Mar 11, 2024

How to Spot Scams Online and IRL

how to spot scams

Scams are on the rise.

Just last week, Western Union settled with the Department Of Justice and Federal Trade Commission, agreeing to pay $586 million to victims of fraud after admitting to anti-money laundering and consumer fraud violations which affected tens of thousands of customers. Meanwhile, in Florida, five people were burglarized in a rash of "distraction scams" targeting elderly people in Tampa Bay.

Although senior citizens are especially vulnerable to fraud and financial exploitation, anyone can fall victim to a scam. Con artists target everyone, and their schemes are only getting more sophisticated. In fact, Consumer Reports found that millennials are more likely to lose money to phone scams, as scammers have switched from ringing landlines to calling and texting mobile phones.

Cybercrime cost Americans $800 million in 2014, according to Newsweek, and online fraud continues to increase at an alarming rate.

The good news is that while technology has facilitated the expansion of scams, it also allows for the quick spread of alerts about new schemes and tips on how to stay safe.

Here’s what to you need to know to spot scams and prevent being a victim of fraud.

How to Avoid Online Scams

Avoid sketchy sites. When shopping online, stick to well-designed, legitimate looking websites. Check to make sure that the site is secure by looking at the url (it should start with “https”) or for a lock icon in your browser’s address bar. Be suspicious of sites with poor design, or ones that are overrun by pop-ups. It’s always best to buy from big name retailers and use familiar payment systems such as Paypal.

Shop from your ‘top. Although these days it’s possible to do anything from your phone on-the-go, consider doing your online shopping on your desktop or laptop computer. It’s best to avoid entering your payment information on your phone, as it lacks anti-virus protection. If you do shop from your phone, do so from a big retailers’ app, as these usually provide more security.

Keep phishers fishin’. Beware of phishing scams, the common fraudulent practice of fake emails that claim to be from well-known companies in order to trick people into divulging personal information. Be wary of any emails you aren’t expecting, and learn to spot a fake. Some warning signs are:

  • Impersonal, generic greetings
  • Poor design quality
  • Poor grammar and spelling
  • Overly official or formal language
  • Sent from vague or slightly off domain names, like or with a capital “i” instead of an “l”.
  • Alarmist language creating a sense of urgency

Never click on hyperlinks or open attachments from emails you’re not expecting, as they could be dangerous and lead you to a spoof site or contain ransomware. Even if you think the email is safe, hover over any links to make sure the URL is to the trustworthy site you expect it to take you. Never share personal info such as credit card numbers or passwords over email.

Use strong passwords. Speaking of passwords, make sure yours are safe. Data breaches are also on the rise and have put billions of accounts at risk. That means using a different password for every website. They should be long and difficult to guess. The safest way is to use a password manager to generate and automatically add unique passwords for all logins.

Be stingy with your info. Don’t give out sensitive information, like your social security, to just anyone. Take a minute to think it through before you give out your email, name, address, or any personal information to apps and companies in return for discounts or free goods.

Resist temptation. You might be curious to find out who’s contacting you, but it’s best not to open suspicious emails, calls, or even texts. These could also lead to spoof sites or malicious software.

Do a privacy tune-up. Check your privacy settings on social media. Don’t put too much personal info online in general. People can use it to create a fake identity with your information or target you with a scam.

Password-protected or bust. Protect your own wifi with a password and avoid using public computers or WiFi hotspots, especially to access online banking or provide personal information.

How to Steer Clear of Fraud IRL

Stay on guard. People can try to swindle you out of money in person, too. Someone could knock on your door with a ruse or a sales pitch, strike up a conversation in public, or even set a meeting with you at work with a questionable business proposition. If someone is pitching you something too good to be true, it probably is. Talk it over with someone you trust or an expert before investing in anything.

Do your research. A Google search could prevent you from losing money. Search for the name of the company or person making you an offer plus “review,” “complaint,” and “scam.” It’s also useful to search for a phrase that describes your situation, like “IRS phone call.” Even caller ID can be faked! A name or number might not be real so it’s good to do some research.

Don’t pay upfront. A lot of scams involve asking you to pay for something in advance in return for something later, like debt relief, mortgage assistance, or a job. Other schemes promise a prize after a tax or fee payment. Beware, these con artists will take your money and run.

Don’t deposit checks, either. Other scams ask you to deposit a check in return for a wire. But, even if the bank makes the money available to you within days by law, once they uncover it’s a fake check you’ll be responsible for repaying the bank.

Stick with plastic. If possible, pay for things with your credit card. As evidenced by the Western Union lawsuit, consumers have a very hard time getting their money back when they use wire services. Credit cards, on the other hand, have significant fraud protection built in. Same goes for prepaid and reloadable cards like MoneyPak or Vanilla gift cards. Legitimate businesses will not require you to use these payment methods.

Hang up on robocalls. These recorded sales pitches are illegal. (If you’ve been harassed by robocalls - we can help. You may be able to obtain up to $1,500 for each call). Don’t press one if the recording says it will remove you from their list, sometimes that just ensures they’ll keep calling you. Just hang up. If you get a call from an unknown number, you can search phone numbers online to see if people have previously reported scams from that number. If anyone calls asking for money or personal information, hang up. You can always call back to a number you know is safe.

Stay informed. Keep up with local news to hear about any scammers targeting your area and subscribe to our consumer alerts.

Fell For Fraud?

It happens to everyone eventually. Curiosity, compassion, and optimism are a good thing - but sometimes people take advantage. If you’ve been the target of a scam and lost money, our attorneys may be able to help. Fill out our free and confidential case evaluation form to find out if you have a case.