10 Ways to Spot Financial Scams and How to Defend Yourself

Last year we collectively lost our minds stanning MacKenzie Scott. She’s the absolute QUEEN making all the other billionaires look bad by giving away half of her money to charity. No expensive foundations, no self-congratulatory PR machine. Just direct funding to worthy causes. Y’know: what people with more money than they could ever possibly use should do.

Her philanthropy is especially popular because it came as a graceful “fuck you” to her amoral cheat of an ex-husband, Jeff Bezos. (And you guys know how we feel about that guy.)

The $6 billion she’s donated so far is literally record-breaking. Which is why it’s so reprehensible that scammers have taken advantage of Scott’s reputation to steal from unsuspecting victims.

Recently, criminals masquerading as MacKenzie Scott have targeted the vulnerable for financial scams. These desperate individuals have lost thousands in fake transfer fees at the promise that they could be the lucky recipients of Scott’s philanthropy. Which is… so breathtakingly heartbreaking yet also predictable.

Financial scams are on the rise. Thanks in part to advances in digital currencies, global communications, and tech in general, it’s easier than ever to fall prey to these criminal schemes. There are even brand new scams using the COVID-19 pandemic to fleece the unwary.

So today we’re talking about financial scams: how they work, who they target, and how to avoid them. That last one most of all.

We want to arm you against the forces of darkness and set you loose upon the criminal element! Like a bunch of Google-wielding vigilantes, you shall dispense justice by defending yourselves and developing the perfect level of disdain with which to utter “How do you sleep at night?

1: If it seems too good to be true, it is

Scammers target the vulnerable, desperate, and ignorant on purpose. These are the people so downtrodden and hopeful that they’ll reach for any life line in the stormy sea of their dire circumstances. They’re the ones most likely to ignore their instincts when something looks too good to be true.

It’s a little counterintuitive, right? You’d think scammers would go for the wealthy and stable, those who have plenty to siphon off. Yet the deeply indebted or impoverished, the elderly on fixed incomes, those facing major medical crises or bankruptcy… these are the people commonly targeted by financial scams.

If you’re financially stable, in good health, debt-free, youngish, and relatively computer literate… you’re probably not a good mark for financial scams!

Your grandma on the other hand… she better be on high alert.

Grandma doesn’t hold with all this internetting you do. As far as she’s concerned, computers stopped being useful after they sent John Glenn orbiting around the Earth. (To be fair… Grandma’s got a point.) She’s living on a fixed income and she’s got medical bills to pay. Her hearing’s going and so is her English, but Grandma never met a charity unworthy of her donation and never met a law worth breaking.

So when that nice young man called to tell her she was the recipient of a large check from [unintelligible mumbling], Grandma didn’t hesitate to fork over the necessary processing fees to get the money. Maybe she’ll finally be able to afford that hip replacement and send you a crisp Hamilton for your birthday!

Grandma is hella vulnerable to the kind of tech-savvy scammers trolling for an easy mark. It’s not because Grandma isn’t smart… it’s because scammers have gotten so good at what they do it’s hard for the unwary to spot their financial scams.

Example: The MacKenzie Bezos impersonators

Scammers often target those just desperate enough for a financial windfall they’ll fall for an unlikely scenario. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” is one of those old-timey bits of advice you can safely ignore in this case. Because if you desperately need money—to pay for medical bills, or rent with eviction looming, or to pay down a mountain of student loan debt—you’re going to want to stare any gift horse that comes along directly in the chompers.

When one of the victims in the fake MacKenzie Scott case was contacted about receiving a donation from Scott, she thought “This seems way too good to be true.” If only she’d listened to her first instinct, she would have been spared the stress, heartache, and loss of $7,900 she couldn’t afford.

She did her due diligence: she Googled Scott, finding (fake) social media accounts and a website for a (fake) charitable foundation. The scammers had her set up an account at a (fake) bank and pay thousands in (fake) transfer fees to access the (fake) $250,000 Scott was supposedly gifting to her.

And the whole time she hoped beyond hope that it was all real… because she absolutely needed that supposed donation to give her autistic son a better life.

The criminals running the fake MacKenzie Scott donation scheme are smart. They know hope is a powerful drug. The desperately hoping will ignore that nagging instinct that something is too good to be true. And a financial scam will exploit those hopes.

2: Never give out personal information

Giving out your personally identifying information is a great way to get your identity stolen. Identity theft sucks—it means the thief can do everything from draining your bank accounts to opening a line of credit in your name to ganking your tax return. And often all they need is your name and social security number.

