We all know not to give money to the deposed Prince of Nigeria when he sends us an email. But do you know about these other scams?
We’ve all heard of the Nigerian Prince email scam. At this point in time, you’re considered an absolute fool if you fall for it. Hackers and criminals are still attempting to steal people’s information on the internet, though, and they’re not always doing it through viruses and malware.
Scams in the vein of the Nigerian Prince are labelled social-engineering, because they depend on some type of social interaction with the victim. They are built to prey on the potential victim’s senses of sympathy, fear, and excitement. When these emotions are successfully stimulated, people tend to lose their better judgement, and are more willing to give up private, personal information that they would have otherwise guarded.
The Nigerian Price Lives On
Believe it or not, people do still fall for the Nigerian Prince scam. Part of the reason is that this type of scam doesn’t always come from someone purporting to be a prince, and it doesn’t always come from someone saying they’re from Nigeria.
The criminal will claim to be some type of official, business person, or widow of a like figure who has unjustly come into dire circumstances. This has caused their money to be inaccessible. They need to pay some type of tax or fee to get their money out of their account. If you pay that fee for them, they will reward you handsomely.
They do a lot of things to make the scam look legitimate. They’ll send you official looking documents. They’ll invite you to come visit them in their country, or the country in which they are exiled. But after you pay the fees, some type of emergency invariably comes up. Not only do you not receive your funds, but more are required to access the money. This will happen repeatedly. In the best cases, people lose their money forever. In the worst cases, victims have been beaten, or even murdered after enduring threats and extortion.
While we often focus on the personality, the Nigerian Prince, understanding the formula is far more important. It doesn’t matter what the specific title of the person is, or which country they come from. What matters is recognizing that they want money in order to give you more money. This is a common theme you will see through many of the following scams. Do not ever reply to, or click on email links from, people who make this request of you.
Family Emergency Scams
If you get an email from a family member or close friend requesting money in the midst of an emergency, your first reaction will likely be to immediately rush to the rescue. This is what cyber criminals are hoping for.
The Family Emergency scam starts when a criminal hacks into someone’s email. They then scour the contacts, looking for a close friend or family member to be their victim. They send an email from the hacked address, which the victim knows and trusts. They then explain the emergency, and ask for money, usually in the form of a wire transfer, or a check or money order sent via overnight delivery or courier.
This scam is a lot trickier, because you legitimately think it’s someone you know asking for help. If you ever get an email along these lines, call the person. Use a number you already have; don’t ask for it via email. The hacker is likely to give you the wrong phone number.
If you don’t have a number, you can try to get it from a third party friend or family member. You can also ask them questions that only they would know the answer to, keeping in mind that inside jokes and places you went together have probably been accessible to anyone on social media for about the past ten years.
The last thing you can do to try to verify the emergency and need for money is to call someone else in the family or your circle of friends, even if the person asks that you keep it a secret. The element of secrecy is what helps the criminals go about their work.
Never send money via wire transfer or the other methods listed above. You will not get it back, and if it is truly your friend or family member that needs help, you will be able to figure out another way to get the cash to them during your phone conversation.
Scams on Gamers
If you or one of your children are a gamer, you’re likely aware that selling characters or in-game goods from massive multi-player online role playing games (MMORPGs) is illegal.
Scammers know this, too. In recent years, they have been setting up emails that inform players that they are aware they have been engaging in the illegal selling. They make the email look like it’s coming from the software company complete with logos and contact information. The scammer, under the illegitimate guise of the gaming company, threatens to sue for thousands of dollars. You either have to “click here” or “call this number.”
Instead of clicking there or calling that number, what you should do is call the company directly. You can do an internet search for their phone number (though this may be risky as we’ll see later on,) or get it from the box the game itself came in. If the game was purchased online, you can look up the number on the receipt. You know you did not engage in the selling, so the only reason to panic is if you provide these criminals with your personal information.
You’ve Won a Prize!
For this scam, you’ll get an excited email or phone call. The person on the other end will tell you that you have won something fantastic, whether it be a large sum of money or an expensive vacation. All you have to do is provide your personal information for verification purposes, and give them your credit card or banking account number to reserve your prize!
Be wary of anything that sounds too good to be true. It will almost always lead to heartbreak and theft.
There is no legitimate prize where you have to provide your credit card number. No one should ever ask you to make an initial deposit to claim your winnings. If they do, hang up immediately if it’s a phone call. Do not respond to the email or click any links if the notification has been sent electronically.
These rules hold true even if you did, indeed, enter to win a prize. Criminals should not be immune from suspicion simply because you made the first move.
