We really enjoyed the TNT show Leverage (2008-2012), which featured a team of reformed (-ish) criminals who used their various skills to take down criminals, corrupt officials, dishonest businesspeople, and the like. It’s fun to watch unscrupulous people get their comeuppance — often accomplished by conning the evil bastards into hoisting themselves by their own petards.
Out in the real world, though, cons are not glamorous and rarely serve justice. But they have been given new life in the Internet age.
One of the best-known scams is the one where an unsolicited email lands in your inbox offering a significant sum of money, for a small upfront payment to handle something or other. A Nigerian prince is trying to protect his fortune by moving it out of the country, but can’t do it from within — it has to be a foreign bank account (i.e., yours). For a relatively small sum to pay the bank fees, you could get millions!
Except, of course, Nigeria has no royalty, and there are no millions. The money you send off is just going to finance someone’s crack habit or something.
This scam is the grandchild of the 1920s-era Spanish Prisoner scam, which used much the same tactics. It’s also called a “419” scam, after the article in the Nigerian Penal Code dealing with fraud.
Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems
Thanks to sites like Craigslist.org, it’s easier than ever to sell off your extra junk. But not all buyers are created equal, and there are some pretty unsavory characters out there.
Overpayment scams work like this: Say you’re selling a pair of boots. They’re pretty nice boots, so you’re asking $100 for the pair. Someone agrees they are indeed nice boots that they would like to own, and so they send you a check or wire transfer for $3,000. Oops! Obviously the boots aren’t that nice. Please go ahead and cash that check — you can keep the $100 for the boots, but send back the rest.
Funny thing though: That check will bounce like a ping-pong ball in an earthquake — and you will be on the hook with your bank for that money you sent. And you’ll have lost your boots.
Truth is, no one has a legitimate reason to grossly overpay for something, or to expect you to wire the money back. If someone tries to pull this on you, your state Attorney General and the Federal Trade Commission will be very interested to hear about it.
One of the nastier scams out there is one that can lead to full-on identity theft. The goal is to get your usernames, passwords, credit card info, and other sensitive information. It’s called Phishing.
Typically an official-looking email will come in with some alarming news — maybe it’s supposedly from your bank, and something’s up with your account. Here’s a handy link, please log in and get things sorted. That link will seem to take you to the real login page, but it’s actually a fake. Entering your account info means you’re handing that data to the scammers, who can then use it to access your account for real.
This is why logging in from a link in an email is a bad idea. Unless you know what to look for, it can be hard to know if you’re being directed to the actual site, or one that has been built to look just like it. If you get an email like this, don’t click the link. If you’re worried that there is a legitimate problem, open a new browser window and log in to the actual site.
The best defense against scams in general is education. But it also helps to be wary of offers that seem too good to be true — because they often are. An unsolicited offer of riches for a small upfront fee, wire costs, bank charges, etc., is not to be trusted.
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