5 common scams and how to protect yourself

Fraudsters have become increasingly sophisticated in how they target their victims. The growing number of digital touchpoints in our lives means more ways to get scammed—and scammers are as polished as ever. They know what to say and how to manipulate situations to make themselves seem legitimate.

From financial scams to identity theft, crooks use false promises and misinformation to trick people. Here are some ways to spot common scams, plus tips you can use to help keep yourself safer.

Key takeaways

  • Scammers tend to target people who may be afraid or confused, so scams relating to things like COVID-19 and tax returns are common.
  • Many scams start with phone calls or text messages, with scammers impersonating trustworthy sources like banks or government agencies.
  • If someone asks you to pay in gift cards, you might want to keep your guard up—it could be a red flag that they’re trying to scam you.
  • If you receive an unsolicited call, email or letter with an offer that seems too good to be true, it probably is.

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5 common scams to watch out for

Scammers may try to access bank accounts directly or acquire personally identifiable information through means like phone calls, emails or text messages. Here are a few specific types of scams to be aware of:

1. Banking scams

Scammers sometimes target individual bank accounts directly. Common bank scams to keep an eye out for include:

  • Using free trials or potential prizes as a way of having you enter your bank account information for automatic withdrawals
  • Check fraud, in which you’re asked to deposit a fake check and wire money over to the scammer
  • Emails or calls pretending to be from your financial institution asking you to confirm the details of your account number

2. Debt relief scams

Fraudsters may also target people who are searching for relief from credit card debt. The scammers may charge fees in advance for services they may not actually provide, such as:

  • Removing negative information from credit reports
  • Lowering interest rates on credit cards
  • Settling outstanding debt

3. Tax scams

Some criminals may target people by using fear tactics or confusion about IRS processes. Common forms of tax scams include: 

  • Emails claiming to be from the IRS that request verification of personal information
  • Calls or letters demanding immediate payment in the form of gift cards, prepaid debit cards or wire transfers
  • Ghost preparers who don’t sign off on your tax forms but charge fees for handling your tax returns

4. Phone scams

Common phone scams often involve high-pressure pitches, with threats of fees or even jail time if you don’t comply with a scammer’s demands. Scammers may try to pressure you to:

  • Sign up to buy products or services
  • Hand over personal information for a fake lottery winning
  • Say “yes” to a question like “Can you hear me?” to use the recording as proof of you agreeing to a contract

5. Student loan scams

Scammers may try to target victims by offering to help them get student aid and student loan forgiveness. These scams may take the form of:

  • False claims to get potential student scholarships or other financial aid for an upfront fee
  • An upfront or monthly fee to reduce your student loan payments
  • Requests for your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) login information in order to verify your account

These are just a few things to keep an eye out for. Scams can take many forms—and scammers are always evolving. Some fraudsters may even still be trying to use confusion about the pandemic through COVID-19 scams.

How to avoid scams and protect yourself

The following tips can help you protect yourself from some of the most common scams and identity theft.

1. Use gift cards for gifts, not payments

No bank, government agency or legitimate debt collector will ask you to make payments using gift cards. If someone does, that’s a huge red flag. Look up the company or entity online and contact them directly to confirm. 

Generally, if anyone is asking you to purchase gift cards or use them for payments, you should view that as suspicious.

2. Be vigilant on social media and across the web

Fraudsters use social media to target you for your personal information. Never share personal, banking or password information on these platforms. Even a fun quiz that creates your superhero name using your mother’s maiden name can be used to target your accounts. 

And don’t fall for fake merchandise scams. When you see product ads online, beware of low-quality or altered images. You can use a search engine to look up the company in the ad and see what other customers have to say. In general, if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 

3. Don’t be fooled by fraudulent offers

Fraudsters may also try to target you by offering an opportunity to make quick profits for relatively little work. They might promise to make payments to you if you add them as a user and give them access to your account. Or they might ask you to send them money or goods—usually electronics and gift cards—before they make the payments. 

Don’t be fooled—any check you receive or pending payment from a fraudster you see in your account will likely bounce. And it’s unlikely you’ll be able to recover anything you already sent them.

4. Protect your accounts and personal information from phishing attacks

Phishing is when a fraudster contacts you pretending to represent a trustworthy source, like your bank or other legal entity, and uses what they already know about you to build trust and get more information from you.

Fraudsters are great at making these situations seem legitimate and pressuring you to act quickly. And spotting the real versus the fake can be hard. 

If a request seems suspicious or you don’t understand why you are getting it, the safest option is to call the company directly at the number listed on its official website or on the back of your credit or debit card. You can also sign in to your digital account to see if there are any security messages. And if you’re worried about credit card fraud, Capital One has security features to help you keep your account safe.

5. Stay up to date on the latest scams 

Scammers are always looking for new opportunities to get your information and money. The confusion and stress surrounding the coronavirus are among the latest. But there are ways you can stay ahead of the game. 

Many federal and state agencies have running lists of scam warnings. Sites that provide information on the latest scams include:

These agencies can also provide you with resources on how to report a scam. Or they may be able to help if you feel that you may have been the victim of a scam.

Protecting yourself from scams in a nutshell

Though the specifics may change over time, there are many common types of scams you may run into. It might help to trust in the old saying “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.”

Avoiding scams takes some vigilance and a bit of caution. If you’re interested in learning more about how to keep yourself safe from fraud and other scams, check out this guide on mobile security.

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