The Internet has permeated nearly every aspect of our lives, from communication to personal finance. Navigating the web and sending e-mails has become second nature to most, and scammers are continually developing new ways to take advantage of this reliance and trust.
Consumers must be cautious with any online transaction. Below, we’ve outlined tips on how to spot and avoid some of the most common Internet and e-mail scams:
- Advance-Fee Loans and Credit – These types of scams guarantee consumers a loan or credit card in advance for a fee – before they even apply. These offers are illegal and often target people with credit problems. The thief typically takes the money, and the loan never materializes. There are few very legitimate loans that require a fee upfront, such as mortgages and some credit cards. Call the creditor directly to verify if advance fees are legitimate.
- Craigslist Scams – Craigslist.org can be a great resource for finding local deals on furniture, household goods and even housing, yet it’s also a place where crooks try to scam unsuspecting consumers. To best protect yourself online, Craigslist advises users not to wire funds to distant buyers and to never give out personal financial information. It’s also suggested users only deal with local sellers and buyers.
- Check Overpayment Scams – These types of scams occur most often with classified ads or online auctions. Scammers respond to an ad and offer to pay with a check. They come up with a reason to write the check for more than the purchase price and ask you to wire back the difference. Once the money is wired, the check bounces. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) advises consumers to never accept a check for more than the selling price, no matter how tempting. It also suggests sellers independently confirm any buyer’s name, address and telephone number.
- Phishing – The Internet is riddled with “phishing” scams. Phishing happens when a scammer sends fake e-mails or uses pop-ups to lure, or “phish,” financial information away from a consumer. The consumer is forwarded to a fake website and asked to enter personal financial information, such as a credit card number or Social Security number.
Phishing scams often entice web users with luxury travel deals or bogus account notifications from a bank or credit union. The phishing sites can appear legitimate at a quick glance and often contain logos and names that are very similar to real organizations.Be wary of any website or e-mail that requests an upfront payment or fee, or asks you to submit financial data. You should never provide any personal information online unless you are positive you know who is on the receiving end. If unsure, call the organization in question to verify the request. Also remember that no financial institution will request an account number via e-mail.
- International Trusts and Lotteries – You’ve probably received an e-mail from someone in Nigeria or elsewhere abroad that claims you won some unknown lottery or your assistance is needed executing a large estate. Don’t trust it. Foreign lotteries are illegal in the U.S. While this scenario may appear to be an obvious scam to many, there are others with less Internet savvy who have fallen victim. Be sure to educate children, the elderly and less-experienced Internet and e-mail users about the different forms of online fraud.
- “I’m Stranded” Scams – According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, consumers have been swindled out of thousands of dollars from “I’m stranded” scams. Here’s how it works: a thief hacks into an e-mail or social networking account, and sends a message to all of the individual’s contacts claiming to be stranded on vacation. The contacts are asked to wire money for a hotel bill, airline ticket or another travel expense. If you receive an e-mail and believe it may be legitimate, first verify the individual’s travel plans and speak to him/her on the phone.
- IRS Impersonators – Scammers use a variety of methods to impersonate the IRS in hopes of tricking taxpayers into divulging personal or financial information, or even conning people out of cash. It’s important to keep in mind that the IRS never initiates taxpayer communication via e-mail. Additionally, any taxpayer who is part of a private debt collection effort will know they are in the program before they are contacted by a private collection agency. All checks collected by debt collectors for overdue taxes should be made payable to the US Treasury – not companies or individuals. If you suspect someone is impersonating the IRS, call the IRS at (800) 829-1040.
If you or someone you know becomes the victim of a financial scam, contact the FTC’s Consumer Response Center at (877) FTC-HELP (382-4357) or www.ftc.gov. And remember, if a deal seems to be too good to be true, it probably is. Always research and verify online requests before supplying personal data or payments.