5 Scams to Avoid

Scams and scammers have come a long way from the infamous emails from a Nigerian prince. These days, we have to be sharp to avoid more sophisticated scams and fraudulent schemes. We set out to find some of the current scams that thieves are perpetrating online, over the phone and in person. Read on to stay up-to-date on scams that have been making the rounds lately.

1. GoFundMe Scams

GoFundMe is a type of crowdfunding website. Crowdfunding is a way to raise money for a cause, a startup business or other projects. Participants are given a unique GoFundMe website address and can send it to anyone online via social media, email or text notifications.

Recently, a New Jersey couple was in the news when they were accused of setting up a GoFundMe page for a homeless veteran and keeping the money they raised — around $400,000 — for themselves. While the New Jersey couple was raising money for an actual person in need and allegedly misused the funds, many other scammers use the platform to raise money for causes that don’t exist at all.

In one instance, Jared Aguilar of Arizona spotted a GoFundMe page that reported he had died. The fraudsters who set up the account were trying to collect money for his funeral expenses. In another case, Canadian Cindy Smith misled folks when she set up a GoFundMe page to collect money for a rare disease she claimed to have. Smith, who was completely healthy, raised more than $100,000 before police uncovered her scheme.

How to Avoid Being a Victim of a GoFundMe Scam

If you see a GoFundMe page that tugs at your heart, make sure you do your homework before you donate money. First, you can use a search engine to research a photo. Many scammers will find photos of sick children or needy looking families online and use them in their fake crowdfunding pages to collect donations. When you research the photo, you’ll be able to verify the claim.

If you don’t personally know the beneficiary behind the donation page, you can reach out to them through the GoFundMe platform. There’s an icon of a green envelope beneath the donation tab on their campaign page. If you click the icon, you can email the person requesting funds directly to ask any questions you may have. You can even ask for verifiable proof before you commit to giving any money.

2. Housing Scam

One of the more sinister scams that have been making its rounds on Craigslist, Trulia and other free real estate sites is a housing scam. Scammers look online for houses that are actually for sale, copy the images and information, then make a fake rental listing online. They wait for someone to contact them and encourage them to drive by the home and peak in the windows to check it out. The thieves then ask for an application fee, rental deposit and/or the first and last month’s rent payment. Once the deposit is paid, the scammer is gone without a trace.

How to Avoid Being a Victim of a Housing Scam

When you’re looking for a house to rent, always meet the agent or landlord in person at the actual property for a viewing. It’s also a good idea to search the address online to see if there are any duplicate listings or if the house has been for sale recently. If a landlord asks you to wire money because he or she is out of town, it’s a red flag. Walk away.

When you’re looking online for rental properties, pay attention to the verbiage used. If the housing description is extremely wordy and reads more like a sales pitch than a rental listing, it could be a fake. If the price is a couple of hundred dollars less than the going market rate, that’s also a sign that it might be a fraudulent ad.

Working with a Realtor is a good practice, even when you’re looking to rent and not buy. Often, Realtors offer their services for free to renters as they are often paid a small commission from the property owners. A Realtor will help you search for homes that are listed for rent on multiple listing services (MLS).

3. IRS Phone Scam

One morning not too long ago, I was making a cup of tea in my kitchen when I received a phone call. I picked up, and it was a man claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service. He told me that I had failed to declare income on my 2015 federal income taxes. He provided a previous address, amounts from my tax return and said that if I wasn’t prepared to make an installment payment over the phone, that a sheriff would be on his way to my home to arrest me. When I asked for more information, the man told me he was getting his supervisor on the line. Another man joined in on the call, threatening me and demanding payment.

The fake IRS call sounded legitimate because they had plenty of my personal information. I’m not sure if the amounts from my 2015 tax return were correct — probably not — but it made these criminals seem like they were working with actual data. Also, everyone is afraid of the IRS. The mere thought of being in trouble with them makes me want to write a check to make them go away.

Fortunately, I didn’t fall for the scam. But, I almost did. Sadly, I’m not alone. According to the United States, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), “Over 10,000 victims have collectively paid over $54 million as a result of phone scams since October 2013.” The thieves know that you likely don’t have a copy of your tax return from three years ago right in front of you. They can rattle off any number they like, and it might sound correct. They use fake IRS badge numbers and employee titles. It’s a very common phone scam these days. Some will receive a voicemail first, with a call-back number. Others will get an actual pretend agent on the line demanding money.

