Unscrupulous schemers and scammers have become trickier and harder to spot than ever, thanks to more sophisticated marketing and the availability of online information. But don’t worry: Your pocket can’t be picked without some participation by you. If you know what to watch out for and how to protect yourself, you can keep your hard-earned money safe. Here, the top ten financial fleecing tricks to watch out for.
1. “You’ve got mail”: Internet identity phishing
How it works You check your e-mail and see a notice from UPS, eBay, PayPal, the IRS, your bank, or any other official-sounding financial entity. It says your payment has been refunded, your account is due, your payment didn’t go through, or — most commonly — your account information needs updating. What’s going on? Sophisticated identity thieves send carefully disguised e-mail solicitations with hopes of peering into your computer to obtain personal information. What’s really scary is that in some cases, you don’t even have to click on the link provided; simply opening the email gives the scammers the window of opportunity they need.
How to protect yourself Don’t open any e-mail that references payments or other financial transactions.
First, look at the e-mail address it’s coming from to make sure it’s identical to the real thing. Take a close look at the subject line of the e-mail: the grammar, the font, the exact URL referenced. If it looks suspicious, delete it.
Look to see if the e-mail uses your real name. In most cases, the “phisherman” has your e-mail address but no other information, whereas if this were really from your bank or the IRS or whoever, they’d know your name, and possibly reference your account number or other identifying information. If not, delete it.
If you’ve already opened the e-mail before you realize it’s suspicious, don’t click on the link that it contains. Instead, check the link by opening a separate browser window on your desktop and going to the official website in question to see what the real URL is and whether the two match up. “Yes, it takes a while, but better than losing your life savings or having your credit ruined,” says Alexis A. Moore, founder of Survivors in Action, a group that provides education about Internet and record-keeping security. If things look fishy, change the passwords on your online accounts, freeze any credit cards you’re concerned about, and start watching your credit report to see if identity theft has occurred.
2. Pay-to-borrow loan scams
How it works You’re told you can borrow money (usually despite having a low credit rating or other impediment to a normal loan). But there are up-front fees involved, often running to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The scam, says Reno, Nevada-based financial advisor Todd Tresidder: “The loan never comes through, and the fees you paid disappear along with the representative or company that offered the loan.
How to protect yourself Remember that normal loans don’t require fees to be paid at the beginning of the application process. In fact, it’s against the law for a business to request up-front fees for loans, according to the Better Business Bureau.
Watch out for alternative terms. Smart scammers might use terms like insurance, taxes, or processing fees. No matter what term is used, an advance payment by any name is illegal.
Beware of false promises. No legitimate lender can guarantee you’ll get a loan before you even apply. If someone promises you a loan before you’ve submitted an application, you can bet it’s not on the level.
Trusted groups and big pay-offs
3. Affinity fraud
How it works The scammer usually starts by enrolling a trusted, leading member of the group — a church or community leader, for example. “The leader unwittingly promotes the fraud to the congregation or group with the good intention of benefiting the church or organization,” Tresidder says. Sadly, this type of fraud tends to move ahead rapidly with a type of “group think” — people join in because many other people they know are joining in and they don’t want to be left behind. Communities and congregations with large numbers of seniors are frequently the target of this type of scam, because scammers know seniors have a lifetime of savings set aside for retirement.
How to protect yourself Always be suspicious — or at least more alert — when solicited for money, even by people you trust and admire.
Treat all investments with the same skepticism, no matter who’s representing them. “Just because you learn about an investment through a reputable channel doesn’t mean the investment itself is legitimate,” says Tresidder.
Watch to see if the trusted authority central in selling the investment seems to be influenced by an outside counselor or advisor.
If a lot of seniors are involved in the investing project, consider that an additional red flag.
4. Investment fraud: The big payoff
How it works You get a phone call from a stranger, a pitch over lunch from a colleague, or an offer from a trusted financial advisor to invest in something that promises unrealistic returns.
How to protect yourself Never trust anyone who promises a high return in a short period of time.
