When you’re a kid watching cartoons, some of the most reliably comedic moments come when characters realize they’ve been hoodwinked. Depending on the character, the result may be an exaggeratedly dropped jaw, a pained facepalm or red-faced, steam-from-the-ears rage — but no matter what, it’s pretty funny.
It’s not funny at all when it happens to you personally, though, even if you feel all of those same responses. Whether you’ve already learned the hard way that your money is gone forever or you’re just beginning to suspect that you’re being played, there are important steps you need to take to protect yourself (and your wallet). Everybody’s individual case will be different, but we’ll go over what those steps typically look like.
Scams Can Happen to Anyone
Recognizing you have a problem is the first step in recovery, and everyone is vulnerable to scammers and frauds. In 2020 fraud data released by the FTC, 60-something Boomers were indeed the largest single demographic, at 18% of complainants, but 30-something millennials were a close second, at 17% (and those under 30 added up to another 18%).
Admittedly, the lion’s share of monetary losses fall on those in the higher age groups who as a rule tend to have more assets. Still, even if you think of yourself as a tech-savvy “digital native” and spend your days sending links to your parents or grandma about senior scams, you’re also at risk. Protecting yourself begins with recognizing the signs of a scammer.
Signs You’re Being Scammed (“I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This…”)
There are plenty of warning signs that can indicate you’re dealing with a scammer, though of course the details will vary with the type of scam: if you look at romance scams, phishing scams, text scams, phone scams, Craigslist scams, payment-app scams or — since the start of the pandemic — COVID scams, they’re all slightly different in their workings.
That being said, all successful scams take advantage of the same handful of psychological vulnerabilities, each of them rooted in human nature. In one way or another, they’ll try to scare us, appeal to our greed, exploit our desire to be helpful or to find meaningful affection or play on our fear of (in some way) missing out. Here are some examples to watch for:
They Impersonate Authority Figures
The single biggest category in the FTC’s report was “imposter scams,” the kind where the scammer pretends to be from the Social Security Administration, or your bank, or the IRS, or perhaps even the police. There may be a carrot (“you’re entitled to more money”) or a stick (“you owe us money,” “your benefits will be cut off”), but either way they’re after your money or information.
They Create a Sense of Urgency
Scammers want things to happen quickly. They’ll demand you act immediately to settle your account issues or to get the investment opportunity before it’s gone, or — in the case of romance scams — they’ll profess undying attachment after a suspiciously brief acquaintance. FOMO (fear of missing out) is a big motivator, and they rely on that.
It’s too Good to Be True
We all know the saying about that, right? The prize in a sweepstakes you don’t remember entering; the remarkable returns on that no-risk investment; the man (or woman) of your dreams who mysteriously can’t meet in person right now; the miraculous cure for your chronic illness that “they” don’t want you to know about…… They’re all different expressions of the same basic principle.
They Count on You not Paying Attention
Phishing scams, text scams and social media scams often start with an apparently legit message from a person or company you know or do business with.
The devil is in the details: that familiar-looking website might be fake; the email address or phone number might be spoofed; romance scammers’ stories are suspiciously light on verifiable detail; your new follower on social media might be a catfish or a synthetic identity with a negligible online history and suspiciously perfect photos. These things can all be detected if you look closely; scammers count on you not doing that (it’s part of the reason they want you to act quickly).
Everything Eventually Comes Back to Your Money or Your Information
Sooner or later every scam boils down to one of two targets: your money or your personal information. No matter what the circumstances, any request for one or the other — however plausible — should set off alarm bells.
What to Do If You Think You’re Being Scammed Right Now
Sometimes you’ll be lucky and the proverbial penny will drop — or at the very least, you’ll become suspicious — while the scam is still underway. What should you do? In the course of ongoing research earlier this year, Spokeo posed that very question. Responses were mixed enough to suggest that most people aren’t entirely sure how to proceed. Googling your potential scammer was the top response, but “Perform a background check,” “Check social media profiles” and the ever-popular “Other” were also high-scoring choices.
So what should you do? That depends on the circumstances. There are several possibilities:
Verify the Information You’ve Got
The person you’re interacting with has probably given you a name, a phone number, an email address and other information. You can check all of those things using Spokeo’s people search tools. If those results show the person to be who and where they claim to be, that’s a positive (they may still be a scammer, but they’re at least honest about their identity).
If their information yields little to no results, or social media accounts that all sprang into existence quite recently, or places them someplace other than where they’ve said they are…well…, those are big red flags. You might want to consider paying a little extra and getting a criminal-records search as well.
Check the Photos
With many scams, especially romance scams and dating-site scams, the photos impostorscriminals use are a key vulnerability for them. Obviously they don’t want you seeing their real face, and those pics have to come from somewhere. You can do a Google reverse image search, which uses photos instead of keywords, to cross-check them.
