Scams to Watch

Online scams have been around since the Internet’s creation. But as the information superhighway grows and becomes more complex, so do online scams. For example, 2005 marked the first time that wire transfers were the predominant way scammers collected money. In addition, consumers lost $14 million to Internet fraud in 2005, up from almost $6 million in 2004, according to the National Fraud Information Center.

The overpayment scam has been around for years but scammers have expanded the scope of items targeted, says Brett M. Christensen, who runs the Hoax-Slayer Website. The scam usually targets consumers who sell big-ticket items such as automobiles, boats, and electronic equipment but can now include the sale of animals, house rentals, and more. A prospective buyer will submit an offer and send a check for more than the proposed amount. The buyer will then ask the seller to wire the overpayment to a particular account. The seller wires the money before the check has cleared, only to find out later that the check has bounced. If you do sell merchandise online and the buyer sends you more than the allotted amount, suspend or cease all business transactions with the “buyer” immediately. There is no reason that you should be paying a buyer anything.

Lottery scams are also prevalent. “People receive an e-mail from a sweepstakes outfit telling them that they’ve won,” says James Perry, consumer service coordinator for the National Fraud Information Center. “When they call, someone tells them they need to wire certain fees.” If you have not entered a legitimate sweepstakes, assume that any e-mail correspondence suggesting you’ve won something is a scam. If the e-mail says someone else entered your name, verify the identity of that person. In any case, you shouldn’t pay out of pocket if you’ve won something. “If it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably a scam,” says Perry.

Ransomware is another new scam tactic, says Audri Lanford, co-director of Scammers hack into your computer, encrypt your computer files, and then charge a ransom in order for you to get the decryption key, which would let you read the files again. The best way to protect against this type of scam is to set up a firewall using software programs such as Norton Personal Firewall 2006 or McAfee Internet Security Suite and to avoid opening unfamiliar e-mail attachments.

“Even the most educated person can be a victim of these scams,” says Perry. The best ways to avoid getting duped: Never click on a link in an unfamiliar e-mail and don’t respond to any unsolicited messages.

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