A Scam for Every Season

It is the height of the holiday season and I had three interviews today about scams and a fourth one was just scheduled for next week. It is a time of joy and peace for most; for scammers, it is one of the busiest times of the year.

Why is that?

There are two reasons, really. One is just the nature of the holiday season – lots going on, people spending considerably more money than usual and charitable giving at its height. The overarching reason, though, is that scammers look for things they can “hang their hat on”, as my father would have said. They look for big events or times of year, or for other things that people value about themselves (demographics, military service, profession). Scammers look for things that people will identify with, that may make them lower their guard, just a bit. Once a person’s guard is down, that is when scammers know the have the best chance.

One of the most common examples is the holiday season. Everybody loves the holidays, right? As already stated, it is a time when many are particularly charitable, spending more money than usual, and looking for bargains. These are the bread and butter for scammers, and it is why we see so much scam activity during the holidays.

The holidays are a time when we see every type of scam you can imagine – fake charities, merchandise at incredible discounts that turn out not to be real, holiday-specific scams of every shape and size, and the list goes on and on. It is a time when we must all be extra cautious with both our money and our personal information, or risk getting a holiday surprise that none of us would ever choose.

There is a larger lesson, though, and that is the idea that scammers gravitate toward the sorts of things we have already discussed; they shape many of their scams around those things that make us comfortable and can make us lower our defenses. We live in a world that requires us to be vigilant. Does the offer seem to good to be true? It probably is. Have we checked out this deal or opportunity to make sure it is for real? We probably should.

Have a fantastic holiday, of course, but also let it be a reminder to stay on the lookout for scams. The more vigilant you are, the more questions you ask and the more verification you require before turning over your money or your personal information, the better off you will likely be.

Don’t They Know Who I Am?!?

It was Thanksgiving morning. My wife and I were getting the big meal ready (okay, she was getting it ready and I was taste testing). Then, my phone started ringing with a call from Los Angeles. I do not really know anyone from Los Angeles, but I thought maybe it was someone calling to wish me a happy holiday.

Was it, in fact, a friend calling to wish me a happy Thanksgiving?

No.

In fact, it was someone claiming to be with “Windows Tech Support”, saying that he was calling because a problem had been detected with my computer and that he was calling to help me fix it, which he could do remotely if I would give him some information.

The biggest problem with this, of course, is that I do not have a Windows computer, and I knew right away that this was a common scam, in which the caller was trying to get remote access to my computer so he could steal my personal information or cause some other kind of mischief.

This is a common scam. Over 80% of the computer-owning public has a Windows machine, so the caller was just playing the odds by identifying himself as “Windows Tech Support”. He was hoping that I would take the claim at face value, give him information to help him gain remote access to my computer, and then his dirty work could to commence.

Didn’t this guy know that I am a regional director of BBB? Didn’t he know that I have read about and heard about this exact type of scam over and over again? No, he did not have any clue who I am. To him, I was just a name on a list, someone he could try to scam, or that he could just move on from if the scam did not work.

In the end, I hung up on him, reported the call on BBB Scam Tracker, and went about my business. I will never hear from the scammer again and he is on to his next 1000 victims.

There is no real lesson for me to learn, but the important lesson to share is that this type of scam is out there, and anyone can be the target. There is basically nothing any of us can do to avoid scams like this, but we need to know about it because people fall for it all the time. They get the call, give the caller some information from their computer, and then bad things are going to happen.

All we can do is know about it so we do not fall for it ourselves, and so we can warn others. For any scam, knowledge of what to look for is always the greatest defense.

Some of BBB’s Best Tips to Avoid Scams

We live in a world in which pretty much anyone can be scammed. At BBB, we see it every day, as our world speeds up; as we become more and more reliant on online communications; as scammers get smarter and more creative. Good people get scammed every day because they are trusting, because they are not paying enough attention, because they are in a hurry, and because they do not know what forms a scam might take.

That is why BBB spends so much time educating our communities about scams – because knowledge is the best weapon against scammers. The more we all know, and the more we are all paying attention, the less scammers will succeed

This list is certainly not all-inclusive, but the following is a list of some of the best tips BBB has seen for avoiding scams. If we would all follow these tips, many more scams would be foiled, every single day

  1. Never click a link in an e-mail message if you are not expecting it. Even if the e-mail looks like it is coming from someone you know, the e-mail address could be masked to look like it is coming from that person (this is surprisingly easy). If you get an e-mail with a link and you are not 100% sure of what it is, verify it with the sender before you click it, and delete it if you can’t verify it.
  2. Be wary of any e-mail or phone call from someone you do not know that is asking for money, for any reason. The key goal of so many scams is to get you to pay right away – over the phone or by clicking a link in an e-mail message. They can be incredibly clever and can take myriad forms. A call might seem like it is from a bill collector, or a government official, or a sales person, or a charity, or even someone you think you know (see our previous blog post about the grandparent scam). If someone is trying to get you to pay over the phone or through an e-mail message, make 100% sure it is for real before you make a payment.
  3. Be careful about providing your personal information to anyone. Scammers use all sorts of tactics to get your social security number, birth date, bank account numbers, and other valuable pieces of information. With just a few key pieces of data, your identity can be stolen by those who know how to do it. Any time you are asked for any sort of personal information that might be sensitive, make sure you verify whomever is asking.
  4. If you decide to make a purchase without being 100% secure, use your credit card, instead of cash or your debit card. Credit card companies typically offer greater fraud protections than debit cards and make it easier for you to recover your money if you fall victim to a scam or even just to a business that does not provide what they promise.
  5. Never, ever wire money to someone until you have verified that this is the right thing to do. Really, any request for you to wire money to absolutely anyone should immediately trigger you to investigate further. Wiring is one of the most common ways for scammers to request money, because it is so hard to recover or even identify who the final recipient might be. For example, one of the most common business scams is for someone to mask an e-mail address to look like it is coming from someone you know (a friend, family member, co-worker, etc.), and then ask you to wire money because of some personal or business emergency.
  6. Do some extra research to verify any website with which you are not familiar, before buying anything from it. It is just so easy to create a professional looking, but fake, website, that can then be used to sell fake or shoddy products, or to simply take your money and never deliver anything at all.
  7. Check out the BBB Scam Tracker for scams in your area, or anywhere in the country, and share it with people you know. The best way to avoid a scam is to know about it, and the BBB Scam Tracker is one of the most comprehensive sources around for what is happening across the country. You can narrow it down to your state, town, or even zip code, and learn about what has been reported close to you.

There are other tips for avoiding scams, and BBB certainly encourages you to visit www.midmobbb.org to find more information about what might be out there, how to avoid it, and what to do if you or someone you know falls victim.