Dear Mr. Nigerian Prince Email Scam Guy,
I’ve gotta hand it to you. You’re a hard worker. You, and others like you, have spent countless hours cranking out heartfelt, impassioned, and completely fabricated pleas for help, meticulously designed to liberate billions of dollars out of well-meaning citizens’ wallets. And it must be working, too, or you wouldn’t still be at it! Good for you. You’ve found a way to make money without earning it. So, stealing, really. Unfortunately for you, you’re really easy to spot. We’re catching on to you as a society, and your style hasn’t changed all that much. Enjoy our money while you still can, ya filthy animal!
You know the guy I’m talking about. The email that pleads with you through broken English on behalf of an über-wealthy prince, saying he’s stuck in some foreign country’s jail or airport, and that he only needs a couple hundred dollars to clear things up with the local authorities. Once he’s out, untold riches are yours as a reward for helping him out of such an embarrassing situation. Sadly, this tug on our heartstrings is nothing more than today’s digital scam equivalent of a young thief begging for the money he needs for surgery on his broken leg. Once he has your wallet, he’s running do
wn the street, both legs miraculously healed. So how do you identify these swindlers before you get flim-flammed, bamboozled, flabbergasted, hoodwinked, and other fun old-timey words? By using your standard-issue noggin, of course! Ask yourself some good old critical thinking questions, and you can avoid ending up like our pal Spongebob.
Is It Solicited?
Did you have any real-world contact with the person before this offer or request came to you? Cold calls asking for money, whether they’re emails or actual phone calls, should be a huge red flag. Most of the time, this is done by tricking you into giving up your info, rather than just outright asking you to send money. Several weeks ago, I got a robocall offering to pay off my credit card. I was bored, so I pressed “1” to talk with an operator. I get put on hold for customer service everywhere, but this guy immediately picked up. He asked which card I wanted to pay off, so I asked which ones he could cover. He told me my MasterCard would be the easiest, so I gladly agreed. He asked how much I wanted to pay off, and of course I said, “All of it!” He told me that was no problem, and he just needed my credit card number to get the process started. I told him that I didn’t have the card in front of me, but I thought the number was something like 4. He said, “4? No, what’s the credit card number?” I again told him, “I’m pretty sure it’s 4. It’s an old card.” He told me to go get the card, so I broke the news to him that I don’t even have a MasterCard. Then I asked him who he worked for, and he said the credit card company. I asked which one, and he said “Visa.” I asked why Visa would offer to pay off my non-existent MasterCard, and he said he worked for them, too. I thought that was pretty cool, and asked if he got paid double since he worked for both companies. He said, “Yeah, I do. Which card do you want to pay off?” Oh, my American Express, definitely. Wouldn’t you know it, he worked for AmEx, too! He asked how much I owed on it, and I “remembered” that I paid it off already, using my Discover card. Did he work for Discover? Because that would just be awesome. It took him long enough, but at that point he caught on, called me some names and hung up.
Emails from companies asking you to update your address, or phone number, or to verify your username, password, or SSN should always be distrusted. Have you done anything that would warrant such an update? Even super-professional looking emails and websites with official logos from reputable companies can be fakes. When in doubt, go directly to the company and ask if they have sent you an offer. Oh yeah, don’t go with the number or link in the email; if it is a scam, the person on the other end of that number will be in on it.
Is It Plausible?
Crooks will play to our emotions, telling us what we want to hear in order to get what they want from us. Instead of listening with your heart, listen with your brain. Ask yourself if the pitch you’re being given makes sense from a practical standpoint. I’ve been hearing stories lately from friends and co-workers about how their student loans can be written off if they just send a few hundred bucks to “Andy” in New York. I mean, I get it. Who doesn’t want to get out of their mortgage-sized student loan obligation? It just doesn’t work like that, though. When you take out a loan, there is no clause that says, “if at any point you don’t feel like paying this back, look up our boy Andy. He’ll get you taken care of.” Banks would close overnight if that was the case.
To put this another way, imagine that you’re the bank (or government). If you loaned someone money, would you make getting out of paying it back as easy as an email and the price of a night out? And even if you were offering someone forgiveness on their loan, wouldn’t you want them to work directly with you, not go through some third party? You don’t need to pay anyone to file for government programs on your behalf. You can do that yourself. And anyone that tells you that you can stop paying your loans because they’re taking care of it is lying.
Is It Weirdly Specific?
If you’re being contacted by someone you’ve never heard of before and who has all your personal info, run. Honest companies do business honestly. If you haven’t given your information to them, they shouldn’t have it. If I get an email from firstname.lastname@example.org offering to pay off my car loan of *exact balance* from *vehicle financing company* for only $20 and a Yelp review, I haven’t had all my prayers answered, I’ve been hacked.
Is It Slimy?
You know how when you’re in a used car dealership, sometimes you get that feeling like you need to take a shower? Listen to that feeling. If you’re in a situation where you’re being rushed to make a decision, you don’t really understand what’s going on, or something just feels off, abort the mission. If a deal is legitimate, the person on the other end should have no trouble slowing down and making sure you’re comfortable with your end of it. It might be a little awkward, but they really shouldn’t have any problem with you vetting them, either. Life is short, but it’s not that short. Do your research and breathe a bit before you sign, swipe, or send anything that makes more than a passing impact on your financial life.
Is It Convenient? Like, Too Convenient?
This time of year, tax refunds are on everyone’s mind. Ideally, you shouldn’t have one if you have the correct withholding throughout the year, but some people like the little “bonus” around springtime. While it’s not exactly illegal, companies have started offering loans against what you expect to get back from the government (shame on you especially, H&R Block. You’re supposed to be helping people with their taxes, not putting them in debt). Situations like this again prey on our emotions, hoping we’ll make bad decisions to satisfy current wants. Other examples in this vein are payday/title loans and rent-to-own places. Yes, I’m looping tax refund advances, pay-by-the-week furniture stores, and payday loans in with online scams. They take advantage of people and ruin lives just the same, so stay away from them.
What If You Think You’re A Scam Victim?
So, what happens if you’re reading through this list and you think, “Uh-oh. That sounds familiar”? Most likely, there is already damage that will have been done, but you can at least stop the bleeding:
- Stop. If you’re sending money on a regular basis, stop immediately. If there is email communication, save what has already been sent and received and don’t reply anymore. If you’ve given permission to access your bank account directly, revoke it if you can. Don’t worry about repercussions, they’re the ones doing illegal stuff (the exception is those rent-to-own places or payday loans. As I said, those aren’t illegal, but should still be cleaned up and sworn off as soon as possible).
- Tighten Up. Change your passwords to all accounts, especially those dealing with anything financial. Then, change your email address password, since your email could be used to lock you out of your own accounts if the evildoer has access to it.
- Report. Submit a complaint to the FTC to help warn others of the scam. You can also check their blog to see a regularly updated list of scams the government is aware of.
- Share. Talk to other people about what happened. It might feel embarrassing, but you’re not alone. Scammers made off with $16 billion in 2014. If your story helps other people avoid becoming a statistic, share it!
Scams are everywhere in our increasingly digital world, and unfortunately, there’s no foolproof way to make sure you never get victimized. But luckily, most of them can be avoided with just a little healthy skepticism and due diligence.
Do you have any experience with these shysters? Share your story and advice in the comments!