Wow, it’s your lucky day. You got a call from Publisher’s Clearing House (PCH), where an excited man or woman says you’ve just won $5,000 a month for the rest of your life. Congrats! All you have to do is wire them a one-time fee of $500 to handle the processing, or give them your bank account info, so they can deposit your first installment of cash. Five grand a month! What are you going to do with all that money, they ask. What’s the first trip you’re going to take? Now you’re all excited, aren’t you?
Just one problem: It’s a big fat scam.
“This is the scam that just won’t quit,” warns Amy Nofziger, the director of Fraud Victim Support for AARP. She should know: She’s been focusing on consumer scams like this for nearly two decades. “These scams remain prevalent because they’re successful.”
It’s important to remember that Publisher’s Clearing House does NOT notify contest winners by phone. On its website, it emphasizes: “At PCH the winning is always free and you NEVER have to pay to claim a prize award. Recognizing the difference between legitimate sweepstakes and other types of offers that may not be legitimate will help you protect yourself and your family.”
Unfortunately, one woman in Florida didn’t know this and lost a staggering $800,000, after believing that she had won the real PCH sweepstakes. Scammers, befriending her, took her into their confidence, won her trust, roped her in—and then began cleaning her out.
“They told her they needed her tax forms, or money for shipping and handling fees, and so forth, and she continually sent money,” Nofziger says.
Losing the lion’s share of a million dollars is obviously an extreme case, but Nofziger warns that people get ripped off every day thinking they’ve won the lottery or a sweepstakes. The crooks behind these scams are clever, devious, shameless, and will stop at nothing to rob you blind. And thanks to technology, they’ve got more ways than ever to get to you.
Social media is the latest way. On Facebook FB, +0.49% for instance, you’re connected with friends and family—people you trust and choose to follow. This means you’re more likely to believe something that one of your connections sends you. Crooks take advantage of this by hacking say, your best friend, Bob, and then sending you a message. You obviously think it’s from Bob. And you like and trust Bob.
Nofziger says “It might begin ‘Hey, Amy! I just won this lottery! You should try to win it too. Click on this link.’” It seems legitimate, because it’s coming from your friend. You take the bait and before you know it, you’re handing over cash or the data they need to steal from you.
Here’s a thought: How about actually calling Bob and asking if this is true? The crooks are gambling that your inclination to be trustful—and perhaps your laziness—will keep you from doing so.
If you are targeted by scammers, there are two places you can and should report it. One is the Federal Trade Commission—FTC.gov. On the right side of the home page you’ll see options like “File A Consumer Complaint.” If it’s an email or social media scam, the FBI may get involved. Go to https://www.ic3.gov (the ic3 is short for “internet crime complaint center).
Don’t think this can’t happen to you. No matter how smart you think you are, no matter how successful you’ve been, you’re vulnerable. We all have wishes, dreams and desires—in other words soft spots that can be exploited—and scammers are really good at figuring out what yours are. “Everyone is vulnerable at anytime,” Nofziger warns, “regardless of our education or status.” That means you.
That’s if you allow the crooks to figure out those vulnerabilities. Check with a friend before clicking on a link. Screen calls and don’t answer unless you’re absolutely sure you know who’s calling. Sometimes scammers, twisting technology to their benefit, can make the number they’re calling from look like one that may be familiar to you; if you happen to answer and then realize it’s a stranger, Nofziger has some good advice here: Have a prepared script and keep it by the phone.
The script should have one line: “I don’t do business over the phone.”
And then, she says, hang up.
That’s always my advice, too. Just hang up. I know we’re not conditioned to be rude. But you have my permission: Be rude. Do not engage, do not answer any questions, do not get sucked into a conversation, no matter how friendly the man or woman sounds.
Just hang up.