Career & Finance

7 Expert-Backed Ways to Make Sure You Don’t Get Straight-Up Scammed

plus the red flags you need to be on high alert for
Graphics by: Aryana Johnson
Graphics by: Aryana Johnson

Growing up, my mom preached non-stop about the importance of protecting your identity at all costs. Of course, this was during the pre-smartphone era and the digital world we now live in, so while her message still rings true, it’s getting harder and harder to protect yourself at all costs. Between fake job listings, Tinder swindlers, and spoofed numbers and emails, it feels like being conned out of your identity and hard-earned money is easier than ever.

The unfortunate truth is that anyone can get scammed nowadays, but you better believe I’ll be doing everything I can to avoid it. In the spirit of looking out for myself and you, dear reader, I tapped experts to learn the truth about the ongoing rise of scams and how we can protect ourselves. Ahead, learn the common scam red flags to look out for and seven expert-backed tips for how to avoid scams.

The truth about the ongoing rise of scams

With the advanced technology we all have at our fingertips, scammers sadly have more opportunities than ever to take advantage of people. Consumer financial advocate at Credit Karma, Courtney Alev, explained to me that scammers are now reaching people through various platforms (social media, via text or email, by phone, and more) in hyper-realistic ways thanks to AI tools.

What’s more, LinkedIn’s Senior Product Manager and Jobs Trust Gina Benvenuto also said that scammers are now preying on common fears plaguing people today, like economic and job uncertainty. This is why no field is off-limits for scammers. They’ll post fake job listings, use AI to impersonate government officials, bankers, and loved ones, and create online retail scams to steal your valuable information.

Basically, scammers keep getting smarter, fooling innocent people in a variety of ways and through various platforms and avenues. With that said, you need to know the red flags to look out for so you can know how to avoid scams.

Common scam red flags to be on high alert for

Asking for payment or personal information

It’s trickier to differentiate between the posers and legitimate people nowadays. For example, a so-called job recruiter who asks for payment upfront during the hiring process for training or equipment is always a red flag, according to Netzen IT expert Rob Phelps and the experts at AI Jobs. This also goes for impersonation scammers or someone who deposits money to you via a P2P account (like Venmo) and then asks for it back.

Additionally, the Head of Consumer Client Protecting at Bank of America, Jenn Eshreman, told me that scammers typically insist on payment via cryptocurrency or through a money app. Or they will ask you to put money on a gift card and ask you to read the numbers on the back of the card to them because these methods aren’t easily traceable and are harder to repeal.

Anything that feels too good to be true

No one magically wins or happens upon money for no reason (sad), so be wary of anyone or anything offering you an insane deal or even an astronomical salary that doesn’t really align with the market. For example, the Head of Consumer Business Practices at Chase Bank, Darius Kingsley, warns us about the traps of online shopping, especially on unfamiliar websites or ones with a confusing checkout experience that seems too good to be true. “We all love a deal, but be cautious of merchandise or services being offered online and at a significant discount,” he said.

Additionally, legitimate job recruiters don’t hire someone for an elaborate job with an above-average salary, huge perks, and major responsibilities with minimal or zero experience. But scammers absolutely will make something seem like it’s too good to pass up to excite you, lower your guard, and make you more inclined to give away things like your social security number or bank account information.

Feeling pressured

Creating a false sense of urgency is another trademark of scammers and a major red flag to look out for. This classic manipulation tactic is about preying on your emotions and using them to pressure you and gain access to your private information before you have time to think. “If a familiar company or someone you know comes to you with an alarming ‘emergency’ or ‘problem’ where time is of the essence, take a breath and recognize that this urgency may be a scam,” Ehresman told me. This might mean a job recruiter who’s pressuring you to send over information to secure the role or the need to “act now” to get a discount or protect your identity.

Spoofed numbers or emails

More and more scammers are falsifying their phone numbers and emails to try to get you to answer the phone or open a message from what looks like a trustworthy source. (I don’t know about you, but I get scam emails from “Amazon” all the time). While the emails might look legit, Phelps and AI Jobs explained that real companies will never contact you from a free email address (like Gmail), and scammers will sometimes copy the company’s email address but change one digit so it’s harder to, at a quick glance, realize it’s fake.

