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Trick or Treat! Common Scams & How To Avoid Them

The internet is a vast and powerful resource, but navigating it safely can be a challenge. To empower you to make better, safer use of the web let’s take a look at some common online scams, as well as some good practices to avoid them. Informed, thoughtful user behavior can make all the difference between staying safe and falling victim!

While it may seem like scammers deliberately target victims, honing in on their prey like cyber-sharpshooters to wreak financial and legal mayhem on their lives, the reality is that scammers usually cast a wide net and simply wait for their victims to behave as planned. One of the most common types of scams (and one of the reasons we frequently mention the importance of email security) is called phishing, which involves a scammer sending an email, en masse, to a large pool of unsuspecting users, usually encouraging them to click a link to “log in” to their account on a counterfeit webpage. From there, scammers can record user information like usernames and passwords, and use it to hijack their accounts. Phishing scams have grown increasingly sophisticated, providing more and more convincing email lures and imitations of legitimate companies’ log-in pages. Scammers often use company logos and “official-looking” seals or other markings in their communications to garner confidence in the hoax. Not long ago, the counterfeit “log-in” pages were easily detected as shoddy imitations of the real thing, but in recent years scammers have reconstructed near-identical replicas of log-in pages for sites like eBay, PayPal, and Facebook, to name a few.

Thankfully, phishing scams can generally be avoided with ease by exercising caution when clicking links in emails, especially if you do not recognize the sender. Be wary of emails claiming to be alerts from financial institutions, like your bank or the IRS. If you receive an email containing a link and encouraging you to log-in, try to check in with the institution by phone before clicking the link, and do not attempt to log-in unless you are certain you are on a legitimate site. To combat frequent fraud associated with their name, some institutions, like the IRS, even state explicitly that they will never attempt to initiate contact with you by email, and to disregard any emails you receive “from them” as a hoax.

Equally pervasive are fake check scams, which masquerade as any number of online postings, from work-from-home offers to rental opportunities. These scammers seek to line their own pockets with money generated by a fake check, cashed by the victim, and shared with the scammer in a twist of a classic confidence trick. Confidence tricks help scammers predict and take advantage of their targets’ behavior, usually in the form of a social contract, be it ‘employment’, ‘membership’, or even pity. To illustrate an example of a modern, online fake check scam, imagine you come across a work-from-home opportunity, advertised online, and upon hiring, they offer to send you a check for equipment, like a laptop. However, you are required to “send back” the surplus. As a proud new employee for this company, you are happy to oblige. The company may even be a recognized and reputable one, and your contact may even bear the name of someone listed on a legitimate company website - scammers have used real company information in an effort to disarm your suspicions. The check will cash and you can buy yourself a laptop, but when the check is revealed to be a fraud upon investigation, you will be held responsible for repaying the funds. A simple rule to protect you from fake check scams? Regardless of the premise, you should never cash a check from a stranger.

Though now somewhat dated, advance fee scams, also known as the infamous Nigerian Prince style scams, do still cause trouble for some users. As the specific “Nigerian Prince” gimmick has gained notoriety, scammers have adapted their tactics to continue defrauding countless online victims. Though the premise has changed, the process remains the same: offering financial benefit like a loan or lump sum, the scammer demands a “small” fee up front before they can initiate the “larger transaction,” with the trick being that there is no larger transaction to come. Here, again, common sense is our best defense: Don’t trust strangers on the internet.

And certainly exercise caution when dating one! Catfishing - when a person lies about their identity online - is a recent addition to the ever-growing list of online scams. Using fake or hacked social media accounts, a “catfish” can pretend to be someone else and use the assumed identity to their advantage. Scammers may use stolen or invented identities to request gifts, money, or simply to attract attention. Others may seek to tarnish the reputation of their assumed identity, which can be problematic for public figures, and emotionally damaging to victims of cyberbullying.

We frequently see people in our community fall victim to phone scams, usually involving scare tactics, like claiming imminent action by the IRS or the FBI, or a problem with your computer or financial account. In the common “computer problem” example, a scammer calls claiming to be with Microsoft and declaring that they have found a problem with the victim’s personal computer. The scammer directs the victim to a webpage and instructs them to download a program that will help them “solve the problem”, but the program instead grants the scammer remote access to the computer and all of the personal data on it, potentially giving them access to personal and financial accounts. Simply, never download a program from an untrusted source. If you are ever in doubt of the validity of a program, give us a call!

Whether you’re shopping, job searching, apartment hunting, or even dating, it’s important to take common-sense precautions against being taken advantage of in an online exchange. As always, be careful with your personal information online. Some additional tips to keep in mind: Check Before You Click and If It Feels Wrong, Make A Call. Always check before you click that a link is from a trusted source, and if you suspect that you may have encountered an online scam, call someone! Whether you call your bank for financial protection, report a cybercrime to the FBI (the FBI operates a cybercrimes division and accepts tips about cybercrime here), call us, or call your mom, a phone call to a trusted contact can help sort things out. Sometimes a level-headed loved one is all it takes to see the scam, but if you’re ever unsure we are always happy to answer your questions and guide you towards a safe online experience! Happy Halloween!

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