6 Online Tricks That Can Swindle You Out of Cash

September 20, 2012

This content is provided courtesy of USAA.

Cybercriminals never rest — so neither can you. Knowing what to watch out for can help you stay one step ahead of the crooks.

It doesn't matter if it's the Fourth of July or the night before Christmas, cybercriminals don't take vacations. They're always ready to take advantage of the slightest lapse in your diligence to load your computer with viruses and other malware.

Each year, scammers devise new schemes — and rely on their tried-and-true tactics — to steal your money and personal information, warns Dave Marcus, director of security research and communications for McAfee Labs, a leading security technology company.

To keep your information safe, always be on the lookout for these six common online scams.

1. Quizzes, Polls and Contests

The promise of something for nothing is a classic ploy of online crooks. One typical scam promises the first 20,000 responders will receive $1,000 gift cards to a popular electronics store if they "Like" the store on Facebook. Clicking the link will take you to a bogus page that asks for numerous personal details, which can be used for identity theft. And, of course, there are no gift cards.

To protect yourself

Ignore these kinds of offers, or go directly to a company's Facebook page or website to verify whether the offers are legitimate.

2. Auctions and Deals Too Good to be True

Shopping on online auction and classified ad sites can be a great way to save money. Some offers may not be so good after all — especially if the seller wants you to wire money in advance.

To protect yourself

Remember the old saying: "If it's too good to be true, it probably is."

"Thoroughly check out a seller's ratings and reviews before you bid on any online auction," says Jack Key, USAA's Chief Information Security Officer.

Some fraudulent sites may even imitate a Better Business Bureau seal or offer phony positive reviews to throw you off. You can verify BBB approval at bbb.org. Whatever you do, never pay by wire transfer, a surefire indication of a fraudulent sale.

"Your credit card company protects you from a certain level of fraud," says Key. "Take advantage of that." Worried about crooks running up charges on your card? Security and fraud alerts let you monitor activity on your credit card and set up alerts that will message you if unusual spending takes place.

3. Phony Do-gooders Out to Do Harm

Any time disaster strikes, charities go to work. So do scammers, taking advantage of your good nature and generosity by asking for donations via a website or text message and then keeping the money for themselves.

To protect yourself

Check to see if a charity is legitimate at the BBB Wise Giving Alliance or American Institute of Philanthropy websites. Another alternative is to donate directly through a charity's website.

4. Malware-ridden Cards and Programs

Animated cards, games and screen savers never go out of style. Scammers take advantage of the boredom of many computer users and trick them into downloading applications laden with spyware and other malicious technology.

To protect yourself

A strong anti-malware product will stop virtually all this stuff in its tracks. But your best bet is simply to not open any email attachment — even from a loved one — if you aren't certain it is legitimate. Get extra protection by ensuring your computer software updates are downloaded and applied automatically.

5. Vacation Homes (Not Really) for Rent

This up-and-coming scam is surprisingly simple: Fraudsters set up a vacation rental site for a real home (complete with photos), and they rent it out for weekend and holiday getaways. The problem: The scammer doesn't own the house, and it's not actually for rent, much to the surprise of both owner and renter come arrival day.

To protect yourself

Use only trusted travel sites and rental agencies when booking. Low-resolution photos of the home and super-low rental prices are also giveaways that something is fishy, says Marcus.

6. Fake Emails and Phishing Trips

Another common trick is a fraudulent email that "confirms" an order, payment or shipment you know nothing about. The email, which may appear to be from a reputable company, advises you to click a link or attachment to view the status of the order or shipment. When you click, you are routed to a fake website that asks you to enter your personal information — which is the target of the scam.

To protect yourself

Avoid opening emails from people and companies you don't recognize or trust. Permanently delete those emails.

Even if the email seems genuine, don't click on the links or attachments. Type the address into the address bar so that you go directly to the site.

If you aren't expecting a shipment, delete the email. You can go directly to the shipping company's website to discover if you have a surprise package coming to you.

If you receive an order or payment confirmation for something you aren't certain about, contact the company directly or check your debit card or credit card to see if the sale is legitimate.

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