Since the year is still relatively new, I thought it would be useful to look at some of the biggest traps consumers stepped into last year and offer a few tips on how to sidestep them.
The Better Business Bureau just released its list of the top scams of 2011, and you might recognize a few.
Don’t wave them off. Because scammers, who are some of the most innovative folks you’ll meet, are constantly changing their pitch to ensure you’ll fall for their fraudulent offers.
How innovative? I share all the gory details in my new book, Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals.
If you want numbers, then check out the latest list of top scams from the Federal Trade Commission.
Here are the five worst scams:
The job scam.
It’s an irresistible come-on, especially for someone who is out of work or wants to make a little extra money. The “job” offers the run from so-called secret-shopper gigs to work-from-home opportunities. According to the BBB, they’re often just a way to get your bank account information. How so? After your “interview” they ask for your bank account information, social security number, and other personal details in order to send you money. Result: ID theft and alas, no job.
How do you avoid it? Not to paint with too broad a brush, but anytime I see “work from home” or “secret shopper” I instinctively recoil. It’s almost always a scam. Don’t walk – run. And never give your bank account information to anyone.
The lottery scam.
Fake sweepstakes have always been a staple of the scam world and last year was no exception. Exhibit A: The fraudulent email that claimed to be from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, claiming you’ve “won” $1 million, according to the BBB. These swindles all have one thing in common: In order to make a claim, you have to send them money. Common sense tells you it doesn’t work that way, but when someone is dangling a mil in front of you, common sense goes out the door.
How do you avoid it? Even a small amount of research will confirm that virtually all of these sweepstake offers are bogus. If someone says you may have already won, hang up the phone.
Your social media friend scam.
Is someone you don’t know trying to “friend” you on Facebook or some other social media site? It could be a scam. Once you accept a stranger’s friend request, that person could have access to your personal information. For example, the Osama bin Laden death video, widely circulated on Facebook, was actually a scam that logged into your account and sent the video to all of your friends. BBB warns that in the future, scam artists could figure out a way to do more than send a video. They could take your personal information and use it for nefarious purposes.
How do you avoid it? If you don’t know someone, say “no” to a friend request. Make sure your account doesn’t contain any personal information, like social security numbers, your home address or credit card numbers. If you do, the bad guys will find it.
The home improvement scam.
I start my book on scams with an anecdote about an unlicensed contractor. He’d been recommended by friends but he took off with my money and left me without the fence he’d promised to build. It was a hard lesson learned. These home improvement scams are too common, ranging from the opportunistic roofer who notices you’re a few shingles short, to an paver who can cut you a great deal on a driveway. And, says the BBB, the worst ones prey on those who have been hit by a natural disaster, like a flood or a hurricane, and are desperate for help.
How do you avoid it? Always, always, ask for a license. No license? No business.
The check cashing scam.
I just heard from a reader who fell for this one. He was trying to sublet his apartment on Craigslist, and a young lady from France responded to his ad. She overpaid him with a check – and oversight, she assured him — and asked him to wire the balance back to her. He did, and the check bounced. He never heard from her again. Neither his bank, nor federal authorities, could help him.
How do you avoid it? Never wire money. If someone overpays with a check, send it back and request one for the correct amount. Remember, it takes several days for a check to clear, but when you wire money, it’s gone forever.
These aren’t the only scams lurking out there, but it’s a pretty good list. Will they be the biggest scams of 2012? If enough people read this post, hopefully not.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions at by email.