I wish I could help everyone who comes to me with a problem, but I can’t. People get scammed all the time, then want to hire a lawyer to sue the scammer for damages. Is that ever possible? Sure, but most scams these days occur online and are specifically designed to leave the victim without a remedy. Typically, the scammer communicates through technology that conceals his identity, making it impossible to locate his whereabouts to serve him with suit papers. If you are able to trace the scammer, he’s often found in a foreign country outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. Money sent to scammers is often wired to overseas accounts in irreversible transactions. In short, most scam victims will never be able to obtain justice, no matter how many high-priced lawyers are retained to seek it. The best way to protect yourself is to not get scammed in the first place. No one is immune from a clever scam but there are lots of tell-tale signs that everyone should know to minimize the likelihood of falling victim to one. So here I present the top ten ways to know when someone is trying to scam you.
I can’t tell you how many times people have called my office with questions about exactly how many gift cards they’re supposed to buy or exactly which account they need to wire money to in order to obtain the inheritance or other financial benefit “Lee Berlik” told them they’re entitled to. Inevitably, these people received an email from someone using my name and an email address designed to resemble something the scammer presumes I might use, like “LeeBerlikLawOffices@gmail.com” or “AttorneyBerlik@yahoo.com.” Scams often begin with the scammer pretending to be someone or something he isn’t. Scammers might send an email posing as a bank or government entity in an effort to trick the victim into revealing personal financial information or social security numbers. How can you avoid being tricked? Be skeptical. Any time you receive an unusual email asking you to do something (like send money or “update account details”) or provide information of any kind, don’t just look at the name of the supposed sender–examine the actual email address the sender used. Your first clue to a potential scam might be an email coming from a free email provider like Gmail or Yahoo. The Royal Family of Brunei isn’t going to contact you through a Gmail account and neither is the IRS. To ensure you’re dealing with the person the sender claims to be, look up the person’s legitimate contact information yourself; don’t reply to the email you received. For example, if a bank seemingly emails you and asks you to verify certain information, delete the email but log in to your bank’s online portal and see if you have any messages.
2. Getting Charged a Fee to Receive a Benefit
These emails often begin with too-good-to-be-true news that you’ve inherited a large amount of money from a long-lost relative, or you’ve won some kind of contest, or you’re entitled to some other valuable benefit. You know it’s probably a scam, however, when you realize there’s a catch: you have to pay a fee in order to receive the benefit. The explanation might sound legitimate. Perhaps it seems to make logical sense that one should have to pay $10,000 in “inheritance taxes” before being entitled to collect a million-dollar inheritance, or that one should have to pay $1000 in “processing fees” to be able to collect a prize. Don’t fall for it. If you’ve really won a prize, that prize isn’t going to cost you anything. If you are legally entitled to receive some amount of money, you won’t have to pay a fee to collect it.
3. Requests for Money
Anytime anyone asks you for money through an electronic communication like email, text, or messaging app, red flags should go up. First of all, you never really know who you’re dealing with when communicating online (see Impersonation, above). Be aware that the handsome gentleman from Italy you’ve been talking to over Facebook Messenger for the past six months might not be who he says he is. As soon as he writes that he needs you to send him money for some unfortunate predicament he has found himself in, that’s the signal that something is amiss and you might actually be dealing with a criminal who has been carefully planning this online “relationship” for the sole purpose of building up to the moment you might actually be inclined to send him money without suspicion. Your nephew lost his passport and is stuck in India unless you wire him $5000 so he can pay the government fees he needs to pay to get home? Don’t do it. That’s not really your nephew.
4. Requests for Odd Forms of Payment
Suppose the request for money itself doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. Be alarmed, however, if the person you owe money to resists getting paid with a check or credit card. What legitimate organization asks to be paid in gift cards? Or Bitcoin? Or Western Union? There are some exceptions to this rule, but be very cautious any time you are asked to pay money in an unconventional way. Why? These alternate payment methods are difficult to reverse and difficult to trace. That’s why criminals like to use them. If you pay someone in gift cards, you should assume that you will never get that money back.
