What you don’t know won’t hurt you. Yeah, ok. Sure. Remaining uninformed means you don’t have to worry, right? Wrong! Not knowing about how to avoid online scams will hurt you. And that hurt/harm can be deep and sometimes irreparable.
Online Scammers Are Smooth Criminals
What’s most frustrating and most despicable are online donation scams that promise to help the needy, suffering children, or disaster victims. It’s a very ugly business but it’s thriving, because hustlers use trickery and lies to appeal to the angels of our nature—to the best in us. And even the least naive of us can fall prey. Scammers can be that good.
It happened to Kit, my super-smart downstairs neighbor, who has so very little money and is raising three grandchildren. It was early September when she got a call from a genuine and kind-sounding volunteer collecting for victims of a catastrophic and devastating natural disaster. They chatted for a minute and found they had a lot in common. Turns out, it wasn’t until after the call that Kit realized the woman had asked all the questions, in a casual way, and would agree with whatever Kit said: “I’m a grandparent, too,” the woman told Kit. “Me, too,” she said. “I’m like you, working to make ends meet,” but quickly added something to the effect of “but we all have to do our part, so I volunteer,” saying she could not afford to donate money, but could donate her time manning phones. She told Kit that was “the least I can do.”
She sounded authentic; Kit told me she never thought for a moment the woman was a scammer. It never even occurred to her. So Kit, who I know has very little money, ended up giving the woman her debit card info and a $50 donation. Luckily, Kit’s bank’s fraud people caught the shady transaction and she got her money back. But she said she “felt so dumb.”
Not dumb; hustled and scammed by con artists who are very, very good at what they do.
Online scammers operate 24-7 globally—and though federal regulatory agencies and financial institutions usually catch up to the bad guys, for many of us it’s often too late. Internet shysters and grifters are expert at preying on folks. And here’s the thing: until you know how to spot those sneak thieves, you can still be robbed and victimized. Some of the most common:
- Pop-up warnings: click here or else.
- Scams about finding romance and love.
- Humanitarian scams where you think you’re giving to homeless children, victims of natural disasters, victims of mass shootings, domestic violence victims, and similar horrors—but you discover you’re only filling the coffers of criminals. It’s loathsome but it happens every day.
- And there are other scams that sound legit—and often scary—like a fake attorney calling about some long-forgotten debt you can “pay now” or get hauled into court.
They’re all lying. The U. S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a running tally of scams being perpetrated regularly. 
Scam Schemes: Dating Sites, “Free” Credit Reports, and Virus Threats
Scammers use love, money, and fear to get you. Safewise.com says three common scams that people fall prey to are fake dating profiles where folks have been robbed of millions, bogus credit reporting sites looking to get your credit card and banking information, and website pop-ups that warn of dangerous viruses infecting your computer, playing into people’s fears. 
How About a Little Romance (and Your Social Security Number)?
Con artists on dating sites excel in a particularly cruel practice; folks looking for romance and getting conned. According to a Pew Research Center study, almost 30 percent of people 18 to 24 use online dating, and more than 12 percent of people my age—55 to 64. 
The numbers tripled and doubled, respectively, in the last few years. It’s a huge business; 15 percent of all adults in the United States have used a site like Match.com—that’s roughly 30 million people who have tried a dating site. If even just 1 percent get conned, that’s 300,000 people. 
So what does a dating scam look like? Some call it “catfishing.” A fake profile to lure you, romance you, and then—when the hooks are firmly in—ask for money.
According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), which provides the public with a means of reporting Internet-facilitated crimes, romance scams—also called confidence fraud—result in the highest amount of financial losses to victims when compared to other online crimes. In 2016, almost 15,000 complaints categorized as romance scams or confidence fraud were reported to IC3 (nearly 2,500 more than the previous year), and the losses associated with those complaints exceeded $230 million. 
And worse even, follow-up scams are cunning and common. 
