Top 13 Online Scams

As the world gets increasingly mobile, so do the crooks looking to take advantage of you. They’re everywhere: on your computer, at the cash machine, even lurking on your phone. “Today’s consumer needs to be more vigilant than ever, all the time,” says Tom Shaw, USAA’s chief identity theft prevention officer. High-tech thieves are everywhere. Arm yourself with knowledge, and fight back.

Still, there’s no reason to panic or become a hermit. A little common sense can go a long way toward protecting you from online scams, identity theft and financial loss. However, the most effective defense is understanding the risks when you’re using your computer, smartphone or tablet. In the fight against fraud, knowledge is power.

This content is provided courtesy of USAA.

Here’s a look at the 13 scams you’re most likely to face.


An email that appears to be from your financial institution or another business you deal with asks you to click a link, directing you to a web page that looks legitimate. On this web page, you’re asked to verify personal information, such as your account number, password or Social Security number. The email may include an attachment, which it urges you to open.

Don’t bite. It’s one of many online scams to snatch your personal data. Reputable companies never gather information this way. If you are suspicious of an email, forward it to the company that supposedly sent it, then permanently delete the message.


Think of this as phishing over the phone — the “v” is for voice. Instead of sending a bogus email, the criminals call you, claiming to be from your bank or another institution you trust, such as the local court system calling about jury duty. If they ask for a password or Social Security number, think twice. Hang up and call the organization’s customer service number to double-check. “Remember,” says Shaw, “your credit card company or bank should already know your account number and be able to provide it to you to verify a call is legitimate, not the other way around.”


This variant of the phishing concept uses text messages to lure you into clicking links that provide your personal information or download infected apps on your phone. Don’t respond to text messages or automated voice messages from unknown or blocked numbers on your mobile phone.

Pop-ups and Viruses

As anyone who’s emailed or surfed the Internet has experienced, there’s no end to the traps set by online thieves. Pop-up ads are especially bad, since clicking on them could trigger your computer to download a nasty virus or spyware — software that gathers personally identifiable information, including email addresses and passwords, from your computer without your knowledge. The same goes for attachments or links that come in unsolicited emails or in unsolicited Facebook, Twitter or other social networking messages. (Tip: Hover your cursor over the link to preview the website before clicking.) Some scammers will even call to tell less savvy computer users that “problems have been detected” on their computer and they need to download special software to repair it.

Once a malicious code is on your machine, it can hijack your computer’s processing resources, send spam and malware to other computers, launch unrelenting pop-up ads, or even record your keystrokes and report back to its controller.

What can you do? Defend your computer with anti-virus, anti-spam, anti-spyware and pop-up blocker programs. Also consider using an alternative browser with additional security features, such as Firefox or Chrome. Remember, when you’re in unfamiliar territory on the Internet, trust no one.

Search Engine Attacks

These attacks leverage the power of search engines to hide malicious links in common Internet queries, such as recent news items or lyrics for a popular song. Before clicking a search result, read the summary text to make sure it’s grammatically correct and relevant and the link address is concise. Look for clues that the source isn’t reputable. “If anything looks wrong with a search result,” says Shaw, “it’s probably not something you should click on.” McAfee Antivirus Plus color-codes search results to let you know which are safe and which are suspicious.

ATM Skimming

Some clever crooks attach cameras or scanning devices to ATMs so they can steal your account number and password. So to protect yourself, inspect the ATM, gas pump or credit card reader before using it. Don’t use the machine if anything appears loose, crooked or damaged, or if you notice scratches or tape residue on the machine. If your card isn’t returned after the transaction or after hitting “cancel,” immediately contact the financial institution that issued the card.

Credit and Debit Card Skimming

At retail stores and restaurants, some workers have been caught recording information off customer payment cards, either with a small credit card scanner or by snapping a picture of your card with their phone. Keep your card in sight whenever possible. Swipe it yourself, if you have that option. At USAA, you also can set up account alerts to notify you when USAA detects suspicious activity on your accounts or when changes are made to your personal or security profile. You can set up account alerts for all of your USAA accounts, including checking accounts, savings accounts, credit card and brokerage accounts, and auto insurance and personal property insurance policies.

Bogus Charities

Is that solicitor a community servant or a common thief? On your doorstep, on the phone and online, fraudsters appeal to your benevolent side, then take your money and run. Before donating to a charity you’re not familiar with, always investigate it — start with the Better Business Bureau or — and just say no to high-pressure pitches.

Phony Job Offers/Debt Relief

Crooks are taking advantage of consumers’ desperation by preying on their desire to find a job or get out of debt. The come-ons arrive in myriad forms — in email, web pop-ups and even the mailbox — and promise a hot job opportunity, debt forgiveness or great mortgage refinance rates, all if you just visit a website designed to steal what money you have left.

Fake Check/Overpayment Schemes

If you sell items on eBay or Craigslist, watch out. In this common scam, a “buyer” contacts you and says he will pay by cashier’s check. He sends a check for much more than your asking price and requests that you wire the excess money back to his “agent” or “associate.” The trouble starts a few days later, when your bank rejects the cashier’s check as fraudulent. If you’ve already wired the cash, the “excess money” and bank fees come out of your pocket and can’t be recovered.

Other commonly reported variations on this fraud include foreign lotteries (“Congratulations! You’ve won!”) in which you’re sent a big check and asked to wire back taxes and fees. Or “secret shopper” programs: That’s when you receive a phony check in return for evaluating the quality of a company’s money-transfer service. “If you encounter an opportunity that sounds anything like these scenarios,” says Shaw, “just say no.”

Advance-fee Fraud

This venerable con comes in many forms. You pay in advance for something, anticipating a reward of greater value. You might pay a fee to claim “found money” that supposedly belongs to you; to get in on a “can’t lose” investment opportunity; or to have “lottery winnings” delivered to you. In the end, the only one who comes out ahead is the scammer.

A common form of advance-fee fraud is known as the Nigerian scam, or 419 scam, named for a section of the Nigerian criminal code. In this long-running swindle, you might receive an official-sounding letter or email that promises you a cut of millions of dollars if you help this person move money out of his country using your bank account. And — you guessed it — substantial fees are required upfront. These scammers are now trying to lure victims through text messages and phone calls.

Phone Denial-of-Service Attacks

This elaborate con bombards your home, business or cell phone with hundreds of calls from an automated dialing system. When you answer, you may hear dead air or a recorded message. Meanwhile, a crook is raiding your financial accounts using illegally obtained information. And your financial institution isn’t able to contact you to verify the transaction because your phone is busy. The criminal could raid your account online or by calling your financial institution and pretending to be you. This well-planned scheme is devised months or even weeks in advance through illegal social engineering tactics or malware tactics.

Mobile Theft: Laptop, Phone, Tablet

It may sound old-fashioned and boring, but theft of devices remains the most common computer crime because it requires zero know-how to pull off. Tablets are increasingly popular as they are easily resold on the black market. To protect yourself, use a laptop cable lock whenever possible, and keep important gear out of sight unless you’re using it. Store briefcases in your trunk, not the passenger seat of your car, and make sure you use strong passwords and encryption (if available) on all your devices in case they fall into the wrong hands. Once stolen, these devices open the doors to all types of online scams and fraud.

As you can see, protecting yourself from online scams does not have to be difficult. Use these suggestions and common sense to stay ahead of would-be thieves. If you want more ideas to help protect your family’s finances, you can Subscribe to GI Money and get new tips delivered to your inbox as soon as they become available.

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