“When someone promises higher returns than the market, think of it as bait designed to hook you,” says Pat Huddleston, a lawyer and CEO of Investor’s Watchdog, an investor protection fi rm.
Never invest in an investment that you don’t fully understand; you won’t be able to accurately assess the risks or identify a scam if you’re in over your head.
Avoid situations that require you to place complete trust in a broker or investment adviser. “The temptation of misconduct is too great and the regulatory structure too loose,” Huddleston says.
Beware independent brokers who appear to be operating as sole agents; you want your investment account to be held with an independent, third-party custodian that’s regulated and monitored by regulatory agencies.
Big news and credit fixes
5. Investments torn from the headlines
How it works An investment advisor describes an investment in a new technology designed to solve an important current problem, often an issue that’s a hot topic in the news, such as the need for alternative fuels. The advisor may show you a portfolio of news clippings about a scientific or technological topic.
“Headlines give scams what they most need: credibility,” says Pat Huddleston, CEO of Investor’s Watchdog. “Choosing a story in the news — green energy or healthcare industry innovations, for example — as the starting point gives the scam artist’s pitch instant credibility. You know of the need for what the company can do because you’ve seen that need covered in the press.”
How to protect yourself If it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is.
Be wary of crisis-du-jour investments. “When the dollar was bottoming out, currency trading scams surged. When gas cost more than $4 per gallon, people rushed into oil and gas scams,” Huddleston says. Right now? Look for scams tied to investment in companies that make cars that run on something besides gasoline, or green energy companies like wind, solar, and nuclear power.
Never invest in any such company without performing a thorough investigation through a professional investor-protection company.
6. Credit repair scams
How it works A company promises they have an “in” with the credit bureaus or know some secret regulation that allows them to clean up your credit. (No such thing exists.) Or they promise to get you a new, clean credit record; this may involve applying for a new taxpayer identification number or employer identification number — a felony offense. Or they promise that they’ll help you convince a creditor that you don’t really owe the debts.
In this case what typically happens is the fraudulent credit repair service bombards the credit card companies and credit bureaus with paperwork and procedural requests, which can result in debts being listed as “disputed.” While the disputes are ongoing, the charges may be temporarily removed, at which point the scamming company shows you the “clean” record to prove that the debts were cleared. But they weren’t, and by the time the debts are relisted on your record, the company is long gone. Meanwhile, if you’ve paid up front, you’re out a lot of money.
How to protect yourself Look into repairing your credit yourself; there’s nothing a credit repair company can do that you can’t do yourself, although it can be time-consuming. And if you really want to engage a service, choose carefully:
Make sure you’re given a contract to sign, and an official document called “Consumer Credit File Rights Under State and Federal Law,” which advises you of all your rights. If you don’t get those things, something’s fishy.
Take plenty of time to read the contract and make sure you understand it before signing it. Among other things, the contract should spell out the services to be performed, the dates ofservice, and — most important — how much you’re going to be charged for the credit repair services you’re contracting for.
There should also be a statement letting you know that you have three days in which to cancel the contract; if not, it’s not a valid contract.
The biggest red flag of all: an offer to help do something dishonest. If the information on your credit report is accurate and is less than seven years old, beware anyone who tells you they can remove it. They’re offering to do something dishonest, so you know they’re not on the level.
Beware any demand to pay up front. Legitimate credit repair services can’t require you to pay until they’ve completed providing their services.
Medical mayhem and dodgy homework
7. Medical identity theft
How it works Someone gains access to your personal information — by stealing paperwork out of your recycling bin, posing as someone legitimate on the phone, or finding other ways to get your health insurance ID number and other data — then quickly racks up medical charges, draining your medical benefits. You end up saddled with co-pays and percentage-based fees for services you never received, while your insurance company or Medicare is hit with huge charges.
An additional side-effect of this type of fraud is that your medical information ends up mixed up with that of the patient who fraudulently used your coverage. The result can be serious errors and misdiagnoses and a lengthy and frustrating process of cleaning up your medical records.
