Many people laugh at scams. We see an email from a mysterious stranger. The note is full of odd phrases and terrible misspellings. We instantly share it on social media. “The Prince of Nigeria wants to send me bars and bars of gold!” we write, along with laughing emoji. “Should I take it?”
But not all scams are so easy to spot. Spammers get more sinister every day, and they use real-sounding email addresses, personal data, well-phrased letters, and actual corporate logos to lure their victims. The savviest con artists work remotely, coaxing money out of people they’ve never met in person.
In this era of rampant data theft and cyber-crime, it’s more important than ever to be aware of swindlers’ stories because the effects can be felt for months or years. Most cons want to score fast money, but you’ll want to protect all your information from fraud, not just your credit numbers and bank accounts.
Here are some common scams and ways to defend yourself against them. You’ll want to share this know-how with your family members and friends on social media. It’s so easy to be taken by the swindlers.
1. Job scam
Some people joke about being “between jobs,” but there’s nothing funny about unemployment. Looking for a new job is stressful, and as the weeks turn into months, you may jump at any opportunity, no matter how dubious or grim.
Scammers know this, and they prey on desperate people. They send emails with headings like, “Your Résumé” or “Work From Home Job.” At first, these sound like exciting opportunities. Can you really make $1,200 a week sitting on your couch?
Employment scams are common, and you don’t have to be jobless to find their offers enticing. Many of their targets are the unemployed or underpaid eager for a change of pace. No matter what the location or time of year, scammers find a needy victim with bills to pay.
This year, I’ve noticed a rise in two different types of job-related scams. These can look very convincing if you don’t know how to watch out for them.
Mailed Check: In this scam, you apply for a job and get a response. Your potential employer mails you a check. It'll be made out to you for $500 or so. Of course, that should be a red flag. Why would they pay you before you start working?
Reputable companies won't do that. But scammers will call you or email you to say the mailed check was their mistake. They ask you to wire the funds back to them. If you fall for it, their bad check won't cover the funds so that the money will come out of your bank account.
Upfront Fees: Some fake companies will require an “activation fee,” or even upfront costs for “training” and “materials.” If you’re dying for work, you might convince yourself that this is normal because you need to “spend money to make money.” Don’t rationalize. Legitimate employers should not require fees.
2. Vacation scam
Many Americans get morose about vacations. They don’t have much time off, travel is expensive and complicated, and they’ll only return to mountains of unfinished work, so why bother?
So when you receive an email about an all-expenses-paid vacation package to Hawaii, you may do a double-take. Did you win some sweepstakes? Have you truly been randomly selected? Is this hotel handing out astonishing promotions?
Yes, it’s possible to win a vacation, but if you don’t remember entering a contest, run an online check. If you’ve never heard of the company offering you round-trip flights and luxury resorts, be skeptical. In this case, scammers will initiate contact with you. They may call you, send you an email or post a vacation package on Facebook. Then they’ll ask for personal data, like a credit card number to “hold the reservation.”
Never give this information away unless you know for a fact that the company is legitimate. In the meantime, vacations are healthy and life-affirming, but they are best handled on your own or through a respected travel agency.
3. Concert and theater scams
Similar to vacation scams, these scams start with someone contacting you, or you respond to an advertisement that you see posted online. The scammer says they're selling tickets for a band you've been following for years or a hot show. They'll excitedly tell you about the venue and the great value you're getting.
The tickets aren’t free, but they are theoretically discounted. Once they ask you to wire money or submit credit card information, you may not even know it’s a hoax. Tickets can be easy to reproduce with the right gear. You may not know you’ve been taken until you’re turned away at the event because the tickets were fake.
4. Moving scam
Late summer is one of the busiest times of year to move into a new home. Whether you’re a student switching apartments or a parent moving to a better school district, you’ll probably find yourself migrating on a sunny weekend in August.
Fake moving companies may call you, or drop you an email, or leave a flyer on your doorstep. In the ugliest situations, the company will quote a number verbally, move you into your new home, and then demand far more money than you expected. There are some cases of “movers” packing all your worldly possessions into a truck and then driving off with it.
Do not fall for this scam. Most moving companies will offer to come to your home to see how much furniture they’ll need to move. They will give you a written estimate. They are bonded and have insurance. You get the point.
Here's how to stay safe: Check BBB.org to see if the moving company is a reputable business. Then, have the movers come to your house before the move. Ask them for a final estimate before you pay.
5. Owed money scam
Everybody loves automatic payments because they save time writing checks or looking up charges. But as the years wear on, you may have forgotten to pay up. Cards expire, payments fail to go through, and we forget about them. We may even miscalculate our taxes, resulting in a bill and monthly fine.
So when we receive a letter in the mail marked “Urgent: Payment Requested,” we often think we’ve done something wrong. Did you forget to pay a cable bill in 2007, and should you send a check for $72.89 now? The information is so specific, why should doubt the letter’s sender? The last thing you want is a collections agency on your tail, so why not just pay the fee and get it over with?
In this case, you should make sure the collector is real. It is perfectly reasonable to receive a letter from a collections agency, especially if you’ve moved a lot or are forgetful about paperwork. But before you send any money, spend a few minutes to see whether this company is legit.
Speaking of money, there is one legitimate way you may get money back that you totally forgot about.
Bonus: No scam! Find your unclaimed money
Right now, there's an estimated $41.7 billion currently held in government unclaimed property programs, and some of that unclaimed money could be yours. Maybe you forgot to get that deposit back from the electric utility when you rented your first apartment. An insurance company may have issued you a refund on a policy but couldn't find you. You might have been enrolled in a pension plan that was discontinued.
In addition to utility refunds and insurance payments, unclaimed property includes abandoned savings or checking accounts, stocks, uncashed dividends or payroll checks, refunds, traveler's checks, trust distributions, unredeemed money orders or gift certificates (in some states), annuities, certificates of deposit, customer overpayments, mineral royalty payments and contents of safe deposit boxes. Whew!
Related: 7 ways to find unclaimed money
How else can you protect yourself from thieves? Be sure to listen or download my podcasts, or click here to find it on your local radio station. You can listen to the Kim Komando Show on your phone, tablet or computer. From buying advice to digital life issues, click here for my free podcasts.