Poorly written ads and evasive job listings

Although AI is improving rapidly, it is not without error. This is why ads with nonsensical sentences, weird phrasing in general, and spelling and grammatical accuracies are a big red flag. For example, “fake job ads often feature vague descriptions that could apply to a wide range of industries to get as many people interested as possible,” Phelps and AI Jobs said. This also rings true with oddly worded emails or texts (often with messy formatting) that appear to come from a reputable retailer.

Source: @george-milton | Pexels

How to avoid falling victim to scams

1. Have your guard up

Having your guard up is the key to avoiding falling victim to scams. This looks like keeping red flags in mind, always being cautious, and staying informed on new and common scam tactics alike. For example, bank representatives and government officials will never call you asking for money or personal information, but scammers commonly will call and ask you for this. When in doubt, Alev recommends disengaging and calling any company or person you think you’re talking to directly to verify the contact before giving out any personal information.

2. Be wary of unfamiliar numbers and email addresses

Since caller ID isn’t foolproof, Kingsley recommends ignoring or blocking calls and messages from numbers you don’t recognize, calling the number that’s calling you while you have them on the line, or googling the number to see if it matches up. Likewise, you can also install a “who called me” app like Truecaller directly on your phone for extra spam-blocking.

That said, your gut knows what’s up, so if you answer a call or open something from an unknown number or sender and get a bad gut feeling, Ehresman implores you to hang up immediately. Then, report it as spam. Reporting spam helps whatever platform you’re using better filter messages, which can prevent more spam from reaching you in the future.

3. Proactively protect your accounts

Since staying vigilant is more important than ever, Alev recommends proactively protecting all your accounts so you can spot irregularities and do damage control sooner. To do this, she suggests taking time to scroll through your accounts daily, adding multi-factor authentication wherever you can, and ensuring all your passwords are difficult to guess by using a password management tool. Likewise, you can also set up fraud and transaction alerts through your bank and use a site like Credit Karma. These can help you monitor your credit score and get notified if an unsanctioned inquiry has been made into your credit report or a new line of credit has been opened in your name.

4. Keep your personal information safe

“When in doubt, don’t give it out,” Ehresman explained simply. Aside from keeping your personal information to yourself, she said this also means never sharing account verification codes with people who ask for them. Unless you’ve contacted the company through a verified method, providing strangers remote access to your mobile device or computer, or clicking a link and downloading an attachment from someone you don’t know is a recipe for disaster.

5. Never cash a check from a person or entity you don’t know

Because check fraud is on the rise, Ehresman warns against cashing checks from unknown senders. Scammers essentially use “free” checks to con you out of money, either by asking you to deposit it and send a portion of the funds into another account to “reimburse” the overpayment or by asking for you to claim a free lottery, sweepstakes, or inheritance upfront. While it can be tempting to fall for the latter (who doesn’t want free money or a free vacation?), it’s important to remember that something “free” shouldn’t require payment, no matter the circumstance.

6. Remain calm and conduct research

Preying on your emotions is a classic ploy scammers will use to try and swindle you out of your identity and money, which is why Kingsley, Ehresman, and Benvenuto urge you to remain calm at all costs. This will allow you to assess the situation without making any drastic moves and do proper research to debunk it. Also, since scammers are now using AI to create deepfakes of loved ones (think: your partner, a parent, best friend, sibling, or child), Kingsley also suggests setting up a code word with your inner circle that can be used during a phone call to establish whether something’s a scam.

If you are job hunting, Phelps and AI Jobs urge you to conduct tons of research during the hiring process. This means ensuring that the site the recruiter’s using to have you fill out forms is secure and conducting a Google and social media search. Unlike legitimate companies, fake ones will have inconsistencies and missing details across social media platforms; a quick Google search with the company name followed by “scam” or “fake” will clue you in on whether anyone else has had similar experiences with them.

7. Protect your belongings

Although we live in a digital world, it’s important to keep in mind that there are still (sadly) plenty of ways to get scammed in person as well. To better protect yourself, stay aware of your surroundings at all times, never leave your belongings unattended, and lock them up at the gym or work. No matter how “nice” it is where you are, scammers are everywhere, and taking these preventative measures will make it harder for others to steal your precious information off your phone or credit card.

Additionally, while it might seem like a thing of the past, keeping cash on you can also be helpful. Credit card skimmers and the like will use malicious card readers hidden within legitimate card readers to pilfer data and information. Since having your precious information stolen is the last thing you need, always carry around cash with you that can be used in odd or busy places.