Free Vacation Scams

Congrats – you’ve won an all-expense paid vacation to the Bahamas! It’s a dream come true! Or is it? Unfortunately, if you receive notification that you’ve landed a free luxury vacation, you’ve likely been targeted by a scam. Here’s what you need to know about free vacation scams and how to protect yourself from falling victim.

How the scams play out

In a free vacation scam, a target will receive a letter, email or text message informing them that they’ve just won a sweepstakes for a free luxury vacation. They’ll be asked to pay a small fee or tax to help process the prize. Alternatively, they may be asked to share their credit card information before they can claim the prize. Sadly, after paying the fee, they’ll never hear from the sweepstakes company again.

In another variation of this scam, the target is asked to attend a “short” meeting before they can claim their prize. This turns out to be a prolonged and overt sales pitch for a time-share purchase or travel-club membership. There may be vouchers for the promised vacation at the end of the class, but they can only be used for specific dates that may not work for the target, and require all sorts of additional fees before the “free” vacation can be redeemed. Also, if the victim signs up for what the scammer is selling, they’ll be charged hefty membership fees with few and/or hard-to-access benefits. When they try to cancel this nightmare membership, they’ll find a tangle of rules and regulations, and may find themselves stuck paying a monthly fee for a full year or more.

Red flags

Look out for these red flags to help you spot a possible free vacation scam:

  • You’re told you’ve won a sweepstakes you know you’ve never entered.
  • You’re asked to pay a fee or tax before a prize you won can be processed.
  • You’re highly pressured to sign up for a time-share purchase or travel club membership.
  • You’re told a free vacation offer with a club membership purchase is a one-time-only deal and that you must act quickly to avoid missing out.
  • You’re asked to share your credit card information to claim a free vacation you’ve allegedly won.

Protect yourself

Follow these tips to keep yourself safe from free vacation scams:

  • Never share personal information with an unverified contact.
  • Never agree to pay a “processing fee” or “tax” to claim a prize.
  • If a caller insists on payment via gift card or wire transfer, hang up.
  • Always read the fine print and do careful research before you sign up for a time-share or club membership. Look up online reviews, ask to speak to current clients or members and be sure to have a clear understanding of the cancellation policy before you join.
  • Be wary of club memberships that promise a lot of benefits for very little money. 

If you’re targeted

If you believe you’ve been targeted by a vacation scam, there are steps you can take to mitigate the damage. 

First, if you’ve paid the “processing fee” or “tax” with a credit card, be sure to dispute the charge as soon as possible. If you’ve shared your credit card information, cancel the card and consider placing a credit freeze on your name. Finally, let the FTC know about the scam so they can do their part in catching the scammers. If you’ve been targeted by a travel company, you can also alert the BBB so they can update their ratings and take appropriate action.

Responsible behavior never goes on vacation. Follow the tips outlined here to keep safe from a free vacation scam.

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a free vacation scam? Tell us about it in the comments. 

Don’t Get Caught in a Charity Scam

Sharing your blessings through charity is a truly wonderful way to give back. Unfortunately, though, scammers are out in full force to hijack the kindness of charity-givers everywhere to get at their money and their information. Here’s what you need to know about charity scams and how to protect yourself. ` 

How the scams play out

In a charity scam, a scammer or scam ring will target victims via phone call, by advertising on popular social media platforms and websites or by sending out mass emails with embedded links. The scammer pretends to represent a well-known charity, such as Make-A-Wish, or a popular cause, such as emergency relief funds for victims of a recent natural disaster. They’ll ask the target to make a donation toward their organization, and sometimes to share personally identifiable information as well. Sadly, though, instead of these funds going to help a charity, they only go to line the scammer’s pockets.

Red flags

Look out for these red flags, which can alert you to the fact that you may be, or have been, targeted by a charity scam:

  • You’re asked to share personal information, like your Social Security number, when making a donation.
  • You’re pressured into making a donation now.
  • You’re thanked for a donation you’ve allegedly made in the past, which you know you’ve never made.
  • When asked how your donation will be used, you’re given vague, evasive responses that don’t really answer your question.
  • You’re guaranteed to win a sweepstakes if you make a donation.
  • The “charity’s” website is full of typos and grammatical errors.
  • An organization with a name that closely resembles a well-known charity solicits a donation from you.
  • The alleged charity will only accept donations via prepaid debit card or gift card.
  • When you ask that the charity not call you again, they disregard your request.

