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The 5 Slickest Scams of 2019 — That Even We Almost Fell For

Simone Johnson  |  April 8, 2019

We’ve come a long way since the Nigerian Prince emails. Scammers have elevated their game and changed where and how they reach us. We’ve got your back.

These days, it’s not just the elderly who are being deceived by savvy con artists. Some phony websites look incredibly official, and fake representatives are doing their best to sound convincing — and they do, because they’re spending hours researching your life online before they even pick up the phone. These five scams are so smooth, we can’t fault you for falling for them.  But we can try to protect you. Here’s what to know so you can separate the real from the fake.

ROMANCE RUSES AND SEXTORTION

In this age of online dating and cyber friendships, “Catfish” isn’t just a show — it’s a reality for some people. According to the Federal Trade Commission, more than 20,000 reports of romance scams were made in 2018 and more than $143 million was lost, making romance scams the most common swindle of the year.

These lucrative love affairs (for the con, natch) usually start on a dating site, a chat room or via social media, including Facebook and Instagram. The scammer will have numerous reasons for why they’re physically unreachable — perhaps they’re in the military, living in another country, or in another state without the money or time to travel.

Once the scammer has you on the hook — and you may have really grown to care about them over the course of several months, with multiple emails and phone calls exchanged — your honey will suddenly, desperately find themselves in a jam. This is when the requests for money start. They may need cash for an illness, to care for a sick family member, to buy a house or car, the list is as long as the scammers are creative, and they aren’t afraid to play the long game. Some con artists put in months of emotional manipulation to build a false sense of trust.

To prevent both your heart and your wallet from bleeding out, there are a few preventative measures you can take.

  • Do a reverse image search for your match’s profile picture. If he looks too much like a young Leonardo DiCaprio, he might just be a stock image from Google, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
  • Look for inconsistencies in their story. Even the best liars get tripped up sometimes, and they may forget some small detail, such as the number of siblings they have, or information about their childhood.
  • Tell a friend. Sometimes being infatuated with someone can blind us to inconsistencies, so share the details of your relationship. Then listen when they spot the problems you didn’t.
  • Ask for an in-person meeting, no exceptions. You can travel to them, or they can travel to you. This isn’t 1900, it’s 2019, and planes, trains, and automobiles will get you everywhere you need to go.

Finally, if you feel like your crush might be a con artist, report them to the site where you found them, and block them on all channels.

TECH SUPPORT SUSPICION

Tech support scams are incredibly adept at disguising themselves as a helping hand. Through legit-looking pop-ups that are modeled to look like internal notifications rather than ads, they’ll notify you that your computer is infected, and provide a telephone number of someone who can help. Many people think, “If I’m calling them, then this is more legit than if they’re calling me,” but the person on the other end of the line is definitely not out to help. Their goal is to get you to buy useless or dangerous software disguised as anti-virus protection — in many cases, it may be spyware, which gives the scammers unfettered access to all the information on your computer. This includes your email account, credit card numbers, and any other sensitive documents.

“Services don’t proactively, say, ‘Hey, let me help you with this problem,’” says Gary Davis, McAfee’s chief consumer security evangelist. “If someone comes to you, you should be suspicious. That’s not to say you’ll never get warnings or upgrade alerts, but know your computer and your phone and what you subscribe to in terms of virus protection.”

Before you fall for this scam, remind yourself:

  • Legit services don’t solicit your business by inviting you to call them.
  • If you’re ever skeptical about an organization, but might want to try their services, do some Googling for their official website. If they look legit, call them via their mainline number listed on their site.
  • A real tech support/virus prevention company would never ask you to pay via Google Play or Amazon. If they don’t take credit cards, that’s a huge red flag.

FAKE WEBSITES

Picture it: You’ve been debating buying a cute new jacket for a while, you’ve clicked on some targeted ads for it, and maybe done a Google search. A few days or weeks later, you get a pop-up ad letting you know that jacket is half-off. Clearly, this is a sign from the universe that you should buy it.

Not so fast.  These days, scammers have mastered the art of duplicating corporate logos, building legit-looking, beautiful sites, and making sure their ads appear in your search results when you’re shopping.  Shop with one of these fake businesses and not only does your item never arrive, but the scammers now have all of your credit card information, your name, and your address.

“You can protect yourself by not doing business with a site you’re not familiar with,” says Katherine Hutt, the national spokesperson for the Council of Better Business Bureaus. “You can also check if the domain is registered and if the ownership is hidden, that’s one of the signs.”

Other ways to protect yourself include:

  • Do your own background check of the site. It’s easy. A quick Google search of the company’s URL with the word “scam” next to it can give you answers. You can also run the URL through an online scam detector, like URLVoid and see what comes up.
  • Keep your eyes open. Little things like the URL not starting with an https://,  or not having a padlock symbol in the upper left-hand corner of the search bar, are also signs. Also, keep in mind: legit companies will always have a way to contact customer service.

FAKE FAMILY EMERGENCY

These scammers are some of the most despicable because they seek to prey on our emotions — they call and tell us that a loved one is hurt, injured, or in jail. In some cases, they will pretend to be our loved one, and in others, they may pretend to be a representative from a hospital or jail. Their goal is to get you to wire them money, or give up your credit card information in order to “save” your family member. How do they do it? They start by doing their research on you, via your social media profiles, family obituaries, company “about us” pages, school records, and more. You’d be shocked how much they can find out without much effort. They then call you to initiate the scam, using the names of your loved ones and as many true details about them as they could find.

“They want to fill the victim with a sense of urgency so you don’t stop and think about what’s going on,” says Cooper Quintin, a senior staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “And whatever needs to happen, needs to happen right now, and that is one of the oldest tricks in the book. It’s sort of the basis of all scams.”

In order to ensure your brain reacts quicker than your heart, try the following:

  • Don’t give the scammers a chance to find you in the first place. Keep your social media profiles private.  The less the internet knows about you and your family members, the safer you’ll be.
  • If you get a call, don’t panic. Simply hang up and try calling your family member to see if they’re okay.
  • Under no circumstances should you send money or offer up your credit card information. No jail, hospital, or bail bondsman will ever ask for money over the phone.

JOB SITE JOKES

As if applying for jobs weren’t stressful enough, there are now scammers lurking online, looking to take advantage of eager applicants. These scammers will often approach you via email or social media, offering you a sweet-sounding position that may allow you to work from home. In many cases, they say no interview is required. Once you’ve accepted, that’s when the shady requests start — they may ask you to wire money to someone, cash a check on behalf of the “company,” or give them all your bank account details and social security number immediately, so that you can get “paid.” Of course their real goal is to steal your money and your identity.

“They prey on people who are already down,” Hutt says. “These scammers are collecting all the information they need for identity theft. This could impact the rest of your life.”

Before you offer a job any of your personal information, make sure that you:

  • Confirm the job is real and the company is legit. Google the company, check out their website, and call them up. Find out what they’re all about.
  • Have an interview and submit your resume. No one is going to hire you if you haven’t spoken to them on the phone, and if they haven’t vetted you first.
  • Remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. No reputable company is going to offer you a high wage for vague-sounding duties.

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