Three Underhanded Internet Scams to Avoid Today

internet scams

It’s been a long day, and Internet scams are the last thing you want to deal with.

You ran way too many meetings, you stayed on top of your inbox, you even took Mom out for lunch. Finally, you’re home, but just as you sink back into your couch, your cell phone rings: an unknown local number. You pick up, eager to get whatever it is off your plate.

“We are calling to inform you that the IRS is filing a lawsuit against you,” a robotic voice explains.

Well, great.

“To get more information about this case file, please call our department immediately at…”

It’s some kind of mistake, right? Or a scam… but no scammer would dare to pose as the IRS, would they? And how would they know your cell number?

Invisible criminals

Crimes like this robocall are commonplace, partly because they’re so easy to get away with. By using cheap technology to send a multitude of emails or calls (Call-Em-All offers 30 second pre-recorded calls for 6¢ a piece), criminals are able to cast wide nets from the shadows. They pose as lottery agents, cruise bookers, bankers, or even your own friends and relatives as they request information about your identity and finances.

With scant paper trails and no in-person interactions, they often get away with it.

Older adults are particularly at risk and lose billions each year to financial fraud and scams. Their need for assistance with the complexities of investments, mortgages, and healthcare leaves them vulnerable to scammers who claim to be helping them. Scams can destroy their savings and leave them with little or no recourse, late in life.

Let’s look at a few scams and deceptive business practices that affect millions of Americans each year in order to highlight the knowledge and tools that protect us from them.

Scam #1: Ring, ring… you’ve been robocalled

Over 80 million scam and fraudulent calls are placed in the US each month. Robocalls eat into people’s bank accounts, time, and emotional well-being, and unless you’ve given written consent to the caller, they are illegal. In 2015, they took an estimated $8.6 billion from consumers and businesses, not to mention the 20 million hours businesses wasted fielding such calls. Since October 2014, the FCC has received over a quarter million complaints about unwanted phone calls, and enough of the scams work that the IRS is aware of over $26.5 million lost to them since October 2013.

Unwanted call complaints made to FCC since October 2014

New technologies make it cheap and easy for scammers to dial thousands of numbers while falsifying the number that shows up on caller ID. They can even make it look like they’re calling from the IRS’s toll-free number. Laws and enforcement are scrambling to catch up.

Time for some good news: you don’t have to put up with these scammers. Here’s a few ways to make sure you never get an unwanted call again:

  • Start with the basics– put your phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry. It won’t affect scammers, but it will halt unsolicited sales calls from legitimate businesses, and it doesn’t cost you a dime.
  • FCC-approved call-blocking services are a great next move. Most smartphones can block individual numbers, but the process is limited and time-consuming. Call-blocking apps and services are a great improvement, wielding vast databases of numbers used by illegal robocallers to label such calls as fraudulent before you even pick up.

Which smartphone app is the best shield against spam calls? In order to develop innovative tools to squash robocalls last year, the FTC held a challenge called Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back. The winner –a free smartphone app called WhoApp– uses what it calls “the world’s largest address book” to tell users whether calls are coming from a safe number.

As for landlines, several carriers have started offering Nomorobo’s service, which intercepts blacklisted numbers and prevents their calls from going through at all. Ask your phone company to start using robocall-blocking technology if they don’t already.

If you do get a robocall, the FTC advises you to simply hang up without pressing any numbers and report the call online at or by phone at 1-877-FTC-HELP.

How to protect your phone

  • Do Not Call Registry: register phone numbers at or by calling 1-888-382-1222 (1-866-290-4236 for TTY) from the phone you want to register
  • Call-blocking smartphone apps: WhoApp, YouMail, Hiya, Nomorobo, Truecaller, etc.

Scam #2: Fine print puppet masters

Recurring charges… it’s easy to forget them, but they’ll never forget you.

Remembering is never a welcome revelation. You look at your bank statement and… surprise! You moved out of state months ago, but you’re still paying for that old gym membership.