How to protect yourself Don’t provide your medical insurance information to anyone, either over the phone or in person, no matter how legitimate-sounding the request, unless you’re absolutely sure the information is going to your actual provider, says Alexis A. Moore, who founded Survivors in Action.
Review your health insurance statements and medical bills carefully as soon as they come, and call if you see any charges you don’t understand.
If you suddenly begin receiving calls from a collection agency citing unpaid medical bills, call your health insurance provider and ask them to check your records.
Make sure you review each year what’s called a “benefits request” statement from your insurance company, which lists all the health insurance benefits that were paid out on your behalf during the previous year.
8. Work-at-home scams
How it works You’ve seen the ads: “Be your own boss! Earn thousands of dollars a month working from home! Become part of one of America’s fastest-growing industries!” But as always, if it sounds amazing, there has to be a catch. In this case, the catch is that these jobs — which can be anything from processing online rebates to medical billing to home craft assembly — require “starter kits,” certifications or other credentials, and software or equipment that cost money before you start, money you’re promised you’ll make back within the first weeks of work. In the meantime, you’re asked to incur other start-up costs, such as buying supplies, placing ads in newspapers, or working without pay until the payments begin flowing in.
The second catch: You’re usually asked to provide identifying information and a credit card number, which the scammer may continue to charge after processing the initial fees.
How to protect yourself Before signing on, check the company out with your state Attorney General, Consumer Protection Agency, or Better Business Bureau. There are real, legitimate work-at-home gigs, but they’re more rare than the fake ones.
Ask lots of questions, such as when and how you’ll be paid, by whom, and exactly what costs will be incurred up front.
Be particularly wary of work-at-home gigs that involve medical billing; these tend to have the highest up-front costs, and they require you to find your own clients, a tough thing to do when most doctors contract for billing with large, reputable firms.
Car commerce and high-rate CDs
9. Online car-buying schemes
How it works The sites offer used cars at bargain-basement prices, usually claiming the cars have been repossessed when people didn’t make their payments. The phony websites use the name, address, and contact info for a real dealer, often one that’s respected in the community. In many cases, there are other legitimizing touches, such as a link to Carfax. However, the “dealer” communicates only via e-mail, and when you input your information, you’re instructed to make a “deposit” payment by wire transfer. The balance of payment is supposedly due upon delivery of the car – which, of course, never happens.
How to protect yourself Never engage in any transaction that requires money to be sent by wire transfer. That in itself is a major red flag, experts say. Money-grams can be picked up and cashed by anyone with the correct ID and are untraceable once cashed. Also:
Before you make any major purchase that requires delivery, pick up the phone and call until you get a real human being on the other end.
Check out the company with your state attorney general’s office, Better Business Bureau, or consumer protection agency.
10. High-return CDs
How it works So-called independent “deposit brokers” claim that they’ve negotiated a higher rate of interest for CDs by bringing a certain number of deposits to a financial institution. While there are legitimate deposit brokers out there, this is an area rife with fraud, because it’s all too easy to sell CDs that don’t actually exist. Unsuspecting customers are lured with the name of a bank that sounds legitimate; often it’s an amalgamation of respected bank names. (One that was recently busted took the name “Chase Trust Bank.”) The investment documents are fake, the bank is usually out of state, and the scammers send out fake account distribution statements to encourage continued investment.
How to protect yourself Before investing in any bank account, confirm that it’s legit by contacting the institution itself; don’t just take a broker’s word for it.
Make sure the bank has an actual physical address and phone number. Don’t rely on a website for this information, since it can be faked. Instead, find the address and phone number on the contractual paperwork provided and call. Ask to speak to a representative; an outgoing recording is not sufficient verification.
Check if the bank is FDIC-insured. A foolproof way of vetting fraud is to look up any bank you’re thinking of using in the FDIC’s directory of registered and insured banks. The FDIC’s website is not exactly user-friendly, but if you look on the right side of the home page you’ll see a box called Consumer Resources. It contains a rotating list of tips, one of which is called “Bank Find.” Fill in the name, address, and city of the bank you want to know about, and if it’s protected by the FDIC, it will come up with a listing.