While P.T. Barnum was associated with the quote, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” as technology advances, it can be increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction and protect yourself online. Basically, it’s becoming more difficult to make sure you’re not one of those infamous “suckers.”
For every “Nigerian prince” looking for a handout, there are just as many clever and not-so-obviously-fake scammers looking to make you their next target. Internet scams have become part of our shared experience and the butt of our jokes, but they affect thousands of Americans every year.
Here’s a list of popular scams and what you can do to protect yourself and your personal information.
Online Banking or PayPal Phishing Scam
Scammers send you a message (either via email or text) with the name of a bank or financial institution included in the title (something like “firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com). The message indicates that there is a problem with your account, and that you have 24 hours to address this problem or else your account will be deactivated.
The emails are typically legitimate-looking, often reflecting the branding and logo of the bank in question.
Once you click on the link provided in the email, you’re taken to a web page where you enter your credit card number, bank account number, or PayPal username and password to ensure the account remains active. The problem? This message never came from the bank and there was never a problem with your account. You’ve unwittingly handed your personal information over to scammers.
If you receive a message like this: Call your bank immediately to verify if this email is legitimate. Banks are consistently working to combat fraud like this, so your call is important not just for your own security, but to protect other customers, too.
Phone Calls from the “IRS”
This relatively new scam can be scary if you’re the recipient. Callers claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) use various techniques to attempt to get your money.
Often, the script goes something like this: You have been audited by the IRS, owe thousands in back-taxes to the government, and need to immediately pay the amount you owe.
The perpetrators of this scam are clever—if the initial scare tactic of owing back-taxes does not make you reach into your wallet, the callers then become angry, threatening to call local law enforcement to have you arrested.
If this happens to you: As frightening as this can be, stay calm. Do not engage with the caller and hang up your phone. Do not answer if they call back and block their phone number. Report suspicious calls to the IRS.
The real IRS will never call you, never threaten you, and will never demand money from you without the opportunity to appeal the amount you owe in court.
Fake Anti-Virus Software Scam
This scam works well because it preys on our complex relationship with technology. You visit a website and a pop-up appears saying that your computer is infected with a virus. Oh no! The pop-up suggests you “clean” your computer now using their anti-virus software. You click “ok” and the program starts a “scan” of your computer. Or worse, the pop-up says that your anti-virus program is out of date and to enter your credit card number to renew.
Either way, you’re getting scammed. The “scan” run by this anti-virus program is instead installing malware on your computer, allowing scammers to track your behavior online and potentially steal your valuable passwords and information; and your “out of date software” is just a way for scammers to access your credit card information. Don’t fall for it!
If you receive a message like this: Most computers come with an anti-virus program installed, like Norton or McAfee, or you can purchase an anti-virus program yourself. If you do not recognize the name of the program, close your browser window and the corresponding pop-up, then manually open your own anti-virus program and run a scan yourself. If your computer really does have a virus, it will show up on the scan you’ve run.
Friend or Family “Mugged” on Vacation Scam
This scam is becoming more common and it’s very scary to receive because it appears to come from a person you know.
You receive an email from your friend or family member indicating that they were on vacation and were mugged at gunpoint, losing their credit cards, ID cards, and passport overseas. They’re now stranded in a foreign country with no way home and they need your help—can you wire them some money as soon as you can?
You panic—is your friend all right? Maybe it’s been a little while since you’ve spoken with them and you don’t know much about their travel plans. You recognize their email address, so it seems like this is a legitimate request from someone you know and love.
The problem? This email isn’t from someone you know. Instead, the email account of a friend or family member has been hacked and scammers are using this email to contact you for money.
If you receive a message like this: Call your friend or family member and ask how they are. If you cannot reach the person in question, check in with shared friends or acquaintances. Is this person abroad? Are they alright? Check in to make sure everyone is well and that you’re not being taken advantage of.
Social Profile Hacking
It’s been said before, and will be said again—check your privacy settings on social media. Whether it’s your personal information on Facebook, photos on Instagram, or location information on Twitter, being aware of how scammers might use this information can protect you in the future.
Scammers frequently look for public profiles, which provide a bevy of personal information (email addresses, locations, places of employment, photos, names of other friends and family). They will then take what they can and “clone” your account, sending friend requests to your friends and family pretending to be you and sometimes even attempting to scam your connections for money. The results can range from annoying to downright dangerous.
Having a nefarious online version of yourself is both infuriating and scary, and it can be very hard to make it go away.
If this happens to you: First, prevention is the best cure, so make sure your social media settings are set to “private” or “friends only,” and don’t accept friend or follow requests from people you don’t know. If it’s too late and your account has already been compromised, seek help from Facebook, Instagram, or the social media entity in question.
Social Media Quizzes
If you’re taking quizzes on Facebook that require you to allow access to your Facebook account by a third party, you’re playing with fire.
While you might be dying to know what color your aura is or what Harry Potter character is your soul mate, passing out your personal information to an unknown entity is a recipe for disaster.
These third party providers of quizzes ask for a great deal of access to your account. Some even go a step further and ask for your cell phone number, which you provide to receive the results of the quiz. The problem? The next month, you receive a charge on your cell phone bill next month for unspecified services.
If this happens to you: Only take quizzes, surveys, or tests from sources you trust that don’t require access to your Facebook account or personal information. If you’ve already granted access to some of these third party quiz companies, you can revoke their permissions on your account by going to your Facebook privacy settings, then Apps Settings, and clicking the little “X” next to the third party apps you’d like to remove.
Beware Hidden URLs
Link-shrinking services like TinyURL are great tools when you’re trying to stay within 140 characters, but they can also obscure what you’re really clicking on.
If you receive a message, post, or email asking you to click a link and you’re not sure where that link leads…think twice. It could be malware or spyware designed to capture your personal information.
As the general public becomes more wary of scammers, phishing has become more sophisticated. No longer can a scammer rely on people clicking on a random email they receive, so it’s now common that you will receive one of these hidden URLs from someone you know.
Often, the email of a friend or family member is hacked, resulting in that person’s contacts receiving a cryptic message containing a shrunken link. The emails often read like, “Can you believe this happened?!” or “OMG, I just had to show you this!” The text is vague, yet familiar, making it hard to tell if the email from your “friend” is legitimate.
If you receive a message like this: It goes without saying, but don’t click the link. Contact your friend or family member and ask them if the link is legitimate. If you can’t verify the information it’s better to be safe than sorry, so no clicking. It’s also a good time to let your friends and family know to be on the lookout for a potentially dangerous email.
While this list is by no means exhaustive, it’s always good to be on alert when you’re online. Keep your eyes open, your mind skeptical, and listen to that gut feeling you have when something or someone feels a little “off.” Chances are your instincts are correct. And, most importantly, always verify the source before you click or provide any personal information.