10 Most Common Scams, and How Not to Get Suckered Into Them

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Sound familiar? Anybody with an email address has likely received something similar to the message above, albeit not quite as crammed with con cliches. But as would-be suckers become increasingly savvy, scammers have become correspondingly more sophisticated and sneaky. Even cautious investors have been duped by get-rich-quick schemes and other too-good-to-be-true offers.

Unless you’re actually friends with a Nigerian aristocrat or an antivirus software engineer, we recommend you avoid these potential leeches.

10. Ponzi schemes

Named for Charles Ponzi, who created a scheme that promised investors huge returns on investments in postal coupons, this classic scam pays “dividends” by using the funds of subsequent investors. You don’t have to be mathematician to deduce that investors eventually get screwed. Just ask anyone who gave money to Bernie Madoff. If someone promises you unbelievably high returns on an unconventional investment, don’t fall for it. Also known as pyramid schemes, but not to be confused with Fonzi schemes, which usually involve waterski-jumping over a confined shark.

9. Help, I’m stranded! (a.k.a. The Grandma Scam)

common scams

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In one of the more despicable scams ever concocted, an elderly woman gets a phone call from a frantic young person who starts with the line: “Hi Grandma, it’s me.” The caller then launches into a sob story about being jailed in some faraway locale and needing an immediate money transfer for bail. Even young, otherwise savvy people have been suckered by a variation of this one after receiving a (hacked) email from a friend’s account, pleading for assistance after running out of money or getting robbed on holiday. It’s usually a scam, but keep in mind that some of your friends might actually be deadbeat mooches.

8. Phishing, vishing and smishing

Phishing scams typically start with an annoying pop-up message interrupting your searches for smut — pardon us, your “academic research into human sexuality” — and trying to trick you into divulging personal data. Usually it’s in the guise of a bank or credit union requesting that you “update” your account information, or else face harsh penalties. Remember: real banks don’t employ pop-up windows, especially poorly spelled ones. Vishing is essentially the same thing, but the scammer, from a contact center, calls your phone instead of springing a pop-up on your computer. In smishing scams, you get a text message demanding you call a toll-free number to address concerns about your financial accounts, and then provide personal information to confirm your identity. Actually worried about your banking information? Go to the bank.

7. Pump & Dump

Not only is this one of the more complicated and nefarious scams, it also has a really funny name. Hehe, “dump.” It involves artificially jacking up the price of a cheaply purchased stock through misleading hype in order to sell it for wicked profit. The bogus hype is often perpetuated through telemarketing and phony press releases designed to convince potential investors that they’re getting in at the ground-floor of a stock that’s about to go through the roof. Once the stock has been sufficiently pumped, it’s dumped (hehe), thereby making a tidy profit for the scammers and leaving other investors with worthless stock. A good tip to remember: the stock market is really, really complicated, so anyone promising dirt-cheap investments with huge returns is probably a jerk.

6. Antivirus software and computer “clean-up”

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A pop-up message warns you that your computer is riddled with viruses, and offers a solution to “clean up” your machine. In some variations, the pop-up preys on your privacy fears by saying it has found porn on your computer, and displays naughty images as proof. Fearing your illicit surfing habits will be exposed, you download the program (sometimes at an exorbitant price) in an effort to rid your hard drive of incriminating evidence. In a nasty bait-and-switch, the supposed solution is itself a nasty piece of spyware and malware that takes over your computer and snoops around in your personal information. Worse yet, you may have to buy some legitimate software to rid your computer of the imposter spyware. A good rule to live by: IGNORE ALL POP-UPS.

5. Advance fee loans

Bad credit? No credit? No problem! There are plenty of people out there willing to make your situation even worse! These supposed money lenders promise to give you a whackload of cash, as long as you pay an upfront fee. You pay the fee, you wait, the loan never comes, facepalm. If a fancypants bank with a vault full of cash won’t give you a loan, chances are the guy on Craigslist won’t really give you one either. A handy way to test the authenticity of an offer: ask the loan company to take the amount of their fee off of the total amount of the loan that was promised you. We bet they won’t.

4. Miracle weight loss, free psychic readings & counseling, crystal healing, magnetic balancing, new age yadda yadda…

Weight loss scam

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Every year, consumers pour billions and billions of dollars into fad diets, “miracle” cures, psychic horoscope mumbo-jumbo and countless other empty promises offering easy solutions to difficult problems. But people just keep getting fatter. So-called psychics continually fail to predict anything meaningful or scientifically testable. Magnetic bracelets still achieve nothing apart from making those who wear them look goofy. If a new product or service has the word “miracle” associated with it, that’s probably because there’s precious little science associated with it.

3. Hot foreign women

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So a leggy Russian blonde named Olga stumbled across your profile online and she wants to get to know you better. How nice! Pretty soon she’s sending you photos of herself in various states of undress. Even nicer!

The only problem is that Olga the leggy blonde is probably closer to Olaf the bald gargoyle. By the time you realize this distinction, you’ve sent money to help Olga out of debt, or even paid her supposed airfare to come visit. Avoid this scam by keeping in mind that hot foreign women probably don’t want to meet you. If they really do, please share your secret with the rest of us.

2. Phony disaster relief

This one’s just pure evil. Following a natural disaster or other high-profile tragedy, an email arrives in your inbox pleading for donations to a relief fund. Since you’re a kind, compassionate person, you send some dollars and bask in altruistic self-satisfaction, blissfully unaware that your money has gone directly to a subhuman scuzzbucket capitalizing on the compassion of others. Want to help the victims of a disaster? Contact the Red Cross or other relief organizations directly rather than clicking on a pop-up ad.

1. The Nigerian Scam

419 scam

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A true classic. Although there are many variations to this old gem, the basic premise is always the same: a Nigerian claiming to have access to great wealth needs a foreign bank account in which to deposit millions of dollars, and he has selected you! Forged documents are sometimes provided to give the transaction an air of legitimacy. In order to receive a substantial cut of the money, all you have to do is pay a fee (or bribe) to keep the wheels moving. Nicknamed the 419 scam (for the section of the Nigerian criminal code that forbids it), the scam actually originated centuries ago in Europe. Amazingly, it still fools people all the time (and, in extreme cases, victims have actually flown to Africa to complete the deal, only to be ransomed or killed). A word of advice: avoid any offers of easy riches from Nigerian strangers (or strangers in general), especially if the offer is WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS AND SPELED POORELY.

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