If you get an email encouraging you to enter a foreign lottery because you have great odds, or notifying you that you’ve won such a lottery, do not respond or click any links. The first reason you should not engage with these communications is because participating in foreign lotteries is illegal. Period.
The second reason is that this is likely another scheme phishing for your information, or trying to con you out of your hard-earned money. You will likely be asked to pay taxes, fees, or customs duties in order to claim your prize. Yet again, there is no prize, and you will not be able to get your money back.
Other areas where you should never pay a fee before claiming your “prize” include:
• Job applications
• Grant applications
• Loan applications
Fake Charity Drives
The holidays are prime time for con artists to round up money for fake charities. People are giving in droves, and looking for any worthy cause to support. This is the perfect time for criminals to rake in money, and donors will never even know that the money lined their pockets instead of feeding needy children, or whatever their fake cause du jour may be.
These thieves may call you. They may be standing outside a store saying, “God bless,” after you drop a $20 bill in their till. They may be running a website under false pretenses. They may email you directly.
The best way to make sure your money is going to a worthy and legitimate cause is to do some research. Sites like Charity Navigator list 501(c)(3)s (or non-profits,) and allow you to dig in a little deeper. Not only can you see if a charity actually exists, but you can also evaluate how they will spend the money you donate to them. Do they have high overhead fees? What percentage of donations goes to advertising? How much of my money will go to the actual cause?
Those questions are important to ask because many charities are legitimate organizations with good intentions, but aren’t necessarily effective. For example, after a natural disaster, many people want to help those affected. Some give money, but others set up new organizations specifically to go in and help with the cleanup and rebuilding process. Their hearts may be in the right place, but a new, small charity has much higher overhead costs than those of larger, firmly established ones.
And, of course, just like the holiday season, scammers see a real opportunity when natural disasters strike. They will say they are collecting donations for a charitable organization you’ve never heard of, but it has the geographical location’s name or the word “relief” in its title, so you give without a second thought.
Don’t. What they’re really doing is running off with your money. Research the organization before giving each and every time.
If you get an unsolicited email with investing advice, best practice would be to delete it without a second thought. These scams will usually tell you an investment is low-risk, high-reward, carries little to no financial risk, or guaranteed to net big profits. Sometimes there will be strong language urging a sense of immediacy.
Other times, these scammers will take time to build your trust. For example, you may be subscribed to an email list. You may have actually subscribed for it, or you may not remember ever requesting to be added. Either way, you read the letter. It includes a tip on a specific investment.
Over the next month, the investment does really well. You read the next tip. Sure enough, the advice was correct again. This goes on for some time until it is recommended that you make an investment yourself. The advice has been correct 100% of the time, so you trust it and send money.
The emails stop. Your money is gone.
The criminal used A/B techniques to earn your trust. They told group A in that very first tip that the investment would do well. They told group B it would tank. When it did well, they stopped emailing group B, and sent all those left in group A another email with another investment tip. They told half that it would do well, and half that it would tank. This pattern continued until trust had been sufficiently built with one, core, dedicated group that was willing to hand over their money.
Criminals are smart and creative. These are not the only two investment scams in existence. Remember that when things are too good to be true, they probably aren’t, and that you should never give anyone you don’t know money, especially when it’s solicited in an email.
Craigslist Rental Scams
When you are looking for a place to live, many renters turn to Craigslist. You find a place that looks suitable at a number within your price range, and you email the supposed landlord.
You have now invited the “landlord” into your inbox. Many times, this situation turns out fine, and the person is exactly who they say they are: the owner of the property. Other times, they are someone far away attempting to steal your personal information, or convince you to send them money under a false premise.
When the latter is the case, there are some red flags you should look out for. Oftentimes these criminals relate that they do not live in the area currently. They had to leave suddenly, and have chosen to stay at their new location. When you ask for the name of a local property manager, you will not get one.
They often say that they are away serving as missionaries, or have had a job transfer. They will make sure to notify you of the “For Sale” sign in front of the house before you can notice it or even ask about it. They warn you that it is there because they were trying to sell, but had some problem with the realtor where the deal fell through. So they are resorting to renting.
They plan on returning at some point, so the rent will be far below market value. You think you are getting a great deal, but once again it’s too good to be true. The “landlord” will soon ask you to fill out a rental application online, without even seeing the property. In it, you will have to provide personally identifiable information such as name, birth date, and current address for you and all those who intend on living in the property, which they don’t even own in all reality.
At some point, they are likely to ask you for a security deposit, as well.
If a landlord sends you a rental application before you even view the property, they’re in all likelihood not legitimate. Do not fill out the application. You should never send money to someone you don’t know, especially if the communication has only been through email.
