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Don't get scammed: how to spot and avoid common fraud schemes

Scams happen all the time, and they can target anyone, including you. It's important to be aware of the most common scams so you can protect yourself and your money. 

Investment scams

Investment scams happen when someone tricks you into investing your money in something that doesn't exist or isn't worth as much as they claim. The scammer might promise you high returns, like 50% or more, but in reality, they're just taking your money.
Red flags: Watch out for promises of high returns, pressure to act quickly, and unsolicited offers. Always do your own research before investing your money.
Real-life example: Bernie Madoff was a famous scammer who tricked people into giving him their money by promising to invest it for them. He created a fake investment business called a Ponzi scheme. Instead of actually investing the money, he used the cash from new investors to pay fake profits to the earlier investors. This made it look like his business was successful, and more people wanted to invest with him.
Eventually, he couldn't find enough new investors to keep paying the fake profits, and the whole scheme fell apart. Many people lost their money, and Madoff went to jail for his actions.
Bernie Madoff
Bernie Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison for running the biggest investment scam in history. The total value of his scheme was over $64 billion dollars. Image source: U.S. Department of Justice, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pyramid schemes

Pyramid schemes are a type of scam where people make money by recruiting others to join the scheme. The people at the top of the company, or pyramid, make money from the people below them, but eventually, the pyramid collapses, and most people lose their money.
Red flags: Be suspicious of opportunities that require you to recruit others to make money or ask for a large upfront or start-up fee.
Real-life example: Herbalife is a multi-level marketing (MLM) company that sells nutritional supplements and personal care products. While not a pure pyramid scheme, it has faced accusations of being one. Some people claim that the company focuses more on recruiting new distributors than on actually selling products. In 2016, Herbalife settled with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for $200,000,000 and agreed to change its business practices.

Phishing scams

Phishing scams happen when someone pretends to be a trustworthy person or company to get your personal or financial information. They might send you an email, text, or call you, asking for things like your password, Social Security number, or bank account information.
Red flags: Be careful with unsolicited emails or messages that ask for personal information. Always verify the identity of the sender or caller before giving out any information.
Real-life example: In 2019, a Texas school district lost $2.3 million because an employee fell for a phishing scam. The scammer pretended to be a construction company that the school district worked with and tricked the employee into sending the money to the wrong account.

Check cashing scams

A check cashing scam is when someone tricks you into cashing a fake check or accepting a fake electronic payment, and then they ask you to send them some of the money or use the money to buy something for them. When the bank finds out the check is fake, you'll have to pay back the money.
Red flags: Beware of checks that come from people you don't know or for amounts larger than you expect. Never send money to someone you don't know or trust.
Real-life example: A person received a job offer from a seemingly legitimate company. The new "employer" sent the person a check, claiming it was to purchase equipment needed for the job. However, the check amount was more than necessary for the equipment. The company then asked the person to return the difference, saying they had overpaid by mistake. The person deposited the check into their bank account and sent the extra money back to the company. A few days later, the bank discovered that the check was fake, and the person was responsible for repaying the money. The scammer disappeared, and the victim was left without a job and in debt.

Home renovation scams

Home renovation scams happen when someone offers to do work on your house, like fixing your roof or painting, but they either don't do the work or do a terrible job. They might ask for a large upfront payment and then disappear with your money.
Red flags: Be cautious of unsolicited offers for home repairs and always check the credibility of the contractor before giving them any money.
Real-life example: An elderly woman paid a contractor $5,000 to fix her roof, but he only worked for one day and never came back. She later found out he had scammed several other people in her neighborhood by taking their money and not showing up to complete the work.

How to avoid falling for scams

To avoid scams, remember these tips:
  1. Do your research: Look up the company, person, or offer online to see if it's legitimate. Check for reviews or scam warnings.
  2. Verify the identity and credibility of the sender or caller: If you receive an unsolicited email, call, or text message, don't automatically trust it. Contact the company directly using a phone number or website you know is genuine.
  3. Never give out personal or financial information: Scammers often ask for this information to steal your identity or money. Keep your information safe and don't share it with strangers.
  4. Report suspicious activity: If you think you've been targeted by a scam, report it to the authorities, like the Federal Trade Commission or your local police.
Remember, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Stay alert and protect yourself from scams.

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