Many people laugh at scams. We see an email from a mysterious stranger that’s full of odd phrases and terrible misspellings, and we instantly share it on social media. “The Prince of Nigeria wants to send me bars and bars of gold!” we write, adding a laughing emoji. “Should I take it?”
But not all scams are so easy to spot. Scammers 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 this era of rampant data theft and cybercrime, 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.
Related: Click here to learn just how many people have been targeted by telephone scams. (The percentage is shocking.)
Here are some common scams and ways to defend yourself against them. You’ll want to share this know-how with 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 people who are unemployed or underpaid and eager for a change of pace. No matter what the location or time of year, scammers find needy victims with bills to pay.
This year, I’ve noticed a rise in two different types of job-related scams that 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 a check that’s made out to you for $500 or so. (That should be a red flag. Why would they pay you before you start working? Reputable companies don't do that.) Then the scammers call or email you to say the mailed check was a mistake, and would you wire the funds back to them? If you fall for it, their bad check won't cover the funds. 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. 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 may call you or email you or post a vacation package on Facebook and then 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. 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 start with someone contacting you, or by you responding to an ad that you see online. The scammers say they're selling tickets for a hot show or a band you've been following for years. They excitedly tell you about the venue and the great value you're getting, because they’ve discounted the price.
When they ask you to wire money or submit credit card information, you may not even know it’s a hoax. But tickets can be reproduced easily with the right gear. It may not be until you’re turned away at the event that you discover the tickets were fake and you got taken.
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 verbally quote a number, 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 the Better Business Bureau — BBB.org — to see if the moving company is a reputable business.
Then have the movers come to your house and give you a final estimate before you move.
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 you doubt the 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 collection 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 if the 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 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. Or an insurance company may have issued you a refund on a policy but couldn't find you. Or 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!
How else can you protect yourself from thieves? Be sure to listen to 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.
Learn about all the latest technology on the Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show. Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com.