5 common scams and how to avoid them

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Fraudsters are quick to exploit current events for their own gain, but many schemes do the rounds regardless of what’s making the news. Here are 5 common scams you should look out for.

Cybercriminals can be very creative when it comes to swindling people out of money. They will use a variety of methods to target their victims ranging from impersonating government officials to creating fraudulent online marketplaces. Time and again they have proven to be very adaptable, tailoring their scams around various hot topics.

In recent months, many scams have capitalized on the COVID-19 pandemic, with the schemes impersonating health authorities or offering to sell protective equipment that was in short supply. Up to December 16th, the US Federal Trade Commission had received more than 275,000 reports of fraud and identity theft related to the pandemic, with the victims reporting losing US$211 million in total. These days, there are scams doing the rounds that attempt to cash in on the vaccine rollout.

Make no mistake, however; fraudsters don’t launch their campaigns only in the wake of public health emergencies or global events. The European Commission recently conducted a survey on consumers’ experience with fraud and scams and found that over half of the surveyed Europeans had experienced at least one of the types of scams they were surveyed about in the past two years.

Fraud comes in many forms, and we’ve rounded up 5 common schemes where con men try to trick victims out of their money at pretty much any time of the year and regardless of what’s making the news. We also share a bunch of tips on how you can avoid falling victim to the ploys.

Online shopping and auction scams

One of the many ways scammers like to target unsuspecting victims is through shopping scams. During the pandemic, there has been a surge of these scams especially due to the shortage of certain goods, such as face masks and hand sanitizer. More broadly, however, using a sophisticated design that may come complete with a stolen logo, fraudsters will create a fake retail website masquerading as a reputable vendor, and offer luxury products from famous brands for ridiculously low prices. However, once you make an order, you’ll either receive a counterfeit product or nothing at all, or worse if you shared your credit card info the criminals could rack up charges on it. Fraudsters have also taken to social media and started offering their goods there. Another similar tactic cybercriminals use to defraud victims is the auction scam. The fraudsters will create a bogus auction offering an item they don’t have, or copy a real listing, and once the prospective buyer wins the auction and pays the allotted price, the victim never receives the product.

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To lower the chances of losing money to such scams, you should always do your due diligence and research the vendor you are buying from by looking through their terms of service and privacy and return policies. You should also try to find reviews from other customers who have ordered from the website. If the vendor is asking you to share too much personal information, that should immediately be a red flag. Perhaps the best and safer advice would be just to purchase the product from a reputable vendor with a proven track record.

Money mule scams

Money mule scams can take various forms; however, the goal of the criminals behind them remains the same – to move money from illicit activities without being traced. To achieve their mission, the crooks will target their victims using various means – enticing them through work-from-home jobs, which isn’t an outlandish concept considering the current pandemic situation, or using online dating services to cultivate a relationship. Once they’ve earned the victim’s trust, they will send them money or a check and ask the victim to send it to someone else. There are various outcomes; depending on the scam, you might submit a fake check that will initially clear … but then bounce and your bank will ask you to repay it, or you may be moving money for a criminal element and you might find yourself in legal trouble.

The advice, in this case, is simple: if the remote job in question entails transferring money for the client to purported clients or contractors, don’t accept it; the risks associated with accepting such jobs online far outweigh any benefits. If your online love interest tries to coax you into sending money somewhere on their behalf, you should be suspicious and refuse to do so, especially if you’ve only ever met them online; romance scams abound and some victims blinded by love have ended up losing their life savings and in some cases had to face legal charges.

Lottery and prize-winning scams

Lottery and prize-winning scams, which fall under the advance-fee fraud category, usually start with the potential victim receiving an unsolicited email, phone call, or text message claiming that they won a large sum of money or some kind of a luxury prize. The message will include pressure tactics telling the victim that there is a limited time to respond and claim the prize, but to do that they will have to pay a fee that covers taxes or shipping costs, or other imaginary charges. Since the competition is bogus, the victim won’t receive any of these “winnings” after paying the faux fees.

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Alternatively, the victims may be solicited to take part in a competition or lottery with astronomical prizes and they are told that they can increase their chances by paying for secret tactics or more draws. The only result, however, will be the victim getting scammed out of money. It’s also worth noting that U.S. citizens partaking in foreign lotteries may be violating federal law, so besides losing money to a scam they could also be facing legal trouble.