Give with caution

Don’t let talk of scams hold you back from giving. Instead, learn these basic rules for giving safely:

  • Give to established charities you know and trust. Be wary of “charities” having names that are very similar to well-known organizations.
  • When donating to a new charity, verify its authenticity on a charity-vetting site, like Charity Navigator, GuideStar or CharityWatch. You can also Google the charity along with the word “scam” to see if there’s anything suspect about this organization.
  • Never click on embedded links or open email attachments from an unverified contact. 
  • Contact the charity you wish to donate to on your own instead of clicking on an ad or link.
  • Check the URL of the charity’s website for accurate spelling, and note that most legitimate charities have a URL ending in .org; not .com.
  • When planning to make a donation by phone, visit the charity’s website to make sure you have the correct number.
  • Don’t share personally identifiable information via email, phone or in any other way with an unverified contact. 
  • Be super-wary of social media posts soliciting donations. If using text-to-donate, verify the number with the charity before making your donation.
  • When donating to a charity, it’s best to use a credit card for optimal purchase protection.

If you’ve been targeted

If you believe you’ve been targeted by a charity scam, there are steps you can take to help various law enforcement agencies catch the scammers. First, report the scam to the FBI at tips.fbi.gov. Next, you can alert the FTC at FTC.gov. Finally, if the scam involves financial aid for a recent natural disaster, you can report it to the National Center for Disaster Fraud.

Charity scams vilify a beautiful deed, but you don’t have to let them ruin it for you. Use the advice offered in this guide to help recognize a charity scam and give safely.

Don’t Get Caught in a Non-Delivery Scam

With the holidays approaching, and online shopping reaching its annual peak, scammers are out in full force to get at your money and your purchases. There are many scams to watch for this time of year, from online “retailers” phishing for information as you shop to brazen porch thieves who swipe delivered packages from doorsteps and so many more. The non-delivery scam can be particularly difficult to spot, and recovery is nearly impossible. Here’s what you need to know about this scam and how to protect yourself.

How the scam plays out

In a non-delivery scam, a shopper makes an online purchase, often at a discounted price. They may have chanced upon this “sale” through a social media ad, an unsolicited email or a banner ad on their favorite website. Unfortunately, though, the promised package is never delivered. After weeks of waiting, the shopper may try reaching out to the seller, only to find that the seller’s gone AWOL, along with the victim’s chances of recovering their money and/or their purchase.

Protect yourself

The best way to protect yourself against non-delivery scams is to practice online safety measures and to shop smartly. Here’s how.

  • Never click on links or attachments in unsolicited emails or on social media, regardless of how amazing the offer may be. If an ad looks promising, look up the alleged associated retailer directly and on your own. 
  • Keep your device’s security at its strongest settings and mark all suspicious emails as spam. 
  • Opt out of websites that are full of typos and/or grammatical errors.
  • Check each website’s URL for authentic spelling and signs of security, like the “https” and padlock icon. Recheck each landing page as you shop. 
  • When shopping a new seller, do some research before sharing any information with the seller. Look for a phone number and street address associated with the seller or company, dig up some online reviews and ratings and Google the retailer’s name along with the word “scam” to see if anything comes up. 
  • When shopping a private seller on an online marketplace, like Jiji or Etsy, check the seller’s profile carefully. Be extra wary if the profile is new.
  • Avoid shopping at retailers who insist on payment via prepaid gift cards or wire transfer. When shopping online, it’s best to use a credit card.
  • Stay away from sellers who advertise as if they are residents of the U.S. and then respond to questions by claiming that they are actually out of the country.
  • Always ask for and save the tracking numbers of online purchases. Monitor the shipping process so you can dispute the charge if the process seems suspect.
  • Be wary of items with prices that are too good to be true; in all likelihood they are.

If you’re targeted

If you believe you’ve fallen victim to a non-delivery scam, there are steps you can take to mitigate the damage. 

First, if you’ve paid via credit card, call the issuing company to dispute the charge as soon as you recognize the scam. If you believe the account has been compromised, you may want to close it and place a credit alert and/or credit freeze on your name as well. Next, be sure to alert the FTC about the scam so they can do their part in catching the crooks. If the alleged retailer is on the BBB website, you can let them know, too. Finally, let your friends know about the scam so they know to be aware.

