Most bad guys who want to hurt you have to find and attack you in person. Not so with scammers, who can reach you through mail, phone, social media, and other remote means. They can’t injure you physically, but they can get you somewhere else it really hurts: your savings. When someone scams money away from you, not only do you lose a resource that helps make your world go ‘round by keeping a roof over your head and food in your mouth, you also get that horrible experience of having your security violated. Makes learning how to defend yourself against those bad guys seem worthwhile too, doesn’t it? It takes just a few simple questions to help you avoid getting scammed, especially around this time of year when a lot of us are already spending more than usual and perhaps tempted by interesting gifting opportunities or worthy-seeming charitable causes.
Does the deal sound too good to be true? If the price is exceptional, there’s a reason for that and it might be because it’s an easier way of separating you from your hard-earned cash. There’s a temptation to jump on a really excellent sale, or to buy immediately when a difficult-to-find item pops up. You don’t want to miss out on the chance to spend less or save more than you had anticipated, or to buy something you didn’t think you’d be able to. Even if you have plenty of money, it’s hard not to want that great deal. That’s precisely when you need to take a step back. Do a little research to see if the price offered is plausible or explainable in any way and if the product you’re buying is genuine (or the service provided by someone qualified). It’s better to purchase from a legitimate source for a little more money than to risk losing all that you spent and having nothing to show for it. The converse is also true: does it seem like you are being asked to pay for something that should be free or cheap? Find out from a trusted source so that you aren’t wasting money on something you shouldn’t have to pay or pay much for.
Are you being pressured to pay quickly? If you are being threatened to act quickly, or told that you can’t share the opportunity with others, it could also be an indication of a scam. These types of schemes flourish in secrecy and speed, and being told you don’t have time to think or talk about them should raise questions about what the person asking you for money is trying to hide. Like offering a discounted price to encourage you to act blindly, these types of tactics try to shut your brain down so that you just hand over cash without question. They want to stop you from thinking by making you afraid of the consequences of any delay, by making you scared to ask someone else for their perspective. That way, they can force you to act before you have the chance to realize that something’s not quite right. Related, if you do pay out and discover later you were cheated, these kinds of bad guys rely on your shamed silence to keep from getting in trouble for what they’ve done to you and to be able to continue their work against other victims. Anyone who is trying to manipulate you into sending money right away is bad news. It’s rare that a legitimate seller or fund-raiser needs so quickly that they can’t wait a few hours, days, or even weeks. Even debt collectors or government agents should provide proof and allow you to confirm any amounts you might owe.
Are you being asked to hand over your dollars in a way that makes sense? Check out the website or other mechanism being used to collect your money. Is it a known e-retailer, charity, or crowd-funding site? Double check the URL and go so far as to manually type in the address, click through from a site you already know you can trust, or even call or visit their physical location if they have one. If payment is through something like PayPal, Venmo, or Cash App, and especially if you are asked to send as “Friends and Family,” ask why and be skeptical about the answer. It could be a perfectly legitimate passing of the hat for a group gift or a real side gig that someone wants to keep relatively quiet, or it could be an attempt to abscond with your money. Similarly, someone trying to accept payment in the form of gift cards and other cash-like substitutes instead of a more standard or traceable form can also be a red flag. Think hard about whether the way you’re being asked to hand over your money makes sense for the transaction you’re making. Vendors at a community art or bake sale asking for electronic app payment? Almost certainly good to go. Some dude on Marketplace wanting you to send electronic payment, sight unseen and in advance, for an in-demand, trendy gift item? Maybe less so without solid assurances that they have it and are getting it to you.
Scammers might not mug you at gunpoint or by threatening to beat you up, and they might not sneak into your home or car to steal your possessions or even hack into your bank account to take your money. They still try to get your money though, and they add insult to injury because they succeed by manipulating you into handing it over under false pretenses. Fortunately, we can defend ourselves against them using simple precautions, just like we can often defeat more traditional types of bad guys.