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Avoid Scams Online and Protect Your Family

What you'll learn: How to protect your family from online scams


Financial fraud can happen to anyone, but scammers are more likely to prey on older Americans, who they see as easy targets. This type of fraud is no laughing matter, costing seniors over $37 million annually. Perpetrators — who may be friends or family members — earn and then abuse the trust of their victims, stealing their money, their homes, and their retirement savings.

Whether you want to protect yourself or protect your family, the first step to avoid scams online is to be aware. Let's talk about what these scams may look like, so you'll know when you run into online scams.

Online Scams Part You From Your Money

Though every scam will look different, the end goal for the thief is to get your money. However, it's not as easy as a thief picking your pocket. Effective scammers will convince you that you want to give them your money. These types of scams come in two forms – either offering something that requires a small fee or by threatening dire consequences if you don't send cash immediately. The following are common cash scams.

  • Family member, loved one, or friend is in jail, hospital, or detention, and requires you to wire money immediately. Individuals have been tricked out of thousands of dollars with this scam.
  • Contests you've won but require a fee to collect your winnings. One fee inevitably leads to another and then another — but you'll never see your supposed "winnings."
  • Investments offering incredibly high returns and little or no risk. Remember that every investment comes with risks. In this case, the risk is a scammer vanishing with all of your savings.
  • Deals that are too good to be true. Anyone on a fixed income — as seniors often are — can be lured in by the prospect of a good sale. This type of scam most often involves medication or medical supplies at a deep discount, but you'll never get what you paid for.
  • Official-sounding threats that suggest you owe money to the IRS, law enforcement, or you should call this number immediately. This is a way for the fraudster to verify that you are using that phone number and that you are complying with the scam offered by the fraudster. It's easy to be frightened by these threats and pay up immediately. When in doubt, contact the agency directly based upon their published telephone numbers – not one left on your answering machine.   
  • Romance and dating scams are the cause of lots of financial loss due to a variety of reasons. The scam starts with the request to have money wired or sent to the individual. They will promise you’ll get the money back – but then they vanish and so does your money.

These scammers could ask you for money, but it's just as likely that they'll ask you for personal information. With enough information, they can steal your identity, which lets them open credit card accounts and take out loans with no intention of repaying them. Eventually, you'll find yourself deep in debt and talking with creditors for why you haven’t paid. Protect your family and be aware of falling for these online scams.

Always be suspicious

To avoid scams online, you need to develop a healthy sense of suspicion and awareness, especially when it comes to spending money or giving out personal information. Scams can come in many forms — you could get phone calls, paper mail, email, or people knocking on your door, all wanting to scam you. Even family members can try to take advantage, which means you need to be careful no matter who you're dealing with to protect your family.

These tips will help you be aware of some more common scams.

  • Be wary of any requests for money. Before making a purchase or major financial decision, take time to think it over.
  • Be just as wary of requests for information. While this may not seem as valuable, strangers asking for personal details — from your social security number to your bank account number — may be trying to steal from you.
  • Be especially wary of any offer that says you have to act immediately. High-pressure sales tactics simply mean a scammer wants to get away with your money, or your information, before you've had a chance to consider things.
  • Find out who you're dealing with. Just because an individual says they're with a certain organization doesn't mean they're actually with that organization (or even that the organization exists). Before you give anything to anyone, confirm that they're who they say they are.
  • Never give money or personal information over the phone unless you initiated the call. Know who you are speaking with and why. If you didn't make the call yourself, you can't be sure who you're talking to.
  • Read the fine print. Before you sign any paperwork, be sure to read it thoroughly so you understand what you're agreeing to. If you are unclear, ask a friend or family member for help.

Help A Friend Or Family Member

People are often embarrassed that they have fallen for a scam, so they may be reluctant to talk about it. Watch for unusual behavior or signs of a changed financial situation, like requests to borrow money — which could indicate a scammer has gotten away with a sizable amount of cash. When you do get them to talk about it, be sure you are not blaming them, as it will only make them less willing to talk. Scammers know exactly how to manipulate people, and it is not their fault someone has taken advantage of them. Remember for scammers and fraudsters, this is their full-time job, and they are very good at their job.

For children trying to keep an eye on senior parents, you may be able to get online access to your parents' accounts to keep an eye on their money. Be sure you aren't threatening their independence by suggesting they can't handle their own money. Checking their credit report on can also help you spot financial problems and identity theft.

Know What To Do If You’ve Been Scammed

Though there's no guarantee you can get your money back, you can take steps to keep yourself safe in the future. Start by cutting off all contact with the scammer, who will only keep trying to convince you to send cash. You may have to change your phone number if it’s widely known to scammers. Also, make sure to report the scam to the authorities. No matter what form a scam took, it's theft and should be treated as such.

You should also report the scam to any third party. For example, your bank or credit card company should be able to help if your accounts have been compromised. If your bank wasn't involved, anyone who helped process a payment may be able to help — though scammers are usually careful to take payments in ways that are hard to refund, it's worth checking.

Finally, file a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), run by the FBI. These agencies do not resolve complaints itself but will offer information on the next steps you can take. On top of that, your complaint can help track down and prosecute spammers, so no one else has to deal with this situation.

Always Be Careful

The most important thing to remember is to always be careful when giving out personal information or financial information. Even though it may seem like a sound decision, be wary when you're pressured for money or information, and take time to think things through before giving it up.

Finally, credit monitoring services and automated alerts from your bank and credit card accounts can help increase awareness of online scams. Each of the three major credit bureaus offers products to help with identity theft protection and credit and account monitoring.


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