How To Avoid Scams

The other day an elderly gentleman came up to me at work, wanting to wire some money. He seemed angry and impatient, and he kept grumbling about being cheated of his money.

I asked him what was wrong, and he plopped down an envelope full of money, telling me that he had won a sweepstakes and had to wire $2,500 to a woman in Canada in order to collect his $500,000 winnings. I immediately realized that this was almost certainly a fraud. I started to explain to the man that he had been given a phony check, when he interrupted me, saying that he had already cashed it. He counted out the cash, and insisted that the lottery was the real deal, because the bank had cashed the check. So, I told him that he better hold on to that money and call the bank right away, because the check would almost certainly bounce once the banks got a chance to catch it. Of course, the man had none of it. He seemed to think that because the check had been cashed that meant it was a legitimate check. And he insisted that I wire the money.

Now, these scams are pretty sneaky. I can see how the gentleman fell for the bait. They directly play on your sense of optimism. People want to believe that they have won half a million dollars–who wouldn’t? It doesn’t matter how questionable, unproffesional, or strange the matter may seem. A great proportion of people will be inclined to believe in something merely because the belief is pleasant. Not only that, but the scam seems even more legitimate after the check for a couple thousand dollars (to supposedly cover the taxes of the lottery winnings) is cashed out by a bank and given to the victim. Most people don’t realize that banks will not catch skillfully rendered fake checks until weeks or months after they have been cashed. The fact that the check seems to clear gives the victim false hope. On top of all that, victims of these scams often think they have nothing to lose–they didn’t make the check, and the money they’re sending isn’t their own. The problem, of course, is that the bank does hold individuals responsible for passing bad checks, even if they are conned into it by a scammer. One reason for this is that many people may attempt to cash the check knowing it is fake, making them a part of the scam on the bank. Another reason is because people are expected to be skeptical of situations like this, and they are responsible for avoiding these situations. The problem, of course, is that these scams perfectly play upon people’s sense of hope, optimism, and trust. They receive a check, they get money, and this leads them to conclude that there must be more waiting in the wings, if only they wire it off to someone in another country.

I tried to reason with the gentleman, but he kept insisting that the lottery winnings were legitimate. I tried to point out the obvious clues that gave away the scam. I pointed out the shoddily-constructed letter, complete with cheesy, unprofessional graphics and spelling mistakes. I noted that money was being sent to a person, not an institution. I explained that the letter insisted that the money be wired within the week or else the winnings couldn’t be collected because the check was likely to bounce after a week, giving away the fraud.

At this point, he explained to me that he had already been told all of this by someone else the other day. I asked him if he had entered in a sweepstakes or lottery in Canada, and he said he had not. For some reason, he didn’t find it suspicious that somehow he had won a Canadian lottery sweepstakes, though. In the end, I even put him on the phone with a Western Union official, and he argued with her the whole time, sighing in dejection and saying that they wouldn’t let him send it.

Luckily, my managers had dealt with the man the other day and notified Western Union to block him from wiring the money. If he had simply cashed the check, came with the money, and not said a word about the shady “lottery” he was going to win, he would have been in a world of hurt once the scammers got the money he wired while the bad check traced back to his bank account, marking him as responsible for passing a bad check.

The basic rule of thumb for scams like these is to simply remember that if a deal sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true.

Scams Can Fool Anyone

I’ve never fallen for a money-wiring scam, thankfully, but this doesn’t make me an expert scam dodger. I’m sure we’ve all been victims of scams at some point or another. The scams that always seem to get me are the “Free offer” scams. Someone will offer you a product or service for no charge, and after a while they start to charge you, not giving you the option to discontinue the service or product. These things are bothersome, but luckily not very expensive and relatively easy to deal with. I make it a practice nowadays to ALWAYS refuse offers of free magazine subscriptions and the like when purchasing things at stores like Best Buy. I only accept free things so long as my name, address, or phone number will not be somehow divulged in the process. Hell, I’m so skeptical I won’t even accept offers of gum from people anymore.

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