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Tips to Avoid Common Online Scams

Crooks use technology and old tricks steal money and personal information

By OnGuardOnline.gov | December 11, 2012

Crooks use clever schemes to defraud millions of people around the globe every year.

They often combine sophisticated technology with age-old tricks to get people to send money or give out personal information.

Many scammers insist that you wire money or pressure you to make an important decision on the spot. Don’t fall for such tactics.

Use these tips to help you avoid common scams.

What to Do

Know who you’re dealing with.

Try to find a seller’s physical address (not just a P.O. Box) and phone number. With Internet phone services and other Web-based technologies, it’s tough to tell where someone is calling from. Do an Internet search for the company name and website, and look for negative reviews. If you find them, you’ll have to decide if the offer is worth the risk. After all, it’s only a good deal if you actually get a product that works.

Understand that wiring money is like sending cash.

Con artists often insist that people wire money, especially overseas, because it’s nearly impossible to reverse the transaction or trace the money. Don’t wire money to strangers, to sellers who insist on wire transfers for payment, or to anyone who claims to be a relative or family friend in an emergency who wants to keep the request a secret.

Read your monthly statements.

Scammers steal account information then run up charges or commit crimes in your name. Dishonest merchants bill you for monthly “membership fees” and other goods or services without your authorization. If you see charges you don’t recognize or didn’t OK, contact your bank, card issuer or other creditor immediately.

Give only to established charities after a disaster.

In the aftermath of a disaster, give to established charities, rather than one that has sprung up overnight. Pop-up charities probably don’t have the infrastructure to get help to the affected areas or people, and they could be collecting the money to finance illegal activity.

Talk to your doctor before you buy health products or treatments.

Ask about research that supports a product’s claims — and possible risks or side effects. Buy prescription drugs only from licensed U.S. pharmacies. Otherwise, you could end up with products that are fake, expired or mislabeled — in short, products that could be dangerous to your health.

When investing, remember there’s no sure thing.

If someone contacts you with low-risk, high-return investment opportunities, stay away. When you hear pitches that insist you act now, that guarantee big profits, that promise little or no financial risk or that demand that you send cash immediately, report them to the Federal Trade Commission.

What Not to Do

Don’t send money to someone you don’t know.

Not an online seller you’ve never heard of — nor an online love interest who asks for money. It’s best to do business with sites you know and trust. If you buy items through an online auction, consider using an option that provides protection, like a credit card.

If you think you’ve found a good deal, but you aren’t familiar with the company, do some research. Type the company or product name into your favorite search engine with terms like “review,” “complaint” or “scam.” See what comes up — on the first page of results as well as on the later pages.

Never pay fees now for the promise of a big pay-off later — whether it’s for a loan, a job or a so-called prize.

Don’t agree to deposit a check and wire money back.

No matter how convincing the story. By law, banks have to make funds from deposited checks available within days, but uncovering a fake check can take weeks. You’re responsible for the checks you deposit: If a check turns out to be a fake, you’re responsible for paying back the bank.

Don’t reply to messages asking for personal or financial information.

That goes whether the message comes as an email, a phone call, a text message or an ad. Don’t click on links or call phone numbers included in the message, either. It’s called phishing. The crooks behind these messages are trying to trick you into revealing sensitive information. If you got a message like this and you are concerned about your account status, call the number on your credit or debit card — or your statement — and check on it.

Don’t play a foreign lottery.

It’s illegal to play a foreign lottery. And yet messages that tout your chances of winning a foreign lottery or messages that claim you’ve already won can be so tempting. Inevitably, you’re asked to pay “taxes,” “fees” or “customs duties” to collect your prize. If you send money to collect, you haven’t won anything. Indeed, you’ve lost whatever money you sent. You won’t get any money back, either, regardless of the promises.

Report Online Scams

If you think you may have been scammed:

  • File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. If you are outside the United States, file a complaint at econsumer.gov. Complaints are entered into the Consumer Sentinel Network, an online database used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies in the United States and abroad.
  • Find out how to minimize your risk of identity theft.
  • Report scams to your state attorney general.
If you get what looks like lottery material from a foreign country through the postal mail, give it to your local postmaster.