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Lesson 2: How to spot a scam

With any form of fraud, there are often warning signs or “red flags” that you may be a target of a scam. It’s important to be on the lookout for tactics these criminals use to steal from you. If you can spot a scam, you can stop a scam.

For example, technology and cheap opportunities to place mass robocalls allows scammers, with very little effort, to call tens of thousands of people at a time. And it’s simple for them to “spoof” or fake the Caller ID information that appears on incoming calls. The scam call could show up on Caller ID as being from the Social Security Administration, Microsoft, or even a local area code which might make you think it’s a friend or neighbor. You should let all calls go to your answering machine or voicemail unless the call is from family and friends and select others (your doctor or pharmacy, for example). Listen carefully, engage your inner skeptic, and decide whether the call sounds legitimate. If the message includes a call-back number, ignore it and call a number you can validate belongs to the entity.

Another major form of fraud is “phishing. Phishing scams aim to acquire valuable personal and financial data, such as your Social Security number, credit card details or passwords for online accounts; or to steal your identity, your money or both. They are mostly associated with email but can come in many forms, including social media messages, pop-up ads, “vishing” (voice phishing by phone), “smishing” (phishing by text message) and “pharming” (drawing victims to bogus websites). As mentioned in the first lesson, it’s important that you never divulge personal or financial information to anyone who contacts you unsolicited, even if they are using the name of a legitimate entity.

Scammers also attempt to get money from victims treating them as a money mule, often disguised as a secret shopper job. These scams usually happen when a scammer sends a fake check to an individual, pretending it’s part of the “secret shopping” job. After depositing the check, the recipient is then asked to purchase gift cards to “test the store’s customer service”. After the purchase, they are asked to relay the gift card information back to the scammer. Inevitably, the target learns that the check the “employer” sent was fake, and the money spent on gift cards was their own money. Through this process, scammers can sometimes also gain account information. Though it’s tempting to try to deposit a fake check on the chance it is real, don’t take the risk and shred it instead.

Read more for a few simple ways to detect a scam and protect yourself from fraudsters.

  • Step 1

    Familiarize yourself with the most common types of scams and be on the lookout for them.

  • Step 2

    Learn the “red flags” of a scam, such as an unsolicited call from an agency or a check in the mail.

  • Step 3

    Identify the ways that scammers approach their victims — through email, phone, text, and websites.

  • Step 4

    Don’t share personal or financial information over the phone or online to unsolicited contacts. Be careful about what you share online and on the phone. Don’t share personal information like your home address or financial information as this can lead to identity theft.

  • Step 5

    Continue to educate yourself on new types of scams.

Can you spot a scam?

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