How to Protect Yourself From the Top 10 Frauds and Scams
Unscrupulous schemers and scammers have become trickier and harder to spot than ever, thanks to more sophisticated marketing and the availability of online information. But don't worry: Your pocket can't be picked without some participation by you. If you know what to watch out for and how to protect yourself, you can keep your hard-earned money safe. Here, the top ten financial fleecing tricks to watch out for.
1. "You've got mail": Internet identity phishing
How it works: You check your e-mail and see a notice from UPS, eBay, PayPal, the IRS, your bank, or any other official-sounding financial entity. It says your payment has been refunded, your account is due, your payment didn't go through, or -- most commonly -- your account information needs updating. What's going on? Sophisticated identity thieves send carefully disguised e-mail solicitations with hopes of peering into your computer to obtain personal information. What's really scary is that in some cases, you don't even have to click on the link provided; simply opening the email gives the scammers the window of opportunity they need.
How to protect yourself: Don't open any e-mail that references payments or other financial transactions.
First, look at the e-mail address it's coming from to make sure it's identical to the real thing. Take a close look at the subject line of the e-mail: the grammar, the font, the exact URL referenced. If it looks suspicious, delete it.
Look to see if the e-mail uses your real name. In most cases, the "phisherman" has your e-mail address but no other information, whereas if this were really from your bank or the IRS or whoever, they'd know your name, and possibly reference your account number or other identifying information. If not, delete it.
If you've already opened the e-mail before you realize it's suspicious, don't click on the link that it contains. Instead, check the link by opening a separate browser window on your desktop and going to the official website in question to see what the real URL is and whether the two match up. "Yes, it takes a while, but better than losing your life savings or having your credit ruined," says Alexis A. Moore, founder of Survivors in Action, a group that provides education about Internet and record-keeping security. If things look fishy, change the passwords on your online accounts, freeze any credit cards you're concerned about, and start watching your credit report to see if identity theft has occurred.
2. Pay-to-borrow loan scams
How it works: You're told you can borrow money (usually despite having a low credit rating or other impediment to a normal loan). But there are up-front fees involved, often running to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The scam, says Reno, Nevada-based financial advisor Todd Tresidder: "The loan never comes through, and the fees you paid disappear along with the representative or company that offered the loan.
How to protect yourself: Remember that normal loans don't require fees to be paid at the beginning of the application process. In fact, it's against the law for a business to request up-front fees for loans, according to the Better Business Bureau.
Watch out for alternative terms. Smart scammers might use terms like insurance, taxes, or processing fees. No matter what term is used, an advance payment by any name is illegal.
Beware of false promises. No legitimate lender can guarantee you'll get a loan before you even apply. If someone promises you a loan before you've submitted an application, you can bet it's not on the level.
3. Affinity fraud
How it works: The scammer usually starts by enrolling a trusted, leading member of the group -- a church or community leader, for example. "The leader unwittingly promotes the fraud to the congregation or group with the good intention of benefiting the church or organization," Tresidder says. Sadly, this type of fraud tends to move ahead rapidly with a type of "group think" -- people join in because many other people they know are joining in and they don't want to be left behind. Communities and congregations with large numbers of seniors are frequently the target of this type of scam, because scammers know seniors have a lifetime of savings set aside for retirement.
How to protect yourself: Always be suspicious -- or at least more alert -- when solicited for money, even by people you trust and admire.
Treat all investments with the same skepticism, no matter who's representing them. "Just because you learn about an investment through a reputable channel doesn't mean the investment itself is legitimate," says Tresidder.
Watch to see if the trusted authority central in selling the investment seems to be influenced by an outside counselor or advisor.
If a lot of seniors are involved in the investing project, consider that an additional red flag.
4. Investment fraud: The big payoff
How it works: You get a phone call from a stranger, a pitch over lunch from a colleague, or an offer from a trusted financial advisor to invest in something that promises unrealistic returns.
How to protect yourself: Never trust anyone who promises a high return in a short period of time.
"When someone promises higher returns than the market, think of it as bait designed to hook you," says Pat Huddleston, a lawyer and CEO of Investor's Watchdog, an investor protection firm.
Never invest in an investment that you don't fully understand; you won't be able to accurately assess the risks or identify a scam if you're in over your head.
Avoid situations that require you to place complete trust in a broker or investment adviser. "The temptation of misconduct is too great and the regulatory structure too loose," Huddleston says.
Beware independent brokers who appear to be operating as sole agents; you want your investment account to be held with an independent, third-party custodian that's regulated and monitored by regulatory agencies.
5. Investments torn from the headlines
How it works: An investment advisor describes an investment in a new technology designed to solve an important current problem, often an issue that's a hot topic in the news, such as the need for alternative fuels. The advisor may show you a portfolio of news clippings about a scientific or technological topic. "Headlines give scams what they most need: credibility," says Pat Huddleston, CEO of Investor's Watchdog. "Choosing a story in the news -- green energy or healthcare industry innovations, for example -- as the starting point gives the scam artist's pitch instant credibility. You know of the need for what the company can do because you've seen that need covered in the press."
How to protect yourself: If it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is.
Be wary of crisis-du-jour investments. "When the dollar was bottoming out, currency trading scams surged. When gas cost more than $4 per gallon, people rushed into oil and gas scams," Huddleston says. Right now? Look for scams tied to investment in companies that make cars that run on something besides gasoline, or green energy companies like wind, solar, and nuclear power.
Never invest in any such company without performing a thorough investigation through a professional investor-protection company.
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