So be real fucking careful about who has access to your info. Don’t just give it to anyone who asks for it, especially if they’re some stranger on the phone or the internet.

And with that single phrase, I have completed my personal transformation into… my own mother.

Example: Phishing

Phishing is a financial scam in which the scammer sends emails pretending to be from a legit organization to try to convince you to reveal your personal information.

For example: a phisher might send an email that looks like it’s from your bank. They’ll say “There’s a problem with your account. Please respond with your full name, account number, and routing number and we’ll get it taken care of right away.”

What you might not notice is that the email address is just one letter off from your bank’s actual address. Or maybe instead of coming from your bank’s domain, the email is from “BankName@yahoo.com.”

Never respond to a random email with anything that could unlock your money or identity to a scammer.

3: Look for weird irregularities

While scammers are getting more sophisticated, paying attention to the little details can often tip you off to a financial scam. Here are some things to look out for:

  • The logo on a website or email looks off or out of focus.
  • Your contact is using an email address from the wrong domain.
  • Your contact insists on talking through an instant messenger app, and won’t talk on the phone or meet in person or over video conference.
  • Correspondence is littered with typos.
  • The caller has bad reception, or gets basic details about your situation wrong.
  • Google search results don’t add up.

Example: The fake job offer

Let me tell you a story about my idiot brother. (He’s not “my idiot brother” as opposed to “my sensible brother” or “my super smart brother.” He’s the only brother I have. And he’s an idiot.)

He’s been trying for a long time to get a job that uses his education in design. You might even say he’s desperate for a new job (see above). So when a recruiter for a prestigious design company contacted him out of the blue to request a job interview, he leapt at the chance.

Yet he soon became suspicious. While the recruiter said she found him through Indeed.com, she requested an interview over an instant messaging app rather than through Zoom or a phone call. And while her LinkedIn profile identified her as a recruiter for the design firm… her name didn’t appear anywhere on the company website. Nor did the job description. And she was using a gmail address. What’s more, the company logo on her emails was oddly pixelated, like a .jpg that had been copied too many times.

All of which my brother ignored when they offered him an $80k a year salary based on one brief interview over instant messenger.

That’s when the “recruiter” asked him for $3,500 to pay for specialized equipment to be shipped to his home. He’d be reimbursed, of course, with a check.

He cut off contact without sending the money. The check bounced. The job offer wasn’t real. My idiot brother lived to be scammed another day.

4: The government will almost never call you

The IRS is committed to keeping the U.S. Postal Service alive. That’s why they almost always mail you shit and almost never call you about shit.

Likewise, government-provided health insurance, the U.S. Social Security Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and anything to do with immigration or citizenship. The federal government sends out very official-looking mail. They ain’t got time to call.

If you call the feds about something, ask for a case number and the name of the representative you’re talking to. That way, if you or they need to call back later, you’ll be able to distinguish them from financial scams.

But in general, if someone calls you claiming to be from the government and asks you to reveal sensitive personal information, you may safely hang up with a clear conscience.

Example: The Medicaid imposter call

A few years ago I got a call. Here’s how it went:

Scammer: “We need to discuss your Medicaid card. Now give me all your personally identifying information including your full name, birth date, address, and SSN so I can make sure to get your new Medicaid card in the mail.”

Me: “I’m not on Medicaid.”

Scammer: “Are you sure?”

Me: “Positive. I’m on my employer’s health insurance plan.”

Scammer: “Oh, but this is in addition to that insurance. Or maybe it’s for your family member. You have a family member on Medicaid, right? If you just give me your identifying information, I can check our records to make sure.”

Me: “Motherfucker, I’m as positive I’m not on Medicaid as I am positive that this is a scam designed to prey on a poor and vulnerable sector of the population. How do you sleep at night?”

Scammer: “Ok ma’am have a good day and God bless.”

My blood boiled when I thought of all the actual Medicaid recipients who probably fell prey to that particular financial scam.

5: Ask questions

Asking even one clarifying question can cause a financial scam to unravel. Again: scammers are looking for a trusting, desperate, easy mark willing to ignore inconsistencies. They aren’t necessarily prepared to be challenged on the details of their scheme.

Try asking how a scammer found you, or where they’re calling from (hint: federal employees will definitely not be calling from India). Ask for more detailed information, or a website where you can do your own research.

You want to poke the surface of this unlikely scenario of which they’re trying to convince you, to see if it cracks.

Example: The fraudulent magazine subscriptions

The FBI is currently investigating a case where thousands of people were defrauded by a supposed magazine subscription service. I know because I was targeted.