Online commerce makes holiday shopping so much easier–but scams are everywhere. Shop smartly this season and follow the tips outlined here to avoid getting scammed. Stay safe!

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a non-delivery scam? Tell us about it in the comments. 

All You Need to Know About SIM Swaps

SIM swapping, also known as SIM swap scams, or SIM hijacking, can be a nightmare for an unwary victim. According to a recent announcement by the FBI, this ruse is on the rise. In 2021, the FBI received 1,611 reports of SIM swapping, with losses totaling over $68 million, a more than five-fold increase from the 320 SIM swap complaints occuring in 2018 and 2019 combined. Here’s what you need to know about this prevalent scam and how to protect yourself. 

How the scam plays out

In a SIM swap scam, a criminal steals a target’s mobile phone number by tricking the victim’s cellphone provider into transferring the number to a SIM card in the criminal’s possession. 

Before the actual scam is pulled off, the scammer will generally employ a phishing scam to obtain some basic information about the target’s mobile number and phone service provider. They may reach out to the target via email, text message or phone call. They’ll pretend to represent the service provider, and ask the target to share or confirm their phone number and/or account number. They may claim there is an issue with the target’s account, and say they need this information to fix the problem. Unfortunately, the target often believes they are engaging with an authentic representative of their phone company, and willingly shares this information.

Next, the scammer will call the target’s service provider and use this info to convince them that they are actually the target. The scammer will claim that their SIM card has been lost or destroyed and they’ve purchased a new one to replace it. If the mobile service provider falls for the ploy, they’ll transfer the phone number to the scammer’s SIM card.

Finally, the criminal inserts the now-active SIM card into their own device and uses it to access the victim’s accounts by bypassing the SIM-based two-step authentication. The scammer then proceeds to change all passwords for online accounts linked to the phone. Unfortunately, this leaves the victim with an inactive SIM card and worse, locked out of their own accounts.

Protect yourself

Despite its prevalence, there are ways to protect yourself from SIM swap scams. The FBI advises consumers to take the following precautions:

  • Never share information about your financial assets while online.
  • Never share information about your mobile phone number or cellphone provider with an unverified contact over the phone or online.
  • Don’t assume every communication from an alleged service provider is legit. If you receive an unexpected call, message or email from your mobile phone’s provider asking you to share or confirm information, do not engage. Contact the provider directly to determine if the communication was authentic. 
  • Keep your social-media platform settings private.
  • Use strong, updated security for all your devices. 
  • Never share personally identifiable information online. 
  • Use strong, unique passwords across all your online accounts.
  • When possible, use strong, multi-factor authentication, standalone authentication, apps and physical security tokens to access accounts that contain sensitive information.
  • Don’t allow your mobile devices to “remember” your passwords, usernames and other personal information.

If you’ve been targeted

If you believe you’ve been targeted by a SIM swapping scam, take these steps to mitigate the damage:

  • Reach out to your cellphone provider for assistance in regaining control of your phone number.
  • Change the passwords and logins on all your online accounts.
  • Let your financial institution and credit card companies know about the scam so they can look out for suspicious activity on your accounts. 
  • Consider placing a credit alert and/or credit freeze on your accounts. 
  • Report the scam to your local FBI field office, your local law enforcement agency and the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Stay alert and stay safe!

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a SIM swap scam? Tell us about it in the comments. 

How Can I Save on Holiday Shopping?

Q: I’m always worried about money during the holiday season, and with inflation soaring, I’m more stressed than ever. How can I save on holiday shopping this year?

A: If you’re worried about making it through the holiday shopping season in the midst of record inflation, you’re not alone. A recent survey shows that 59% of American shoppers are stressed about buying holiday gifts this season due to higher prices. However, with some careful planning and budgeting, you can enjoy stress-free holiday shopping. Here are seven easy ways you can save during this holiday season.

  1. Shop early

It’s always a good idea to do your shopping early in the season so pressure and crowds don’t cause you to make decisions you’ll come to regret. This year, experts are urging shoppers to hit stores earlier than normally planned so they can take advantage of early season sales. Many big-box stores are struggling with a supply surplus thanks to an inflation-triggered decline in demand. This will likely lead to sales events to make room for more up-to-date inventory. You can take advantage of this surplus by shopping these sales and saving on your holiday purchases.