If the photos come from a professional stock-photo library or were stolen from someone else’s social media, or if the same face is on a dozen dating sites with different names, they’re busted. There’s a chance your crush is just married, not a scammer, but either way you’ll know.
Check a Site’s/Company’s Ownership
If you’re worried whether a site, company or job offer is legitimate, there are ways to check that as well. For a website, you can look up its ownership at the web’s central domain name registry. If the site is brand-new or the ownership info is heavily redacted, those are potential red flags.
For companies, you can check for a business registration in the state where they’re supposedly incorporated, usually at the individual state’s State Department or Secretary of State website. Dodgy-sounding job offers often claim to be from legit employers but aren’t: check the company’s own site to see if similar jobs are listed; or when in doubt, contact the company directly and ask if the job link is legitimate.
Check With the Supposed Sender of a Link
Phishing attacks usually use malicious links embedded in emails, texts (“smishing,” from “phishing” and the SMS texting protocol), social media messages and chat apps. These appear to come from a friend, or a relative, or a coworker, or a company you legitimately deal with, but often they’re bogus.
The simplest way to sidestep this kind of attack is to reach out to the supposed sender through another channel and make sure it’s legitimate before you click it. If the message purportedly directs you to a company’s website to correct a problem, don’t click the link at all: go to the company’s site by typing the correct URL into your browser or using your saved bookmark, then click through to customer service directly. If the supposed issue with your account is nonexistent, you’ve just dodged a scam.
If you’re on a phone call and suspect the caller is a scammer, just hang up. If you think there’s any chance the come-on was legitimate, contact the corresponding company, government department or law -enforcement agency directly and ask them. The same goes for text messages and emails. If necessary, block the senders.
It’s harder if you’re engaged with a potential or newly revealed scammer on social media or dating sites, because they’ve probably learned a lot about how to manipulate your feelings. Again, going cold turkey is your best bet. Block and report them on the site, block them on your phone, block them in your email.
What to Do When You’re Scammed Out of Money
The process is different if you’ve already fallen for the scam and lost money as a result. By all means, try the same steps to glean what information you can about the scammer, but that’s secondary: start by reporting the fraud to the various necessary agencies and companies. These include, but aren’t limited to, the following:
The FTC’s new ReportFraud website is a good starting point. Like its sister IdentityTheft.gov site, it not only puts your case on the radar, it gives you a plan for your next steps in recovery and damage control.
Report your loss to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) and your local law-enforcement agencies.
Any Companies Involved
Have you trusted the wrong person with your credit-card number or your banking PIN? Sent money by wire transfer, payment app or gift card? Reach out to those companies and service providers as soon as possible. In some cases you may be able to get your money back, if you’re quick enough with the request, though the odds are stacked against you (that’s why scammers ask for payment in those specific ways).
Some companies may draw a distinction between fraud (where you have no control) and a scam (where you’ve voluntarily, if mistakenly, been a participant). Banks and credit-card providers will usually reverse fraudulent charges or withdrawals, and merchants will refund fraudulent purchases, but that’s not always the case with scams. From the companies’ perspective, it’s not on them to bail out your failure of judgement. It may sound harsh, but it’s understandable (and it means you should really, really appreciate any companies that reimburse you).
Finally, if the scam occurred on a major platform — social media, Craigslist, Amazon, a popular dating site — inform the platform of the scam and how it happened, including any screenshots or documentation you may have. It’ll help them warn others against falling for the same scam. Reporting to consumer-oriented sites like the BBB Scam Tracker or the AARP (if applicable) can also be helpful.
You should also report your case to the main credit-reporting agencies. You may need to involve them to get charges wiped from your credit file after they’ve been reversed, and you should probably also place a credit freeze or extended fraud alert on your file (just in case).
But Wait, There’s More
There are a few other things you might want to do. There’s always the possibility your scammer might have indulged in a bit of identity theft as well, for example, and there are some extra steps involved in recovering from that. You might also want to consider Spokeo’s identity theft protection service, which includes “dark web” monitoring: if the scammer offers your information for sale on the web’s seamy underbelly, you’ll hear about it.
Finally, and most importantly, cultivate good habits online. Change your passwords to make them stronger, and keep each one unique (use a password manager, if you have to). Audit your followers on social media, keeping an eye out for any possible sock puppets who don’t seem to have a real presence (and think hard about whether your accounts should be private).
Most importantly, cultivate an attitude of healthy skepticism. You don’t need to be completely paranoid and untrusting, just cautious. Your own judgement is your last line of defense, so use it frequently and deliberately.
- US Federal Trade Commission: Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book 2020
- Google Search Help: Search With an Image on Google
- ReportFraud.FTC.gov: Report to Help Fight Fraud
- IdentityTheft.gov: Report Identity Theft and Get a Recovery Plan
- US Federal Bureau of Investigation: Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)
- Better Business Bureau: BBB Scam Tracker
- AARP: Have You Been Targeted? Scam-Tracking Map