To find out if the landlord is who they say they are, search the property. There should be public records documenting the true owner’s identity. Even if they are giving the correct name, these red flags should steer you away from the deal, or giving up any of your personal information.
Cyber criminals are sophisticated. They may trick you into thinking that you are on a website you trust, but you are not. They will include the real company’s branding. They may even add the “s” to “https:” in which the “s” typically signifies to the user that the site is secure.
There are signs you can look for that should key you in to the site’s legitimacy. Is the deal way too good to be true? Then, again, it probably isn’t true. Does the site have good grammar throughout, on all copy? If not, it’s probably not legitimate. While sites can originate in foreign countries, legitimate ones are going to be sure that their English copy is in proper English. If you are asked to pay via Western Union or any other wire transfer service, the site is not legitimate.
They should also never ask you to email them payment information. If the company does send you an email, never use links within that email to access the site. The email may be fake, as well, using company branding and trust marks illegally, with the enclosed link leading you to an illegitimate site.
A quick way to identify if a site is trying to scam you is to copy and paste the URL into your preferred search engine. Then add the word, “scam,” “review,” or “complaint.” This will show you if others have been duped by this website before. Be cautious, though. Just because no one has been tricked before doesn’t mean you won’t be the first for this particular site.
Technical Support Scams
We all use computers every day. We know they open us up to vulnerabilities, but most of us don’t understand the technology well enough to be able to protect ourselves. In recent years, scammers have taken advantage of this. They’ve taken advantage of our fear that we’re vulnerable, and ironically expose those vulnerabilities even more in order to steal money or personal information.
These interactions start with a phone call. The person on the other end may pretend to be from a company you know and trust, or they may call from a company you’ve never heard of before, offering you a new, free product. They may ask you to check something on your computer, and identify something that is actually a functional part of your system as a virus.
They will use scare tactics to get you to give up some of your information. In some cases, they will ask for remote access to your computer so they can fix a problem (that doesn’t exist.) What they’re actually doing is installing malware or spyware so they can later view and steal your personal data.
They may sell you a product that either doesn’t do anything, or could be found elsewhere for free. They may ask for your credit card information so they can bill you for services which they will never deliver. Instead, you’ll find mysterious charges on your credit card bill. They may also direct you to a website where you can purchase a product after entering all of your personal data. The site is a sham, and is being used to rob your of your identity.
They may not always call you. Scammers know that people will commonly search online for a technical support phone number. Some have been known to pay for ads in these searches. When an unknowing consumer searches for the number, they find the ad. They proceed to call the fake number in full trust, giving up personal and billing information along the way.
It is best to retain any physical copies of receipts and product information you may have from your tech purchases. These will have customer support, technical support, and other legitimate company phone numbers on them.
There is a list circulating out there amongst cyber criminals. It’s called the sucker list. It contains the names and contact information of people who have fallen for these tactics before. Because they know you have fallen for these scams before, they figure you are more likely to fall for them again. They sweep in for a round two with something called a Recovery Scam.
They give you a call, telling you they are representing a company you trust, or a government agency. They may tell you they will file the paperwork related to your victimization, or that they are holding the money they got back for you. They may even promise to move you up the list so your case will be handled more expediently. All you have to do is send them a small fee or donation in order to reclaim your money, or earn these special privileges.
They are not a legitimate organization. They are trying to steal your money once again. Consumer organizations and government agencies will never charge you a fee. They will also never promise to get your money back, and they do not give special privileges to anyone. When someone asks you for money in these situations, hang up the phone. You don’t want to be conned twice.
Don’t End Up on the Sucker List
While all of these scams are slightly different from each other, there are some recurring themes. First, never pay someone you don’t know through money transfer services, or by sending a check, money order, or cash.
You should also be very careful with email communications. You may think they come from a person or company you know, but can, in fact, be fake. Within these communications, fraudsters will try to play on your emotions, whether that be by posing as someone in need, posing as someone who is helping the needy, or posing as someone you are close to who needs help. They will also try to play on your own fears, or try to get you so excited with fake incentives that you forget all caution.
When reading emails, you should never click on links, even if the email supposedly comes from a person or company you trust. Emails can be hacked, and logos can be illegally inserted. Those links could lead you to fake or malicious sites that download spyware, or convince you to unwittingly enter your personal information.
You best line of defense is your own common sense. Don’t allow these plays on your emotions to dull your decision-making skills. Sit on decisions until the initial feeling wears off, whether that be fear, excitement, or sympathy. After you’ve had time to think over the events or communications with a clear head, you will be better equipped to make a good judgement call. After all, you don’t want to end up on the sucker list.
Knowledge is power. Help your friends protect themselves from these scams by sharing on social media.