2. Set a budget

Budgets are for holidays, too. Sit down before doing your shopping to build a reasonable budget for your holiday shopping. Factor in current prices when working out your budget. Of course, this is only half the work – you’ll need to stick to that budget for it to be worth anything. Make this easier by allocating a specific amount for every gift, shopping with cash and/or reviewing your budget frequently as you do your holiday shopping. 

  1. Shop with a list

Instead of hitting the stores blindly, create a list of every gift you plan to buy for friends and family. You can browse online stores for inspiration, but resolve not to start shopping until you have a complete list. You’ll be far more likely to stay within budget when your purchases are pre-planned. 

  1. Leave some last-minute shopping for Green Monday

While it’s best to do the bulk of your shopping early in the season, you can leave some last-minute gift-shopping for Green Monday, which falls on Dec. 14 this year. This is when retailers make their final pre-holiday markdowns. Be prepared for slim pickings, though, so don’t leave any specific gifts for this late in the season. 

  1. Think outside the box when planning your gifts

If ever there was a holiday season to get creative with your gifting, this is it. Retail inventories are full of products that were backed up during the post-pandemic supply-chain disaster. Think furniture, home decor and more. While much of this may not make for typical holiday gifts, there’s no real reason you can’t delight a loved one with a new office chair, exercise bike or coffee organizing station.

  1. Give gift cards

Protect your gift list against inflation by giving gift cards. You can find discounted cards on sites like GiftCardGranny and CardCash, or use cash-back apps to earn them at no cost. Gift cards are easy to shop for, easy to budget for and always appreciated by the receiver.

  1. Use apps to save

In 2022, there are so many apps that can help you spend less on your shopping, and even put money back in your pocket. Here are some money-saving apps you might want to download ahead of this shopping season:

  • Drop. This free app allows you to link your credit and/or debit card, and shop directly from the app at 300+ retailers. Earn points back on every purchase. Use your points to purchase gift cards.
  • Honey. Why pay full price when you can get the same item for less? This coupon-scanning app will automatically find promo codes and coupons for items you’re searching for so you can save on your shopping. You can earn points on purchases made through the app, too.
  • Fetch. Earn points on grocery purchases by scanning your receipts after you shop. Redeem points for gift cards.
  • Ibotta. Get cash back for your purchases by scanning your receipts with this app. Use for online purchases, and by linking store loyalty cards for in-store purchases, too. Redeem points for cash or gift cards. 

Holiday shopping may be a race against inflation this year, but with a little pre-planning, you can complete your shopping with your budget intact. Use the money-saving tips outlined here to get started.

Your Turn: How do you plan to save on holiday shopping this year? Share your best tips and hacks in the comments. 

Don’t Get Caught in a Pre-approval Scam

You’ve got mail! But beware, because this particular missive telling you that you’ve been preapproved for a large loan – maybe even a mortgage – may not be as it seems! The exciting news may be accompanied by a check that’s made out to you and even for the full loan amount! It’s a dream come true. Until, of course, it all turns into a living nightmare. 

Here’s what you need to know about preapproval scams and how to stay safe.

How the scams play out

In a preapproval scam, a target receives a letter in the mail, an email or a text message informing them they’re preapproved, or “prescreened,” for a large loan. The letter is often accompanied by a live check, or an unsolicited check that can be cashed in by the named recipient – which is you. The letter may also be highly relevant to your life. For example, if you’re in the market for a new home, the offer may feature an alleged preapproved mortgage loan. If you’re looking for a new set of wheels, the letter will likely offer a bogus auto loan. More commonly, though, will be the offer of a personal, or unsecured loan, through a live check. 

When you go ahead and cash that check, you may be playing right into the hands of a scammer. 

The authentic-looking check cannot be cashed unless the recipient shares their personal information. Of course, this means providing a scammer, or a scam ring, with all the info they need to empty your accounts, commit identity theft or worse. In addition, the check may appear to clear but then bounce a few days later, leaving you to pick up the tab for any of the money you’ve spent. Finally, if you really do need to take out a large loan, the bogus offer can set you back significantly by hurting your credit score.  