How to Avoid Being a Victim of the IRS Phone Scam

It’s important to know how the IRS operates. In general, the IRS will first contact you by mail about your income taxes. Look at the following information provided to us by the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS will never:

  • Call to demand immediate payment using a specific payment method such as a prepaid debit card, gift card or wire transfer. Generally, the IRS will first mail a bill to any taxpayer who owes taxes.
  • Threaten to immediately bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have the taxpayer arrested for not paying.
  • Demand that taxes be paid without giving the taxpayer the opportunity to question or appeal the amount owed.
  • Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.

For taxpayers who don’t owe taxes or don’t think they do:

  • Do not give out any information. Hang up immediately.
  • Contact the TIGTA to report the call at 800-366-4484.
  • Report it to the Federal Trade Commission.

For those who owe taxes or think they do, call the IRS at 800-829-1040. IRS workers can help.

Although it may be tempting to give these scammers a piece of your mind, the IRS recommends hanging up immediately if you receive a bogus IRS call. The best way to avoid being victimized is to steer clear of these crooks.

4. Utility Company Scams

During a busy lunchtime rush at Randy’s Pizza in North Carolina, David Kolenberg got a phone call from someone who claimed to work for the local electric company. The caller told Kolenberg that the pizza shop had failed to pay their electric bill. The caller added that unless Kolenberg paid $890, the electric company would shut off their electricity within 45 minutes. Kolenberg was fairly sure that the electric bill had been paid, but he didn’t want to take the chance of the electricity being shut off in the middle of their busiest time of the day. He paid the $890, only to later find out that he had been scammed.

Kolenberg fell for a widespread scam happening in major cities all around the world. Some scammers are even more sophisticated and use a technique called spoofing to make the caller identification on your phone look like the call is coming from your local electric company. Similar scams have been made with water companies, gas companies, and cell phone providers.

How to Avoid Being a Victim of Utility Company Scams

Never give your bank account, credit or debit account information to someone who calls you from your utility company. If you think you owe money, hang up and call the utility company directly. Then, you can speak with a representative and arrange a secure payment. Take this step even if your phone shows that the call is coming from your local utility provider. Spoofing technology can make a call look like it’s coming from a utility company when it’s actually coming from a scammer.

5. Home Security System Scam

One way that crooks can get information about the security system inside your home or lack thereof is to pose as an alarm system salesperson. The crook will dress as a salesperson, often carrying a clipboard and wearing a fake badge. Then, he or she will knock on your front door, claiming to be a salesperson for an alarm company. The fake salesperson will ask you about your home security. Do you currently have an alarm system? What times of day are you away from home? Do you have valuables in the home that you wish to protect and so on? After the encounter, the fraudster will offer you a weak sales pitch or leave some brochure with you and be gone. Then, later on, your house will be robbed.

Thieves use this scam often to peek into houses and get important information like the best time to come and rob the place and what kind of security system they might encounter. The fake security salesperson receives all the information he or she needs straight from the homeowner.

How to Avoid Being a Victim of the Home Security Scam

When someone knocks at your door, turn on an outside light and ask the person’s name and business through the front door. Do not open the door at all and keep it locked. If you have an upstairs balcony or large window, answer the door from above. It will catch your visitor off guard and change the dynamic when you’re above them speaking down. If you aren’t expecting visitors, let them know you are not interested and tell them to get lost. If the person refuses to leave or tries to keep you talking, call the police and alert a neighbor. While it’s tempting to keep quiet and not answer the door at all, some thieves are knocking just to see if anyone is home. If someone answers, they will leave. However, if it seems no one is home, they may take the opportunity to try and rob the place.

Be Aware and Informed

The best defense against any type of scam is to stay informed and alert. Don’t do business on your doorstep or give your financial information out on an incoming call, email or text message. Also, if an offer sounds too good to be true, or you’re told you’ve won a contest that you don’t remember entering, it’s likely a scam. Don’t let anyone push you into making a quick financial decision. Above all, listen to your gut instinct. If you have a funny feeling or things don’t seem right, shut it down and walk away.