It’s a nasty business, but shouldn’t stop you from online dating; just do your homework!
First, use a reputable site. And then really check out a potential paramour’s profile including pictures, their likes, and their values, and then, scour their social media accounts before committing to any type of relationship, be it platonic or more. And, if your new friend asks for a dime or for any personal or financial information—run. If the profile reads like your dream guy or gal and their photo looks too good to be true, it probably is. 
Worried About Your Credit? Click for Free Credit Check!
These offers show up on websites, via e-mail, or are often found on social media sites. First, they get you to feel anxious about your credit, and then offer solace: no worries, click here for your free credit report so you’ll have peace of mind. Free sounds good, but in order for you to actually get that “free” report, they’ll need your vital personal and financial information, including your social security number and your banking info. It’s a scam. You give up that data and you may or may not get your free credit report, but now they have your numbers. Meanwhile, your credit report is free—from just one federally-approved website: https://www.usa.gov/credit-reports. 
These predatory scammers don’t use affection, but count on your ignorance. So now you know: don’t click there.
Warning! Suspicious Activity Detected!
The first time I had a virus warning pop-up lock my web browser, I was petrified.
“Warning! Your computer is infected. Click here for your free scan. Hurry before it’s too late!”
All caps, in red with “click here” button or 800-number for help on immediately fixing the threat. They want you to download “free” software—which, once installed, does the opposite of preventing a virus. It can corrupt your system and in some cases access your stored data. This scam strikes fear, and people like me have clicked and downloaded some nasty stuff. It’s possible that malware or virus warnings are legitimate, but if you have an authentic virus protection software already installed, you’re usually covered. If not, check the Consumer Reports website to find a good one. 
There are plenty more scams out there and new ones being cooked up every day. So how do you stay safe?
Learn How to Outsmart Scammers
The FBI has a long and continuously-updated list of scams to be on the lookout for, because it’s not always easy to spot the bad guys. My advice—and a pretty good rule of thumb—is this: again, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  
First things first. Spotting a fake website created to look legit is important. So, for example, if…
- Anywhere you click in the site leads you back to the same place,
- If the Facebook button leads nowhere,
- Or if you see a bunch of endorsements on the site (usually near the bottom of the home page) from trusted media or magazine sites, but go nowhere when you click on them,
…the site is bogus. Log out immediately.
HighYa.com promises to help you spot a fake website in 30 seconds. 
The promise of something free is alluring. But frankly, it’s usually bull. If a website or an email promises you something for free, it’s likely not only not free, but it could be a fishing expedition for your personal information. Don’t click or respond.
Never make a purchase or give anyone any money through any other method than your own secure, fraud-protected bank card.
Or PayPal, which is what I use. It is connected to my bank and costs nothing; is secure and safe; and I have never had a problem in the 10 years I’ve been paying for online purchases using my PayPal account. Just saying. No plug for them, just truth.
If you’re not sure about your bank’s fraud protection, give them a call or check their website. Chances are your bank or financial institution has some pretty solid fraud safeguards built in. Never, ever wire money or use a one-time credit/debit card—there’s no way to trace those back. Stick with your safe debit or credit card. Just confirm with your financial institution that your cards are protected against fraud. (The very annoying chip we now all seem to have on our debit and credit cards is one of the latest measures banks have taken to safeguard against fraud.)
And this may seem like a no-brainer, but never give out your password(s) to anyone. This is actually a thing; criminals can be clever.
Signing up for FTC scam alerts is a good idea. You’d be amazed at what crooks come up with: fake emails from your utility company with real-looking invoices; a plea for you to wire a donation through Western Union to get money to desperate shooting victims; and lottery and sweepstakes scam emails that look incredibly realistic. But again, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. And if it seems even a little suspicious, it probably is some shady business. 
Stay vigilant, because remember: for every scam that’s busted and shut down, a new one springs up. So get smart and stay smart.