Checklist for legitimate preapproval offers

If you have a credit history, you’ve likely received these preapproval offers at least several times. Some of them are actually legitimate offers to cover a loan for a large amount. How, then, can you tell which of these offers are legitimate or scam?

First, it’s important to know that, while some of these offers may be legit, that doesn’t mean they’re good for your financial health. If you cash that check and/or accept that loan offer, you’ll be bound by the loan terms, which you may not be truly aware of until the first repayment bill becomes due. Most of these preapproval offers will have exorbitant interest rates and may demand full repayment quicker than typical loans obtained from a bank or credit union. 

Now, let’s take a look at how you can determine whether one of these preapproval offers is legit. If you receive an offer as described, look for this information to verify the authenticity of the offer: 

  • A disclosure of the loan fees
  • The annual percentage rate (APR), which is the annual cost of the loan 
  • The payment schedule
  • The loan agreement
  • A privacy notice about the sharing of your personal information
  • An opt-out notice for future offers
  • Contact information for the sender, which includes a number and street address

If any of this info is missing from the preapproval offer, you’re likely looking at a scam. 

If you’ve been targeted

If you’ve been targeted by a preapproval scam or a legitimate but shady offer, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from further harm and to stop the annoying letters from landing in your mailbox. 

First, let the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) know about the circulating scam. Next, it’s important to note that, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you have the right to opt-out of future loan offers for five years, or permanently. To opt-out for the next five years, call 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688) or visit OptOutPrescreen. To opt-out forever, visit OptOutPreScreen to request a Permanent Opt-Out Election form. Return the signed form and you should be off the list of all preapproval offers. Finally, keep your online interactions safe from scams by using the strongest and most up-to-date security settings across your devices and being careful about the information you share online.

Preapproval scams can be super-annoying and destructive, but you can outsmart them. Stay safe!

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a preapproval scam? Tell us about it in the comments. 

All You Need to Know About Cybersecurity

Cybercrimes are increasing exponentially by the year. Unfortunately, developments like the pandemic, the growth of cryptocurrency and the increase in online working and shopping have created a target-rich environment for cybercriminals. In fact, according to Cybercrime Magazine, cybercrime will cost the world $10.5 trillion annually by the year 2025. 

The best way to protect yourself from cybercrimes of any kind is by being aware of common warning signs as well as keeping your systems and devices secure. High levels of cybersecurity are employed at all times on the internet to keep websites–as well as power grids, water systems and more–running and free of malicious activity. As a private consumer, you can also utilize cybersecurity on your own devices, albeit on a smaller scale. In honor of Cybersecurity Month, let’s take a closer look at this essential toolset and how to best harness it for your protection. 

What is cybersecurity?

Cybersecurity refers to the protection of all online devices, networks, data and electronic systems from attacks by hackers, scammers and cybercriminals. 

There are several major categories of cybersecurity:

  • Network security is the practice of securing a computer network from intruders who commit crimes via targeted attack and/or malware. 
  • Application security focuses on protecting software and devices from threats. 
  • Information security protects the integrity and privacy of data.
  • Operational security includes handling and protecting data assets. 
  • Disaster recovery and business continuity include the ways an organization responds to an actual or potential security breach.
  • Cloud security refers to creating secure cloud applications for companies that use cloud service providers, like Google, Amazon Web Services, etc. 
  • Identity management and data security protects processes that enable authorization and authentication of legitimate individuals to an organization’s systems. 
  • Mobile security protects data that is stored on mobile devices from threats like unauthorized access, device loss or theft, malware and viruses. 

Types of cybercrimes

Cybercrimes can be divided into several categories:

  1. Cybercrime includes criminals acting alone or in groups who target systems for financial gain or to cause disturbances.
  2. Cyber-attack will often involve groups of criminals gathering information for political reasons.
  3. Cyberterrorism is the act of hacking electronic systems with the intent of causing panic or fear.

