Over the course of my research into scams, I have read many interesting journal articles, research done by companies such as Microsoft and large-scale research studies commissioned by the Office of Fair Trading (see links below for these and more). There are scams warnings advertised on various websites that purport they are experts on scams, calling themselves ‘experienced scam baiters’. I had to laugh a little at that, to be honest, simply because I see no reason, except from wasting time, in scamming a scammer. It might provide light amusement but the laugh is always on those falling for the same scam. There are scams reported on those websites, emails of scammers exchanged, experiences shared by victims. This is all good, it is important to be aware of different scams out there. It is important to share your experience so that a quick Google search may help someone else but the real trick is to be smarter than a scammer. And I feel scam baiters are just not experienced in providing advice on how to learn to be smarter than a scammer.
So what is my advice? You need to rely on yourself. Yes, yourself. Your intuition, your gut feelings, your intellect. Why? Because scammers invest time and effort into their craft, coming up with new scams all the time. And because, despite of all the warnings, forums and help agencies out there, you are pretty much on your own if you get scammed, so it pays to rely on yourself.
Successful scam relies on the element of surprise, something you can’t Google, something that is not flashing up anywhere. Just have a look at some of the forums, the plethora of scams on offer is both ingenious and deadly. But let’s first unpick some of the advice given to people on such forums.
First of all, most users of such forums report scam emails and the name of the scammer who is contacting them. Perhaps they communicated with this person (on a dating website, or just through another type of scam), exchanged details or photographs and want to warn others. How useful is having the name, email address or even a fake photograph of the scammer? Not very. Unless that particular scammer is not very bright, he or she will have several emails, names and photographs they regularly use for scamming purposes. Even if you reported all of them, one can get a picture from Google and a hotmail email address in a split second and start again.
What would be better advice, better warning then? Know your stuff.
Know the background of the scam. Do check the name of the person who emailed you or whom you are dealing with, but don’t neglect to check the facts of the offer too. If someone is contacting you out of the blue about a job, ask yourself why? Unless you are someone with a niche ability or knowledge, or you are a public figure, why would someone be desperate enough to contact you through a site you belong to and offer you an amazing position that pays 4 times more than what you are currently paid. I am not saying that things like that don’t happen from time to time, but generally if someone is offering a top salary, they are not randomly emailing people they don’t know. Always think about the reason why you would be the one chosen for this offer.
Have you really won a lottery?
Let’s look at the lottery scams or scams that reach your inbox claiming to be from someone who won several millions and wants to share it with you. Don’t look at the email it came from, instead ask yourself if you entered any lotteries? If not, you have no chance of winning the lottery. Or the other type, ‘wealthy lottery winners giving money away’ scam. What would you do if this was you and you wanted to share the money you won with people. Would you sit at the computer, guessing people’s emails, like a creep, and emailing strangers saying you want to give them money? Or would you choose a charity of your choice and donate the money, or perhaps buy your friends and family presents?
Have you ever received an email from PayPal that began without using your name? Such as ‘hello’ or ‘dear friend’ 'dear customer' or simply ‘to whom it may concern’.
Companies sometimes do send general emails but those are rarely about your account being closed down or you going over the overdraft limit. Whatever companies you regularly use online; Ebay, PayPal, your bank etc. will always have security information. Read it, familliarise yourself with it. They often include information on what they will never say in an email, what you should do if you suspect the email not to be genuine and so on.
‘Hello, is it me you’re looking for?’ scams
Another popular scam is a phone call about your computer. Scammer rings you and tells you there is something wrong with your computer. Ask yourself; how do they know this? And even if that is true, what would their motive be for calling you? Kindness? Probably not. Ask them to tell you your name and how they got the information about your computer. This usually leads to them putting the phone down.
In love and war...
The most dangerous scam is a romance scam. Once you invest your emotions into something, it is hard to pull away and you are likely to enter a state of denial at some stage if you fall in love. When you are getting to know someone through the medium such as the Internet, you never know who this person is. Even if they are not out to scam you, they are telling you their version of themselves. This is the version you may be attracted to but it is also a version that can be very far from reality. This is why it is important to meet. Meet up as soon as possible. Meeting a person generates impressions and gut feelings and these are sometimes important in decision-making. If the person turns you down or can’t meet for whatever reason, and they live in the same town, you should give up on that. If they say they live across the globe and this is a reason they can’t meet, think carefully what you want out of the dating experience. If you feel you want to keep a long distance relationship going, keep it light. Space it out a bit. A scammer may realize you will not be easy to scam and may move on. If you like them, instead of giving them money for a plane ticket, offer to visit them instead. If they say they are fighting in a war torn city at present, ask yourself how come they can spend hours on Skype talking to you when legitimate soldiers cannot contact their families in similar situations, sometimes for weeks.
Whatever happens, just stop to ask why? Analyse the situation, not the email it came from, not the name you were given, analyse if what you were told makes sense, if you would do the same in a similar situation. Would you ask a practical stranger for money, even if you were stuck somewhere, or would you call your best friend, your mum, your family in general? Would you, if you had the money, offer a job paying 4 times the going rate for an au pair to someone you found yourself on a free website? Or would go to a professional au pair agency and ask them to source a candidate that is vetted, reference and police checked in order to get value for your money. Generally, would you email strangers telling them about your family, your name and surname, names of your children, all in the hope to attract a good au pair?
You get the point. Yet no one is telling you this, at least I have not come across any advice that points in the direction of teaching people to analyse the offers in a rational way, rather than rely on the reported types of scams. Some scammers are stupid and baiting them is really not such a great skill at all. You should beware of those scammers that cannot be baited, those that are skilled, witty, educated, those that can spot a victim, adapting themselves to each scam and each victim. Being one step ahead of a smart scammer is what you should aspire to as this is the only way to protect yourself, unless you give up the Internet. But even then you are not safe. What do you do when you get a professional roofer, ringing your doorbell, who just happened to be passing your house when he saw that your roof is in a dangerous state? Or a an insurance broker with a really good insurance deal for anything you may need, who has no brochures to leave with you, no T&Cs you can read and no good deals on any other day but the day they just happened to be in the neighborhood.
No one will ever predict all the scams. Scams are evolving fast, they fit the needs, the time, the budget and an emotional state of their victims. It takes a smart person to be a successful scammer. Don’t underestimate them. Learn to think critically and pay attention to all the details you are given. Even that is not foolproof but it is a good start.
Here are some useful links from the real experts
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