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8 common scams: How to spot them and stop them

There are no new scams -- just new suckers. Scam artists add new spins to age-old scams and go in search of victims. Yesterday's snake-oil salesmen are today's e-mail hucksters for nutritional supplements. Only today, these shysters don't personally swoop down on small towns with loud, rapid-fire, slick pitches. They slither through dial-up and cable connections and crouch in your e-mail inbox, on Web sites, or attack by telephone, disguising their identities behind nameless, faceless modern technology.

Don't get sucked in. By learning the eight basic scam types, you will be able to spot any scam -- no matter what new spin it's given by clever con artists.

Advance fee scams
Advance fee scams are easy to spot: You pay a fee in advance for receiving a credit card, loan or scholarship. In return, you get nothing valuable -- either the scammer disappears or you get a bunch of worthless junk. For example, one reader called to tell us about an advance-fee credit card scam that had tricked her. She paid a fee in advance to receive a new credit card. What she got was a list of banks that have credit cards -- all for the hefty price of $198. You should never pay in advance for a credit card. Even credit cards that have a fee will include the fee in your first billing cycle -- after you have received the card. And, by the way, you can search Bankrate for lists of fee and no-fee credit cards -- for free.

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Searching for a loan may lead you down a similar path. Recently, the Federal Trade Commission spotted several fake loan ads. The ads look real and even use the logos of real banks and credit unions. But the phone number in the ad will lead you to an imposter on a cell phone who asks for your personal information, tells you where to wire money for a fee, then disappears -- stealing your cash and identity.

You should also be wary of offers for scholarship searches that require paying an upfront fee. You can find most of this information yourself -- also for free. Ask your local librarian or school counselor for help in researching scholarships.

The prize that will cost you
It should go without saying that if you get an e-mail saying you won something -- and you didn't enter -- you should just delete it. This is a common scam.

Here's how it works: The e-mail says you've won, but to receive your lottery winnings or whatever the prize is, first you must pay the taxes or a handling fee. You hand over your cash and you never hear from this person again. Or, you are told you won a hotel or resort stay, but in order to use your prize, you have to pay for your own airline ticket -- booked through the agency that is awarding you the "prize." The ticket price will be inflated to cover the cost of the hotel.

If you didn't enter anything, you didn't win anything. And even if you did enter, taxes go to the government, not to the organization running the contest.

Also, do not give out personal information such as your Social Security number or bank account number to anyone to claim a prize. They're just trying to steal your identity.

Online auctions
There are several things to be careful of when bargain-shopping online. Even a noodle-brain can research an item quickly and discover its worth online. If you find an item priced far too low, it may be a scam -- a fake item, a stolen item, an item in really bad condition or something you will pay for and never receive. This is especially important in online auctions, where the pressure may be high as the bidding reaches the closing time.

Never agree to pay by cash or money order -- these methods of payment are untraceable and offer you no protection. You may also want to be wary of escrow companies because they are easily faked. In the best scenario, an escrow company takes your payment and holds it until the seller sends you the item. However, auction scammers have set up Web sites for fake escrow companies. This means you send the escrow company the money and you never get anything in return.

When paying for an item in an online auction, you should pay with a credit card if possible.

And no matter how great a bargain it may seem to be, never buy anything online from someone who approaches you through instant messaging or e-mail. Often, what happens is the contact person will tell you they have the item you are bidding on and will sell it to you for less. They may even lead you to fake Web sites they set up. By registering on the site, you provide them with all the information they need to steal your identity -- and of course, you never receive the items you paid for at their site.

To stay safe, only shop sites you know and trust.

Fraud jobs
There are several types of employment scams. The most notorious tricks include being recruited for an illegal job; identity theft through job applications, and bogus employment fees.

Fraudulent job opportunities often involve work-at-home offers. One of the newest appearing on job boards is the "reshipper." You are offered a good salary for receiving packages at your house and reshipping them overseas. The scam has several complicated layers, but basically, you pay out-of-pocket to ship the packages overseas, you get paid with a fake check, and the packages were paid for with stolen and fake credit cards.

An added hit to this scam: The information you provided in your job application made you a victim of identity theft. The scammers then use your information to apply for credit cards to buy more merchandise.

Other scammers don't bother to create the elaborate reshipping scheme -- they just tell you that you got whatever fake job they posted, then request your personal information "for the human resources department" and use it to steal your identity.

While hunting for a job, you may encounter someone who promises you a job, but only if you will pay a fee for processing, administration or uniforms. Steer clear of these people even if they promise you a money-back guarantee. Use employment services that charge the employer -- not the potential employee. Don't pay fees for uniforms. If you must pay for a uniform, ask that it be taken out of your first paycheck.

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-- Posted: April 27, 2004
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See Also
Bankrate's scam alert
Top 9 e-mail hoaxes
Are you a potential victim of identity theft?
Financial advice glossary
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