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The warning signs of a scam

Remember these rules to protect yourself and your finances

The world is full of untrustworthy people, both on and off the Internet, so you need to protect yourself and your finances from them. For that goal, this website (like many other consumer-journalist sources) frequently publishes warning articles on the themes “Here's a new scam you must be wary of,” “Here's another new scam you ought to watch out for,” or even “This latest phishing scam is the worst one yet.”

But it's not possible to create a single omnibus list of “every potential scam on the Internet,” anymore than it's possible to produce a single comprehensive list of “every thief and dishonest person in the world today”; even if you could, new additions would spring up all the time.

You can't protect yourself from email scams by simply maintaining a list of suspicious senders; instead, you need to learn a few general rules that apply to all emails, text messages and other communiques you get (even those allegedly sent from people you know and trust).

A few examples

To demonstrate, let's look at a random sampling of actual come-on emails, most of which our various readers received and forwarded to us.

It's worth remembering that, while some scams are illegal, not all of them are. Phishing and other forms of identity theft are definitely against the law — if the thieves are successful, you part with your money without your consent, or even knowledge.

But other scam artists operate by convincing you to voluntarily hand your money over to them. The legality there depends on what they promise in exchange for your money — if some random stranger emails you an offer to sell you an astrology reading or pray to God on your behalf (in exchange for a hefty amount of cash, of course), chances are your only recourse is to not send money in the first place.

Rule one: Where your money or personal information are concerned, remember “Don't call me; I'll call you.”

This should protect you from most phishing scams. The way phishing works is, you get an email (or some other message), allegedly from a legitimate business, or government or financial institution. The message usually says there's a problem with your account, and if you don't tend to it right away something bad will happen, so you need to either click on the link or call the phone number included in the message.

The Netflix phishing scam from earlier this month is a typical example – would-be identity thieves somewhere in India sent out spammy emails allegedly from Netflix, warning customers of problems with their accounts. Anyone foolish enough to respond and cooperate with the alleged “Netflix” employees would soon have important financial information stolen from their computers.

So remember “Don't call me; I'll call you.” If you're worried about a problem with your Netflix account (or bank account, or anything else), it's okay if you contact the company, but be wary when the company allegedly contacts you. And if you do receive such a message and want to respond anyway, do your own independent online search for the company's contact information, rather than trust any links, phone numbers, or other contact options in the email itself.

Rule two: Never give money to someone you've never met.

This might sound too obvious to mention, yet the romantic scammers who haunt various dating websites in search of new victims are successful primarily because so many people forget this rule.

Last January, for example, an elderly divorcee in California was bilked out of half a million dollars, after a would-be suitor she'd “met” on Christian Mingle (but never actually met in person) convinced her to send him the money. Remember: if you've never so much as been in the same room with a person, you do not know them well enough to lend them money.

Rule three: Flattery will get you in trouble.

Earlier this week, we reported the story of a man who lost hundreds of dollars after falling for a bizarre scam which basically boiled down to “Hey, you know those conspiracy stories you hear about a small shadowy group of super-powerful people who secretly run the world? They're real, I belong to said secret conspiracy group, and you're invited to join us.”

Granted, most companies and marketing campaigns – even legitimate, non-scammy ones – will flatter their intended customers to some extent (e.g. “Are you a busy, modern mom who loves her kids? Then use our credit card, not the other bank's!” or “Are you a fashionable, attractive, successful person? Then wear our clothes, not the other company's!”).

Scam flattery goes far beyond that; it usually says you've been specifically selected, often for a unique offer denied to the common rabble. (That conspiracy letter had “For your eyes only!” right in its letterhead.)

Or check out this excerpt from an email one of our readers received and forwarded to us this week, from someone trying to sell him an astrological reading (ellipses taken from the original):

Last night as I was going through and sending back the reading requests that had come in throughout the day, nothing was out of the ordinary. I was calmly reviewing the information provided for each request that I had printed out beside me, doing some quick interpretations, deciphering the meanings and writing them out…

… and then yours came to the top of the pile.

It did not take me long before I had to stop and sit up straight.

[Name], to put it bluntly, you are about to enter a BIG period of change in your life - whether you're prepared for it or not does not matter, but that's where I can help you.”

How very flattering indeed — you might think you're just an ordinary everyday person, but in reality you are so important, people you never even heard of before you got this email can't concentrate on their work because they spend their nights distracted by thoughts of you and your amazing awesomeness.

Don't trust anyone who tells you this.

Rule four: People with magic powers don't need money.

Of course, excessive flattery isn't the only red flag waving within that astrologer's email. Even if you want to assume astrology is not only real, but powerful enough that total strangers thousands of miles away can use it to predict your personal future — forgive the channeling of Captain Obvious here, but anyone with such powers doesn't need your money to stay financially healthy.

Here's another email forwarded from another reader; the message is from a self-described “Master Prophet” presumably with a direct hotline to God, offering to make personalized prophecies if the recipient will only send money first:

Act now! Watch your future come alive now! God is transforming you completely. This will make you confident, full of belief and satisfied about the outcome to your situation.

1.   A prophet will call you and speak with you one-on-one.

2.   A prophetic word for your relief will be in their mouth for you.

3.   This word of prophecy will be recorded for you to hear again.

4.   I will email this important prophetic word to you.

5.   I will prophesy on an MP3 or CD all about your life.

6.   I will ask another prophet to join me, and together we will prophesy about you

Here's a prophecy about you: if you send this “Master Prophet” any of your money, you'll wind up much poorer than if you'd kept that money for yourself. Real prophets and psychics don't need your money; they can make a fortune more easily than Warren Buffett.

For example: in summer of 2013, a Minnesota man bought an old house for $10,000, planning to renovate and resell it. During the renovations, he discovered that a previous homeowner had used old magazines and other papers as insulation—including a great-condition copy of Action Comics #1 (first-ever appearance of Superman, and something of a Holy Grail among comic book collectors). That comic book eventually sold at auction for $175,000.

Why was this discovery only made accidentally, by a super-lucky house-flipper? Why didn't some fortuneteller or psychic princess or Master Prophet know to buy that house and its secret-treasure insulation?

Theory: because such people do not have psychic powers or the power of prophecy; at best, they have the power to convince gullible people to part with their money. Don't let yourself be one of them.

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