Here’s how it worked: the scammers would call and offer the scammee a discount to renew their existing magazine subscriptions. If you said yes, you’d be asked to give your credit card number to confirm the account. Then you’d start getting billed $60 a month and brand new magazines would show up in your mail. The price was far above the worth of the magazines, and the victims never chose to subscribe to those magazines in the first place.

When I was targeted by this scam, it took only one clarifying question to raise my suspicions:

Me: “Which magazine subscriptions?”

Scammer: “The magazines you’re subscribed to.”

Me: “Yeah, but which ones? Can you name any of them?”

Scammer: “Oh, I’d have to look that up in our system.”

Me: “Ok I’ll wait.”

Scammer: …

I don’t actually subscribe to any magazines because it’s 20fucking21. CHECKMATE, SCAMMERS.

6: Don’t respond to strangers

Got an email from someone you don’t know? A phone call from a number you don’t recognize? What about a random text? Ignore it. If it’s truly legit and important, they’ll leave a voicemail or message and you can follow up with your own call.

Example: Who even uses the phone anyway?

At this point you’re probably thinking, “Damn Piggy. You’ve spoken to a lot of scammers on the phone. What gives?”

While I’d like to say it was some kind of long con or lengthy research for this very article… the truth is that I do respond to phone calls from strangers too often.

My weak-sauce excuse is that I use a Google Voice number for my business as a literary agent. And as anyone who has ever used the service before knows, Google Voice routes real numbers through randomly generated numbers. So when my phone buzzes from an unknown number, it could be a business call… or it could be a scam.

Recently I’ve learned to ignore all unknown numbers with the area code of my home state. Scammers will sometimes spoof numbers generated with the same area code as their mark.

But really, I should just let all unknown numbers go to voicemail. Not only would it save me time, but according to the FTC, it would train scammers that I don’t answer my phone. Thus, I’d receive fewer spam calls.

7: If asked to do something shady or illegal… DON’T

“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Roughly translated from 1960s Heinleinian, that means anyone offering you “easy money” or something for nothing is a lying liar who lies. And probably a criminal.

If you’re targeted by a scheme touting “easy money” or a way to “game the system”… tread lightly. For if there’s one thing I know about capitalism, it’s that it’s designed so those who really need money have to work damn hard to get it.

There are plenty of financial scams that begin by asking victims to do something illegal, unethical, or just plain shady. And if you’re going to do anything illegal, my lambs, it better fucking be your own idea! (Just kidding. Bitches Get Riches does not endorse any illegal activities no siree.)

Example: Card cracking and MLM

Card cracking is a double whammy of a financial scam. Not only does it cheat the victim out of money, but it also implicates them in illegal activity.

Here’s how it works: The scammer asks the victim for a PIN number and debit card associated with their checking account. The scammer then withdraws money from an ATM, the victim reports the card stolen to the bank, and the victim gets their money back plus a cut of what the scammer took… via fraudulent checks.

Sounds complicated, right? Here’s an “easy money” scheme that’s as simple as it is illegal: multi-level marketing, aka MLM, aka pyramid schemes.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of pyramid schemes, just ask the high school acquaintance hassling you about buying Jamberry via Facebook.

8: Beware cryptocurrencies

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have been hailed as amazing because they’re completely unregulated. Yet this also makes them perfect for scamming hapless victims.

If you lose money to a con from your bank account, your bank can help you recover the funds because they’re FDIC insured. Not so with bitcoin! It ain’t insured by shit, so if you get your bitcoin stolen, you have literally no legal recourse for getting it back.

I’m not saying we should never use cryptocurrency for anything at all ever (let’s be real: that’s another 3,000-word article, my dudes). But if you’re going to use Bitcoin, Dogecoin, Ethereum, Chainlink, Mollusk, Polkadot, Montero, Tether, or another cryptocurrency, you should proceed with caution.*

*I just made up one of those digital currencies and you didn’t even notice.

Example: Everything old is new again

One of the things I find really NEAT about the brand new invention of cryptocurrency is that it’s allowing thieves to reinvent classic financial scams in new and exciting ways.

Apparently Ponzi schemes are real big with cryptocurrency scammers. Yes, that thing that put Bernie Madoff behind bars. Cryptocurrency thieves are reimagining the Ponzi scheme in an entirely digital world.

