sob stories from people you don’t know. The vast majority of them are untrue.
  • Don’t believe someone is who they say they are unless they can 100% prove it.
  • Don’t believe you’ve won, inherited or otherwise gained a huge sum of money from a source you didn’t previously know.
  • Which brings us to our favorite, which we never tire of repeating: Whether it’s a miracle cure, a fantastic bargain or incredible luck, if it seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is.
  • When you do buy, never wire money via Western Union, never deposit a check and return a portion of money sent to you which is an overpayment, and whenever possible, pay by credit card (especially one-use credit cards if they are offered by your credit card company).

Tip #2. Be VERY careful where you click!

Experts reckon that millions of PCs in the US alone are infected either by viruses or, more commonly, Trojans that give hackers control of the machine and enlist them in huge spamming networks.

Nearly all of these infections come from victims clicking attachments or clicking on links that take them to bogus websites where more trouble awaits.

Worse still, many of these bogus sites are set up to look like genuine pages from trusted organizations like banks, asking for personal details that could be used in identity theft.

If you apply Tip #1, you’ll be skeptical about all of these things. Again, ask yourself: What if … ?

Here are a few safety measures you can take to limit the risk of being snared by one of these tricks:

  • Don’t ever click on links in spam emails.
  • If possible, key in the website address yourself, so you don’t activate hidden addresses often concealed behind legitimate looking ones.
  • If you’re one of those people who like to trade jokes and video attachments, agree on a simple code word you can all use when you forward stuff you’ve already checked out.
  • Otherwise, if you have up to date security software and you think the attachment is genuine, save it to your desktop without opening it and run a virus scan on the file.
  • Never update your Flash player or a video codec from an unknown website. 99% of the time, these are trojan horses or viruses. If you think your version of Flash is out of date, visit the Adobe site.

Tip #3. Use your eyes

There are so many ways in which being observant can help you beat the scammers.

For example, there are two very important reading tasks that can save you a fortune and even, perhaps, the loss of your identity.

First, there’s the question of reading the small print. We’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve reported about contracts and other deals that look good on the surface but contain all sorts of pitfalls and get-outs in the small print.

Second, always, always, read your bank, credit card and charge card statements carefully. Not just because sometimes these organizations make genuine mistakes but also because the statements often provide the first clue to identity theft.

Make sure you can account for every transaction, so you can be pretty sure nobody else is spending your money.

Use your eyes too as part of the be-skeptical approach we’ve already talked about. Is a person dressed or behaving in an appropriate way? Could you describe them and what they are wearing to police? Do they look you in the eye when talking to you? Does that ID they’re showing you look genuine?

If in doubt, accept what your eyes are telling you and verify the authenticity of who or what you are seeing, even if it takes time…

Tip #4. Take your time

This tip to beat the scammers follows on naturally from Tip #3. It’s about not allowing yourself to be rushed into making a decision, accepting something you’re being given or signing a document.

When we feel rushed, we may not read the small print, not think too carefully about all the angles with a particular deal or situation, forget to collect things or agree to something we later regret.

Even legitimate salespeople know this trick. They offer you all sorts of today-only deals, saying they’ll cut the price or warning that they’ll be running out of stock. Ninety percent of the time this simply isn’t true. So the more someone tries to hurry you, the more you should suspect a scam.

Rushing is also a key element of another well know scam — the flim-flam. This is most common when crooks try to confuse store clerks by trying to quickly change money of different denominations.

But it’s also used on the other side of the counter when a clerk tries to rush you into taking incorrect change or forgetting your receipt.

There’s just one simple rule here: Just don’t hurry, no matter what pressure is applied. Tell the other person you are not going to hurry.

Tip #5. Know the rules

Scammers often count on your lack of knowledge of the subjects they are trying to con you with.

For example, did you know that it is illegal to operate any kind of overseas-based lottery within the United States? If people did know that, they’d never fall for one of the biggest scams of all.

Messages saying you’ve won a lottery being run in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean or anywhere else just can’t be true.

Or how about the fact that you can get copies of the deeds to your property either for free or for just a handling charge? If people knew that, they’d dump the offers they get in the mail to supply copies of their deeds for a hundred bucks.

Likewise, individual states and other localities apply their own laws that are intended to help beat the scammers and other unscrupulous characters. For example, there are different laws by state on the sale of pets, your rights when you buy a shoddy product, and even on panhandling.

You can learn about many of these things just by reading your local newspaper (using your eyes!) but it’s also worthwhile tracking down the website of your state’s Attorney General or Department of Justice, where you find mountains of information about state laws.

And if the answers you’re looking for aren’t there, write or call them and ask. Also, check out your local library, which will often carry documents or announcements about changes in the law.

Well, those are the first five of our 10 top tips to beat the scammers. There’s plenty of ammunition here to give you a head start on the crooks in 2009. Please read and think carefully about them, then pass them on to friends and neighbors you care about.

We’re all in this battle to beat the scammers together!

Time to close — we’ll see you next week when we present Part 2 of Beat the Scammers.