The first time I received one of the Nigerian email money scams, I’d long since heard about the practice on the news. But even though the email I received telling me a long lost relative (improbably named Engineer J. Guy) had died and left me all his money was so poorly done as to be patently false, many individuals have been taken in by these types of scams. Whether a con artist is trying to get your money through the internet, in person, through a work-from-home scam, or through a get-rich-quick scheme, there are several things you can do to keep yourself from being a victim. Here are some rules of thumb when navigating offers that seem too good to be true:
1. Remember who contacted whom. I make it a personal rule never to enter into any kind of transaction when I’m not the instigator. Here’s what I mean: if someone is coming door-to-door, calling my home, emailing me, or in other ways trying to reach me in order to tell me about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, chances are that they don’t have my best interests at heart. I’m one of many, many potential customers—and since their sales technique is not exactly an efficient way to reach those customers, each individual “sale” must be worth their while to spend that much time on rejections.
If something a “salesperson” pitches to you sounds interesting, tell them you’ll think about it and do some research. It’s possible that there is a legitimate offer, but it’s better to take the time to research before you sign up for anything. Never agree to anything when you did not begin the conversation.
2. Double-check everything. One of the most insidious telephone and email scams I’ve heard about recently targets grandparents. A young person will call or email a senior, either posing as a grandchild or even just saying “Hi Grandma. Do you know who this is?” When Grandma makes a guess (“Tyler? I’ve been hoping to hear from you!”), the scammer goes with it, leading up to asking for money. Often, the grandchild will “need” money to pay a medical bill in a foreign country or to get out of jail for something—and he’ll beg Grandma not to let his parents in on the troubles, since they’d kill him.
In this scenario, as in any other scam, trust your gut if something feels off. I would hope my parents would call me to find out about my son’s shenanigans before sending money. Even if the scammer offers information that makes them sound like someone you trust, it’s worth it to double-check the situation. The worst that will happen when you double-check might be a little embarrassment if it all turns out to be true. But better embarrassed than scammed.
3. Keep in mind what’s reasonable. Scams often work because they target some of the toughest emotions to keep in check: greed, desperation, and hope. So if anyone is promising you thousands of dollars while working in your bathrobe or an enormous inheritance from a relative you’ve never heard of or more money for something you own than it’s worth, make sure you think about why they are being so considerate. If an offer is wildly different from what you have come to expect as reasonable, then you need to find out why. Unreasonable offers simply aren’t the norm.
4. Be careful whom you trust. I inadvertently signed up for a credit card I didn’t want when I was in college. The telephone solicitor said he was just calling to confirm my information. When he asked my birthday, he happily exclaimed that I had the same birth date as his little sister. Even though I didn’t want to “confirm” any more information, I now felt like I had a connection to him (even though I now suspect he didn’t even have a sister). A few days later, a card arrived in the mail and I had to waste another hour on the phone to cancel it.
My mistake here was feeling a human connection to this person, after I’d already decided I was going to tell him to stuff it because I had no interest in confirming anything for him. Scammers can use our sense of trust, politeness, and decency against us. So don’t allow your sense that someone is trustworthy—because they claim a connection, share your religious beliefs, or otherwise seem like you—to cloud your judgment. The entire time I stayed on the phone with this solicitor, I knew I was making a mistake.
5. Don’t make quick decisions. Scammers often try to force you to do what they want by giving an instant timeline. They don’t want you to think about any of the previous points. So they create a sense of urgency and ask you to act now! But there are very few legitimate offers in the world that cannot be put on ice for a few days while you do some research. And even missing out on legitimate offers with quick deadlines is small price to pay to know you haven’t been scammed.
Scammers know exactly how to hit our weak spots. If we want to keep control of our money, we have to remember that we are ultimately the ones who decide what happens to our finances, and not high-pressure solicitors, salespeople, or scammers.