They’re also doing their best early-2000s throwback by using malware to steal your cryptocurrency. Some are just making up fake cryptocurrencies (who would do such a thing???) and exchanging them for legit money to defraud their victims. Others are creating entire fake cryptocurrency exchanges to get at their marks’ money.

Like I said: digital currency is NEAT.

9: If you didn’t ask for it, don’t accept it

“Great news! Your application for a new zero-interest credit card has been approved! We know you didn’t apply for said credit card, but that’s ok! We’re giving it to you anyway. Just tell me your personally identifying information and I’ll get started on the process…”

We are not living in a Bob Ross world. None of this is a happy accident.

If you’re struggling with credit card debt or student loans or you could really use a better health insurance plan… no one is just going to offer you these things out of the blue. As much as my lazy self wishes, the universe cannot simply intuit your needs and deliver.

You have to apply for that debt consolidation or scholarship or line of credit. And if you didn’t apply for it, but you get it anyway… it ain’t real. It’s a scam.

Example: Fake awards and grants

Literally a minute ago I answered a phone call from an unknown number. It was a robot telling me my application for a zero-interest student loan payment plan had been approved. Which is obviously a scam because a) I didn’t apply for any such plan, and b) I paid off my student loans six years ago.

I can only guess that if I’d proceeded with the call, they would have asked for access to my financial information and I would’ve been sunk.

Isn’t it enough that student debtors have to deal with the fallout from Betsy DeVos’s mishandling of the Department of Education? Do they really need to be preyed upon by financial scams too?

Jeff Bridges shames financial scams with brutal condescension.

10: Do your research and ask around

If something seems too good to be true—if it matches any of the above criteria!—but you can’t put your finger on why, turn to someone you trust for a second opinion.

Your friends and loved ones (if they’re doing their jobs as friends and loved ones) are fiercely protective of you and your interests. Let them be the rabid mama wolverines snarling at potential financial scams, sniffing for the scent of a bigger, badder predator. Maybe they’ve even been targeted by the same scam and come bearing helpful advice!

If you’re too embarrassed about possibly falling prey to financial scams to ask your nearest and dearest… turn to the internet. The same hellish cesspit from whence many new financial scams came is also a tool for their destruction. Websites like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Federal Trade Commission bear your salvation in the form of running lists of financial scams and signs to watch out for. And ScamSurvivors offers helpful advice on identifying scams as well as a support network for those who’ve been victimized.

Example: My brother comes to me for advice

My brother is dumb about most things, but he does live life by one basic tenet: When in doubt, ask Piggy. So when he was targeted by the fake job offer scam, he called me.

My Spidey Senses were all atwitter while I googled that shit. And while I couldn’t find a scam related to the exact company or person he was in communication with, I found enough information on similar schemes online to confirm that this was in fact a financial scam.

Which is why if you do find yourself in the middle of a financial scam… you should report it! Knowledge is our best weapon against the scammers, so help protect the vulnerable by reporting schemes to the government. They’ll disseminate the information necessary to keep more people safe.

One place to go for a second opinion is The Snapping Point, which is just an excellent blog about scams. It came in very handy during the research for this article.

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12 thoughts to “10 Ways to Spot Financial Scams and How to Defend Yourself”

  1. I was scammed out of a couple grand last year when a call WHOSE ID SAID IT WAS FROM ONE OF MY BANKS talked me into giving too much information and emptied my accounts (thankfully my main savings is with a different place!). My bank said it’s happening to a TON of their customers. Smart people, too! This is Stanford Federal Credit Union I’m talking about, where you have to be an employee or an alumn to join.

    Scammers know we’re all tired and stressed the fuck out, and they are so good at sounding legit. The one who got me pretended he was a new employee and was having trouble with the computer system to keep me on the line. I felt bad for him, which made me extra vulnerable. *headdesk*

    The easiest way to handle unexpected calls supposedly from your bank/credit card/etc.: hang up and then call the main number from the back of your card or your statements. If the call was legit, they’ll be able to direct you to the right people to handle the issue. If it wasn’t, then you just saved yourself a lot of time and money.

    These people are making a LOT of money and are very good at what they do. Do not engage! Unexpected money calls are not to be trusted.

    1. I can’t echo your point on hanging up and calling a number you know hard enough. There was an array of scams in the last 2 years where they call elderly people and pretend to be their younger relatives who got in trouble and need financial help. And my grandma is the perfect victim for those, because of her anxiety and general momma bear attitude towards her family. So we told her again and again that none of us would ever be mad if she hangs up on us and calls us on a number she knows. Even if it’s an emergency. Especially if it’s an emergency. It was a very important conversation to have, mostly because just hanging up on someone is really damn rude, and grandma needed the emotional assurance that we were suspending one of the “politeness rules” because of this scam.