Methods of cybercrimes

All forms of cybercrimes threaten cybersecurity in some way. Here are some of the methods cybercriminals use to wage attacks: 

  • Malware. This threat includes ransomware, spyware, viruses and worms. These can install harmful software, block access to computer systems or provide scammers with access to data.
  • Trojans. This attack tricks users into thinking they’re opening a harmless file when, in reality, they’re installing a backdoor that provides cybercriminals with unauthorized access. 
  • Botnets. This attack is conducted via remotely controlled malware-infected devices and is usually deployed as a large-scale attack. Compromised computers are integrated as part of the botnet system to further spread the attack.
  • Adware. This threat involves a potentially unwanted program that is installed without the user’s permission and automatically generates unwanted online advertisements.
  • Phishing. This attack is employed via email, text or social media message to trick the target into sharing sensitive information. Often, the tactic will also lead to the installation of malware.
  • Man-in-the-middle attack. In these attacks, a hacker will insert themselves into a two-person online transaction. The hacker will then steal data and/or login credentials.

How can I protect myself against cyberattacks?

Fortunately, there are lots of preventative measures you can take to protect your information and your money from cyberattacks: 

  1. Update your software and operating systems. Accept every update you are offered because these will provide the strongest and most current protection.
  2. Use anti-virus software. This software will detect and remove threats in real-time. 
  3. Use strong, unique passwords across all your online accounts. Be sure to vary your use of capitalization, symbols, letters and numbers. For optimal security, switch up your password every six months.  
  4. Never open email attachments or click on links from unknown senders. These can automatically download malware onto your device.
  5. Avoid using unsecured public WiFi. Using unsecure networks leaves you vulnerable to attacks.

Cybersecurity is a crucial component of modern day digital safety. This guide can help you learn how to utilize this essential toolset for your personal security. 

Your Turn: How do you utilize cybersecurity to protect your information and your money from cybercrimes? Share your best tips in the comments.

Beware of Digital Kidnapping

Most parents warn their kids against taking candy or accepting a ride from a stranger, but there’s a digital equivalent to conventional kidnapping that is unknown to many people. Digital kidnapping happens when a crook takes control of a target’s social media profiles and holds them until a ransom is paid. It can also involve “kidnapping” photos that are posted on social media pages. Here’s what you need to know about digital kidnapping and how to protect yourself from falling victim. 

How the scams play out

In a digital kidnapping scam, a hacker or ring of scammers will take control of one or more of a target’s social media profiles. The target will be effectively locked out of their own social media accounts and will be unable to access or update them. Once the scammer has control of the profile, they’ll contact the target, demanding a hefty ransom in return for access to the account. They may even threaten to post damaging or humiliating content on the social media profile unless the ransom is paid.

In another version of this scam, hackers will “kidnap” a photo of a child or baby off an unsecured social media account. They will post these photos in their own accounts, using the picture-perfect moments to create a fantasy world of their own. In a creepy twist of reality, they’ll pretend these are snapshots of their own family. They may use this fake world to help them create an imaginary escape, or to draw traffic to their own public accounts. Sometimes, they’ll utilize these photos to help build a bogus story, such as a baby being put up for adoption, or a charitable fund to benefit a child whose parents are struggling financially. Unfortunately for the actual parents, it can be months or years before they find out that their child’s picture is splashed across a public account with thousands of followers. 

If you’ve been targeted

If you believe you’ve been targeted by a digital kidnapping scam, there are steps you can take to mitigate the damage. First, alert the company that owns the social media platform to let them know your account has been compromised. They’ll likely have specific instructions for you to follow to ensure your account remains safe. They may even advise you to close the compromised account and open a new one. Next, tip off the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and local law enforcement agencies which can help you determine whether it makes sense to pay the requested ransom. Finally, clean up your accounts and make sure there is no identifying or potentially dangerous information being posted on a public forum.

Protect yourself

The best way to protect yourself from digital kidnapping is by keeping your accounts private and secure. Always choose the strongest security settings on your devices and opt for private social media accounts across every platform. This will limit your audience to by-invitation-only viewers while helping to keep hackers and creeps away. 

It’s also a good idea to be mindful of what you post, and how often you post it. Even when using the strongest security settings, sharing a picture online essentially means sharing it with the public. You never know who may be trolling your accounts or looking for pictures to “adopt” as their own. Think three times before posting a picture of your kids. Extra caution is advised for those with super-cute kids.

Finally, be sure to follow basic online safety rules to avoid giving a scammer access to your accounts. Use strong, unique passwords for each of your online accounts and change up your passwords every six months or so. Avoid using public WiFi unless absolutely necessary. Accept every security and software update offered for your device to keep them operating at optimal security. Finally, avoid sharing sensitive information with an unverified contact and never download an attachment or click on a link within an email from an unknown sender. 