Unfortunately, it can be worse than a simple memory lapse. Some companies intentionally obscure the fact that they intend to bill your card on a recurring basis. Some, like GoDaddy’s domain hosting services, charge customers a year down the road unless they’ve discovered and disabled the default auto-renewal. It’s easy to go years without realizing what’s happening.

Others, like sports clothing retailer Fabletics, bait customers with deep discounts but neglect to mention the recurring charges that come along with them until some fine print late in the checkout process.

But you don’t read the fine print, and you’re not alone.

In a study on fine print’s role in consumer decision-making published in 2014, NYU Law professor Florencia Marotta-Wurgler and colleagues examined the behaviors of almost 50,000 consumers looking to purchase software. Their findings? Only about 1 person in 1,000 even look at license agreements, and most of those only skim a tiny portion.

When an unwanted service does manage to sneak into your wallet, there are a few free apps out there that have your back. Prosper Daily monitors your charges and alerts you the instant any suspicious or grey charges appear. Truebill keeps track of your recurring charges and will let you know if a new one appears or if any of your bills increase unexpectedly. They also let you cancel any service with a single click.

How to protect your finances

  • Financial tracking with ID protection and credit score monitoring: Prosper Daily
  • Financial tracking with one-click service cancellation: Truebill

Scam #3: Gone phishing

The dark underbelly of email is hard to hide.

Just check your spam folder– even with complex passwords and intelligent filters doing their best, junk gets through. Maybe it’s the classic: a Nigerian prince wants to make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. Or perhaps it’s more sophisticated, like an email from your bank –but not really!– that features the bank’s customary logos and even the fine print at the bottom.

Whatever the case, clicking on links in phishy emails can wreak havoc on your life in the form of computer viruses, identity theft, withdrawals from your bank account, and more.

But you’re not even safe if you avoid clicking links in legitimate emails. In 2014, almost half of American adults had their personal information exposed by hackers. It’s possible for hackers to crack passwords faster than ever before. For example, an 8-character password like “freetaco” would have taken more than 3 months to crack in 1990, but it takes only 4 hours and 24 minutes in 2016. If you’re curious to see how long your own password would take to crack, check out Better Buys’ online tool here.

Again, seniors are especially at risk, so be sure to check in with the older adults in your life about their online security. Here’s a few simple steps to take right away.

How to protect your email and web browsing

  • Improve the strength of your passwords by making them longer and mixing uppercase and lowercase letters with symbols and numbers.
  • Don’t ever –ever!– click on links in an email unless you’re 150% sure it comes from a known and trusted source.
  • Set up 2-step verification for your email. This provides extra security and will keep scammers out even if they crack your password.
  • Don’t share any sensitive information about yourself or your finances on the internet unless you initiated contact and know who you’re dealing with.
  • Before entering any information about your identity or finances, make sure the website’s URL starts with https:// (the HTTPS protocol provides extra privacy and security features).
  • Use a web browser with high level security features like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, and make sure the version you use is up-to-date.
  • Install HTTPS Everywhere, a plug-in for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera that applies HTTPS security to sites that don’t otherwise use it.

Moving forward

Here’s a breakdown of all the suggestions and tools discussed above. 

  1. Register on the National Do Not Call Registry and banish unwanted sales calls.
  2. Download an app like WhoApp for your smartphone to protect from robocalls.
  3. Sign up for Truebill and stop paying for unwanted charges.
  4. Set up 2-step verification for your email.
  5. Install HTTPS Everywhere to protect yourself online.
  6. Review the FBI’s guide to common fraud schemes to avoid surprises.

There are plenty of scams and deceptive business practices out there on the wild frontiers of the internet, but there’s far too much goodness, too much knowledge and community and beauty and possibility to allow those pitfalls to deter us from venturing forth and enjoying the benefits.

Happy internetting, and as Horace said two millennia ago, “Begin, be bold, and venture to be wise.”

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