The other day, we got a phone call from a woman who had just discovered the "free government grant money" scam, which has been around since about the time of the Revolutionary War. She claimed to have found the people behind it and wanted to know why we hadn't done something about it.
Well, of course, we have. We've written about it endlessly for the past 15 years or so, which is about all they allow us to do. We're not allowed to send drones out on search-and-destroy missions.
But the harsher truth is that while there are lots of scams, there are even more scammers. The same old scams are being pulled over and over and over by people who have a lot of nerve even if they aren't necessarily too bright.
There aren't just two people behind the government grant money scam. And there isn't just one phony Nigerian prince. Shut down one or two and 15 more spring up to take their place.
In fact, the world is full of people who are not your friends. Not only that, many of them are dishonest -- out to make a quick buck any way they can. Sticking up banks isn’t as easy as it used to be and fleecing the government isn’t nearly as easy as it looks, so that makes you the target.
Scams are nothing new. They’ve been around almost as long as the human race. A scam, very simply, is a business proposition that is not what it seems.
A work-at-home “opportunity” is really a way for a scammer to move money from your house to his. A book that tells you the “secrets” of staying healthy is really a secret attempt to get a hand firmly into your pocket and bank account.
So, with all those scammers out there, how can you avoid falling victim? It’s actually pretty simple. Just remember these seven simple secrets scammers don’t want you to know.
1. There are no secrets.
Scammers love to tell you they have the secret to staying healthy, getting rich, finding true love and avoiding bad hair days. But you know what? There are very few secrets in the world. The government may have a few. Coca-Cola keeps its flavor formula secret. That’s about it.
Just think for a minute what’s in the news everyday -- secrets that somebody leaked. Nothing stays secret for long. Besides, ask yourself: if there really was a foolproof cure for cancer, wouldn’t the big drug companies jump on it so they could charge a fortune for it?
2. If it sounds too good to be true …
You’ve heard this a million times: if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is. If someone offers you an “opportunity” to start your own business, working at home for two hours a day in your pajamas while making $10,000 a week, ask yourself: does this sound too good to be true?
If it was that easy to make tons of money stuffing envelopes, don’t you think Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Hillary Clinton would be doing it instead of chasing all over the world, putting up with shareholders and reporters and answering dumb questions all day?
3. Nothing is free, including “free offers.”
A free 30-day trial? No obligation? Uh-huh. That guaranteed weight-loss and hair-regrowth program may be just the thing all right but do you really think the first month is free? It might be, but you can bet the next 23 months won’t be.
Most “free trials” are nothing more than a way to get your credit card information. Read the fine print and you’ll find out you’re signing up for a two-year subscription. Or you’re agreeing to pay $234.00 “shipping and handling.” Or you’re agreeing to get 24 magazine subscriptions for $45 each.
If you want to try a little dab of something to see if you like it, go to the store and buy a small package. If you like it, you can buy more. Otherwise, you can just throw it away.
4. Buy stuff in stores. Or from Amazon or Walmart.com.
See that fruit smasher that’s advertised on TV for just $24.95? It will smash just about any kind of fruit you can think of into smithereens. And it’s not sold in stores!
Now, why would that be, do you think? If you had invented the best-ever fruit smasher, wouldn’t you want to sell it anywhere and everywhere? Things that aren’t sold in stores or on well-known name-brand sites like Amazon are nearly always rip-offs.
Plus, you can walk into a store, buy something and walk out. You don’t have to give anybody your name or credit/debit card number. That way, you’re not hounded by offers for similar products and your personal information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
5. Don’t be too polite.
Your mother taught you to be polite. Even to strangers. But you know what? It’s not a good policy. If a stranger calls you on the phone or emails you and claims to be from the government, the bank, the hospital or just about anywhere else, hang up or delete the email.
Anyone who says they are trying to “update” your account is really trying to update their list of bank account and credit card numbers. Never give out any personal information on the phone or in an email -- no Social Security numbers, no bank account numbers, no credit card numbers.
Your mother also taught you not to talk to strangers. As usual, she was right.
6. You can’t win if you didn’t enter.
One of the oldest and most successful scams out there is the bogus sweepstakes scam. Someone calls or emails you with great news! You’ve just won $757,000 in the Eritrean National Sweepstakes. All you have to do is send $2,300 by money order or Western Union to pay the tax and “processing charge.”
But unless you’ve been to Eritrea and entered a sweepstakes, guess what? It’s a scam. You can’t win a contest you didn’t enter. Which leads us to our seventh and final secret for today:
7. Hang onto your money. Don’t sign anything.
Yes, of course you should pay your bills. On time if possible. But don’t pay anyone else unless you’re absolutely certain you know who you’re paying and you already have at least one hand on the merchandise, whatever it may be. Never, never, never send money to someone you don’t know. You will not get it back. Simple as that.
And when it comes to signing something, like a contract, don’t sign it until you have read it thoroughly. Don’t listen to what anyone tells you -- it’s only what is in writing that counts. The company will hold you to the contract. So be sure to keep a copy and read it every now and then. Sure, it will be boring but it’s better to be bored than broke.
These are just the top seven simple secrets to avoiding scams. There are all kinds of specific scams that we cover daily at ConsumerAffairs. See our Scam Alerts section to research specific scams and stay up to date on new ones.