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How do I Spot an Online Scam?

How to avoid falling prey to an online scam

Whether it’s on the phone or on your computer, a scam always starts with a lie that seems legitimate and likely induces fear and urgency. Unfortunately, it is very easy to appear legitimate on the phone, online or in an email.  While it can be stressful, avoiding a scam is possible by following a few simple guidelines.

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Phishing is one of the most common online scams. It describes an attempt to obtain sensitive information by acting as a legitimate entity. Below are some ways to protect yourself from phishing and many other potential scams. Share this article with your most susceptible friends and family who may not know what to look out for.

  • Always check the email addresses in detail when you receive a request for information or share a link to learn more. This includes businesses, as well as friends and family. A simple change like replacing a “1” in an email address to an “l”, such as from johnsmith@123.com to johnsmith@l23.com, can trick someone into trusting the communication.
  • If any email or any other online message (e.g. direct message, pop-up notification) requests personal information, be very wary and confirm this request by contacting the business or person directly with your own saved contact information. Most businesses now explicitly state they will never ask you for personal information, regardless of how urgent the situation is, and it is always better to check this yourself.
  • Microsoft, Apple, HP, Dell, Norton, banks, etc. will NEVER call, email, message or otherwise contact you regarding a virus or computer problem. NEVER give personal information or allow remote access to your computer to someone you do not already know. Anyone contacting you about a computer problem or virus is a scammer trying to steal money and/or your identity. Simply hang up, or pull the plug to your computer if you are stuck & unsure of what to do.

As technology evolves and we become more aware of potential scams, hackers will evolve and become better at fooling us. It’s critical to stay vigilant and remember that it’s never wrong to be overly safe. Below are a couple examples of more recent scams that many have fallen victim to, to help spread awareness of potential tactics.

  • Your good friend sends you an email saying their log-in isn’t working for a popular eCommerce site. They proceed to ask you to purchase a 200 dollar gift card for them as their partners’ birthday is coming up. This may not seem like an unreasonable request and it’s from their real email address, so you may be tempted to go ahead and send them a gift card. 
    • This example is hard to spot because it’s coming from a correct email address. Scammers will email you with a simple request, using an email address of someone you personally know, asking for a reasonable amount of money, usually via a gift card. This is done by hacking one persons email account, then checking social media networks to uncover personal connections and email addresses in order to target you with a heartfelt message, hoping to use urgency to get as much money sent to them before anyone knows their account is compromised.
  • A notification appears as you open a popular program or website telling you your computer was hacked and an immediate update is required. Frantically, you call the number listed and are connected to a real live person, who sounds like they are working in a call center for a legitimate company.
    • This example uses our fear of being hacked to scam us. Normally an agent will then proceed to ask you to wire money, again many times in the form of gift cards, to quickly fix your computer or all your information could be compromised. They may also attempt to take remote control of your computer with the faux intention to fix the “issue”. 

In any case, the most important thing to remember is verify, verify, verify. Do not let urgency push you into clicking a link, sharing personal information or sending anyone or any company money. For updated information on online safety and more ways that scammers may attempt to steal data or money from you or your business, visit https://www.usa.gov/online-safety

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