5. Requests for Personal or Financial Information
These are often disguised as requests to “confirm” information the sender already has. Your bank account has been frozen, an email might tell you, unless you respond with an email confirming your bank account number and social security number. Legitimate organizations will not ask you to provide such information in an unencrypted email message or a phone call. Banks do need your social security number and up-to-date contact information. The way to ensure they have it, though, is not to provide it to an anonymous person calling or emailing you, but to log in to your bank’s website using the username and password you created (and haven’t shared with anyone) and update your information there. That way you know you’re dealing with the right entity and not some imposter.
“Quick! I need you to wire $100,000 to my client’s account or they will lose a $10M government contract! It has to happen today or the deal will fall through! There’s no time to think–go, go, go!” Scammers know that if they convince you that their need for cash is urgent, you will be less likely to carefully consider the ramifications of what you are doing. A similar tactic is to convince you that you have only a limited time to act in order to take advantage of an amazing opportunity, like a sketchy investment.
7. Poor Grammar and Spelling
Scammers usually aren’t among the most educated individuals. Oftentimes, English is not their first language. Consequently, their email scams often reveal themselves simply by the fact that they sound like they were written by a scammer. Some scammers may do this intentionally, figuring that anyone who doesn’t notice the grammar mistakes and responds is probably gullible and can easily be parted from his or her money. Don’t be one of those people! You can immediately delete any email that begins, “Greetings of the day!” (Who says that?) “This email is not spam, but was sent to your based on your eminence in your field.” I don’t think so. Or how about this one: “I am the credit officer for Hang Seng Bank, Hong Kong, during my last auditing I realized an unclaimed Bank Draft of $19.5m, I need an honest person that I can present as the beneficiary to these funds.” Disregard the temptation to engage with this person in the hopes of collecting that $19.5 million. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Delete the email.
8. Requests to Click on Something
Be very cautious anytime you receive an email in which you are told you need to click a link or button or open an attachment. It doesn’t matter what reason is given. The email might say your password has expired and needs to be reset. It might say your bank account has been frozen unless you follow a link to verify it. It might appear completely legitimate, like an email from your mortgage company asking you to click the button below to access your monthly statement. Sometimes these emails are legitimate. Other times, however, they’re not. Clicking on a link sent by a scammer could result in infecting your computer with malware and could result in revealing your personal details to the scammer, who could use those details to accomplish all kinds of mischief.
9. Declarations of Love From Someone You’ve Never Met
Do not send money to anyone you haven’t met in person, no matter how much the person claims to love you. Romance scams are everywhere these days. The scammer creates a fake online dating profile and fishes for wealthy victims. Soon after a connection is established, the scammer invites the victim to communicate off the dating platform. They typically claim to live far away, or are out to sea, and for any variety of reasons cannot meet with you in person any time soon. Still, they start using terms of endearment and professing their supposed love for the victim. Eventually, after trust has been built up, money is requested. They’ll say they need emergency surgery. Or they need to bail a family member out of prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Whatever the reason, they’ll usually say the money is needed urgently (see Urgency, above). These scams can be particularly devastating because the victim not only loses money but loses a person they considered a dear friend.
10. Requests for Remote Access to Your Computer
A pop-up message on your computer suddenly announces that your computer is infected with a virus or some kind of malware. Fear not, it tells you, because help is but a mouse-click away. They can run a scan of your computer to remove the malware and protect your data. All you need to do is grant them remote access to your computer so they can run the necessary diagnostic tests. Don’t believe anyone who tells you this! Legitimate tech-support companies don’t randomly scan your computer and then send you unsolicited email or pop-up messages. What’s really going on here is a scammer is trying to get you to reveal your personal or financial information so he can steal your money or borrow money in your name. If your computer is acting funny and you think you may really have a virus, run a virus check yourself or take your computer to a local computer repair facility.
Once you realize you’re the target of a scam, cut off all communication with the person trying to scam you and consider filing a report with the Virginia Attorney General‘s office.