  2. This is such great advice, and I have know several smart and aware people who have gotten scammed in precisely the ways listed. And, unfortunately, a distant family member orchestrated a gofundme for a kid with cancer and kept the funds for themselves many years ago, which is beyond EVIL.How can these people live with themselves?
    DeFi is a FUN space… my partner has been involved in crypto for a few years now and even with tons of research, being part of many communities, and befriending several developers, we’ve still encountered a few “rug pulls” where the devs take the money and run (most recently, Uranium had $50MM hacked). There’s a saying in the space: “Only put in what you can afford to lose,” but I would go further and say, “Consider that money already gone!” If it’s still there tomorrow, great; if it does a 10x or 100x, even better. We’ve done pretty well, but it would be painfully easy to lose everything. It is stressful as all hell to watch the volatility, let alone thinking about scams. That being said, I’ll toss some funds at Mollusk 😉 or Montero, if it’s anything like Monero. 🙂

  3. Expensive foundations are legally obligated to report what they gave the money to and have to follow certain rules about the causes they give to. (No political campaigns, etc.) MacKenzie Scott as an individual is not subject to any of those requirements. I prefer the expensive foundations.

  4. Straight up – I used to work for local government assistance, and when I’d call people about their case they’d blurt out their SSN before I even got a chance to tell them I already had it. It was insane.

  5. As an artist, the one I’ve been hit with most lately is one where the scammer emails saying they love my work and they want to buy up to $5000 of art. The first couple times I decided to treat it like a possibly legit ask, it’s super flattering and exciting to make that big a sale after all, and followed up. But by the time they ask you to take a check for the art, you know it’s 100% a scam. Never take checks from people you don’t know personally (and maybe not even them these days!).

  6. Every single person at my workplace has had attempted unemployment claims file for them in our state over the past year. None of us were ever furloughed from our work. One of the biggest financial scams going in the country right now is people outside the country trying to get unemployment $ from our government. Fortunately, in our state every single unemployment claim is verified with the employer so a lot of the fraud has been nipped in the bud here.

  7. I got a voicemail message yesterday from “Social Security Administration”. Yadda yadda, urgent issue with your account, yadda yadda. I sooooooo want to call and mess with them. I worked in privacy the last two years, and our cybersecurity SME would regularly ask scammers calling her if their families knew what they were doing, and how dishonorable it was.
    Dad-in-law got scammed several years ago by people telling him his Windows license was out of date and immediately needed an upgrade–super frustrating because at them time, I worked for Microsoft and could have easily got him support or a license had it been a real issue.

  8. Hate that this is necessary to preach, but love that you’re doing it! Scammers can be hella sophisticated these days – I watched a video recently that shows how they get elderly folks to send them thousands in the mail, step by step, thanks to social engineering and taking advantage of their ignorance of technology. Here’s the link to that vid for the curious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrKW58MS12g

    It really is heartbreaking to see these folks getting fleeced out of their hard-earned money, especially when most folks don’t have enough of it in the first place. Here’s to hoping these financial scams die the fiery death they so desperately deserve.

  9. I was almost scammed by someone pretending to be Visa Fraud Prevention.

    In my defense, they called me just before 5:00 AM (part of the scam is to wake you up, apparently) and asked me if I’d been charging travel on my Visa at 3:00 AM. Well, no, obviously. The scammer said (and I quote):

    “Oh, my God! I think you’ve been defrauded!”

    That was the first red flag. Why are you so surprised, I thought. Didn’t YOU call ME? Also, I’m an atheist so I couldn’t care less but is it good customer service to take the lord’s name in vain?

    Then he asked me to confirm my account details on my Visa account that started with the numbers 4520 and the penny dropped.

    “All Visas start 4520 (in Canada, anyway). I tell you what; I’ll call you back at the 1-800 number on the card.” So I hung up and called Visa. No charges, no fraud file, no problems.

  10. I used to answer every call, because, JOURNALIST.

    Now I’m much more suspect, however, I do currently have a lot of house contractor stuff to wrangle, and some healthcare appointments, so I’m answering more than not.

    Weird but true story: I submitted to a poetry contest as a teen. I was told I’d won a prize and a trip to the US. I’m a bit blurry on the next steps … I think maybe they never came back on next steps to me, and I wound up googling them and there was info about it being a scam? Sooo weird. Presumably they would then have asked me for money for a deposit or something…

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