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Watch Out for These Scams

by Bruce Haring

Scams have been around since the beginning of time.  Before computers or telephones, people have been finding ways to con their fellow men.  From the snake oil peddlers on the old frontier to Bernie Madoff’s elaborate Ponzi scheme of the early 2000s, scam artists have made their fortunes by stealing someone else’s.

If you ever fell for the tricks of a con man, don’t be embarrassed.  There are a lot of very smart people out there who have been tricked or swindled by a variety of methods, from sweet-talk to threats.

And for those of you who are adamant that you would never let something like that happen to you, we hope you’re right.  But sometimes the con is so clever, or so personal, that even the most jaded human finds themselves wondering if it just might be true.

Beware of these common scams.

IRS scams

There’s just something intimidating about the IRS.  So when you get a call “from the IRS” saying you owe back taxes, it’s apt to get your attention.  One recent scam involves a menacing phone caller who tells you if you don’t make a payment immediately by giving them your credit card or bank account information, officers are prepared to come out and arrest you.  Con artists use these threats to frighten their prey, often giving out false badge numbers or case numbers to make it sound official.  But don’t worry — it’s not going to happen.  First of fall, the IRS does not make random phone calls.  You won’t receive a call from them unless you ‘re expecting their call or they’re returning yours.  Otherwise, any official business is conducted by U.S. mail, aka snail mail.  And don’t let your caller ID fool you — scammers can redirect or use false number to make you think it’s a legitimate call.

More IRS

If that scam doesn’t work, the bad guys have another trick in their back pockets.  In this one, a caller says they’re a representative of the IRS, or possibly a bank or credit card company, and tells you that your identity has been stolen.  Wow.   That’s not good, right?  So imagine your relief when they say they can help you straighten it all out.  All they need is your social security number, bank information, address, phone number and password.  Well, that was easy—for them. They were able to collect all they need to know to steal your identity and life savings in one short call.  If you believe there’s any chance that the call might be legitimate, hang up and call the number on the back of your credit card or the one listed online for the local IRS office or your bank.

“Infected” computer

You may have been on your computer when a pop-up alert appears announcing that your computer is infected, which may lead to a system failure.  Once again, the scammer is there to help—just “click here.”  Don’t do it!  At best, clicking can result in a computer virus.  At worst, the scammers explain that they can fix the problem remotely if you allow access to your computer.  Once in, they have access to everything on your computer from bank account and credit card numbers to tax returns and passwords.  When they’re done with all their mischief, a computer system failure would have looked good by comparison.

“You won!! “

Your computer doesn’t always give you bad news.  But beware the good news as well.  One common scam starts with another computer pop-up.  This one says something on the order of, “You won!”  You may (supposedly) be the 100th person to order something or to go on a website.  To claim your prize, you need to click on something.  Then you may have to give a credit card number to prove you’re you.  Or you may need to buy a subscription to something.  Or maybe just pay postage (usually a ridiculous amount) to get your “free” item.  On this one, you’re only truly “lucky” if you ignore the notice entirely.

Free trials

And speaking of free stuff, beware of free trial offers.  Whether you respond to an email, phone call or TV ad, it all works the same.  A company wants to give you a free trial of their product.  Sounds reasonable.  After all, it’s probably worth it to them to let you try a product for free, and if you like it they’ll have a new customer.  But here’s the scam.  They either charge a “small” shipping fee that turns out to be exorbitant (one company charged customers $129.95).  Others get hold of your credit card number, automatically renew at a hefty rate and then make it extremely difficult to cancel.

There are a lot of scams out there.  Some are very obvious, while others may actually be tempting.  Just remember:

  • Think before you act. Don’t do anything in haste.
  • Don’t give out personal information by email or the phone unless you initiated the call or correspondence.
  • Don’t click on a link to reply. Instead, contact the company directly at the phone number or web address listed online.

And some advice never goes out of style.  A Better Business Bureau slogan from way back in 1954 is still as true today as it was 62 years ago.  When in doubt, just remember, “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

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