Ten Golden Rules to Protect Yourself from Scams

From Internet Scambusters, Issue 492, May 16, 2012

By Scambusters Keith

There are hundreds of things you might do to protect yourself from scams and, as our loyal subscribers know, we report on them every week.

In fact, there are so many it's likely difficult to remember them all.

But what if we could distill all that advice into just a few "golden rules" that would pretty much guarantee you won't get caught in a scam?

That's what we've set out to do this week -- boiling down the lessons into just 10 tips.

Before we start though, it's important to point out that sometimes, by following them, you may end up rejecting perfectly honest approaches and opportunities.

But our aim is to keep you out of trouble. And, if you observe our rules to protect yourself from scams, adding just a dash of common sense, you'll almost certainly do that.

Here they are, in no particular order:


1. Don't buy or invest in something that seems too good to be true.

It's one of the oldest tricks in the book -- offering a bogus bargain that seems irresistible. Sadly, these days, you can't even trust someone you believe you should -- whether that's a "friend," a relative or an investment adviser.  They may be up to no good or they may have been hoodwinked themselves. Exception: A seller you know well.

2. Don't accept that someone is who they say they are.

Don't allow someone, whom you didn't request or invite, to come into your home.  Even if someone phones to arrange a visit, always find or check their number independently.  Or if someone on our doorstep says it's an emergency -- like the need for a bathroom visit or to make an urgent call -- don't let them in.  Wherever you encounter them, remember that an introduction, or a business or identity card proves nothing. Nor does a vehicle with a name on it. Or a phone call that sounds like it comes from someone you know.

3. Don't spend money upfront to get or earn money.

This applies, for example, to lotteries, other supposed competition wins or inheritances, and people claiming they want to share money they won or found.  Don't pay in advance for debt restructuring, job "opportunities" or promises of tax savings. Don't pay upfront for training "kits" or supplies for work-from-home programs unless you know, for sure, they work.  

4. Don't buy (or rent) from someone you don't know or haven't checked out.

This may seem harsh but it's especially important when making an online purchase.  There are so many phony websites, door-to-door traders, contractors, directories, home rentals, etc.  It's a simple matter to check them out in the phone book or by doing a Google, Yahoo! or Bing online search on the company name.  Seek references. What do others say about them?

5. Protect your confidential information.

Don't give it out in response to an inquiry you didn't initiate.  Use services like PayPal, one-off credit card numbers (from your card provider) and prepaid debit cards to limit your exposure to card fraud.  When buying online, check for "https" in the address line. If that "s" is not there, don't give any information and don't buy.  And leave your Social Security card and unneeded credit/store cards at home.

For more useful information on how to protect yourself from phishing scams, see this earlier Scambusters issue:


6. Don't make hasty decisions.

No matter how persuasive an offer seems or how much a rep insists you need to agree on a deal now to get a discount, don't do it!  Never agree to buy something on the spot, especially at your front door or in response to a telemarketing call.  An honest person would allow you time to think over an offer.  An exception might be an advertised limited-time offer, but even some of these are phony.

7. Only donate to charities you know or have checked out.

Don't give money to panhandlers or doorstep collectors.  Don't donate to store collection boxes or "tin-rattlers"unless you know for sure their cause is genuine.  We encourage you to donate to charities but send your money directly to them, and then only after checking them out.

(See this earlier Scambusters report for information on how to do this:  http://clicks.aweber.com/y/ct/?l=HWabO&m=JZgD61x.EGtWfo&b=3v5uqLyXKNprpz6y4Cq2ag)

8. Use reputable security software on your PC and keep it up to date.

Opt for products with "Internet Security" or similar wording rather than straight anti-virus programs -- and preferably ones that integrate with your web browser.  Regularly check that you're using the latest version and that it automatically updates its malware definitions.  Ignore pop-ups and other warnings that your machine is infected that don't come from this program. And never pay more money in response to such warnings.  

9. Don't click on links and attachments in unsolicited, unchecked messages or social networks.

You can't trust the sender or poster, even if you know them.  We're sure you'll be tempted to do so sometimes but if you absolutely want to avoid all risks, just don't.  Otherwise, if you really must, or it's something like an e-card greeting, write to the sender and confirm they sent it before doing anything else.

10. Don't wire cash.

Unless you're sending money to someone you know, don't use electronic cash transfer services.  And never send partial refunds from "overpayment" or "secret shopper" checks you received.

Two final points:

Oftentimes scammers target children, seniors or other vulnerable people.  If you have such people in your family, do everything you can to make them aware of the risks, and to protect them.

Second, as we always advise, you can avoid most scams just by being a natural skeptic.  Start from the position that what you're being told or offered, or the web page you landed on, might be a scam; that way, you'll actually spot most of them.   Then, assume that the more a person tries to convince you it's a great deal, the more likely it is a scam!

As we've said, some of these rules might seem a little harsh and you might want to temper them with a little bit of common sense.   But be warned: The more you do, the more likely you are to become a scam victim.  To truly protect yourself from scams, play it safe!