Stay alert and stay safe!

Your Turn: Do you have a digital kidnapping experience to share? Tell us about it in the comments.

8 Ways to Spot a Survey Scam

Survey scams are almost as old as the internet. They’re so prevalent, you can hardly spend an hour online without running into an ad for a “super quick” survey promising a reward for just a few minutes of your time. 

What actually happens, though, is that the scammer walks away with a free survey, or worse, your information and/or your money. The alert consumer can spot a survey scam easily, but fraudsters are unfortunately becoming more sophisticated at luring innocent victims into their schemes. 

Don’t get caught! Here are eight ways to spot a survey scam:

  1. You’re asked to pay to participate in a survey

Authentic survey companies need you – you don’t need them. There’s absolutely no reason to pay to take a survey of any kind. If you’re targeted by an ad asking you to take a survey and to pay for the privilege of doing so, don’t respond. 

  1. You’re asked to share sensitive information before you can take the survey

They’d really appreciate it if you could take this quick survey for them. They just need some information from you first, like your Social Security number, date of birth and maybe even your checking account number. If a survey company asks for anything more than basic information from you, sign out as quickly as you can. 

  1. They advertise on Craigslist and similar sites asking for your email address

“Survey companies” that advertise on sites like Craigslist asking you to share your email address are usually fronts for scam rings. They use the bogus surveys as bait so you will share your email address. Once they have this information, they’ll use it to spam you with scam emails, phishing schemes, malware or worse. Alternatively, they’ll sell your email address to another scam ring to be used for similar purposes. 

  1. They offer too much money

If a survey is offering you $100 for a 20-question survey that shouldn’t take you more than five minutes to complete, you can be sure you’re looking at a scam. No legitimate survey company is that desperate. The pay for authentic survey-taking is generally on a much more modest scale. 

  1. You’re directed to download attachments 

Any time an unknown contact asks you to download attachments to your device, be super-suspicious. More often than not, these are scams and the attachments are loaded with malware. Don’t respond to the offer, and if it was made via email, be sure to report the email address as spam. 

  1. They advertise aggressively

If the same solicitation for survey participation keeps popping up across your screen, you may be looking at a scam. Scammers tend to flood their targets with ads in the hopes that one of them will actually work. Similarly, if the survey offer is full of unbelievable testimonials of past

participants, you’re likely looking at a scam. Legitimate survey companies don’t need to try so desperately hard to get people to take their surveys. 

  1. They give you an hour to pre-qualify for the survey

Often, a survey company will want you to answer a few pre-qualifying questions to see if you fit their desired demographic. Scammers exploit the prequalification by having the target answer dozens of questions and then informing them they’ve run out of time and cannot participate in the actual survey. This is false, of course, and the questions the scammer just answered actually were the survey questions, only now they won’t be getting paid for it. Check to see if a survey has a time limit on the prequalification before you start answering questions. 

  1. They require an outrageous minimum before payment

Most legitimate survey companies require the survey taker to complete a minimum number of surveys before the first payment. However, scammers require their targets to take an unrealistic number of surveys before they receive their first paycheck. Often, the victim will just quit before they qualify for a payment and the scammers now have these completed surveys without paying anything for them. 

Survey-taking can be a great way to earn some pocket money, but survey scams are rampant. Follow these tips to stay safe!

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a survey scam? Share your experience in the comments. 

Don’t Get Caught in a Vacation Rental Scam

With prices rising on everything, including hotel stays, record numbers of vacationers are choosing to rent private homes or apartments on sites like Airbnb and Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO). Unfortunately, though, vacation rental scams are on the rise as well. Here’s all you need to know about these scams and how to avoid them.

How these scams play out

There are several variations of vacation rental scams. 

In one version, the vacation rental advertised on Airbnb, or on a similar site, does not exist or is in very poor condition. The scammer uses online images or doctored photos to create the bogus listing, and rounds out the ruse setup by creating several phony reviews. If a target falls for the scam and rents the “vacation rental,” they’ll be disappointed to arrive at the posted address on the listing and find that the rental does not exist or is quite run down. 

In another version, an individual rents a listing and receives a message from the renter just before their arrival about a last-minute plumbing emergency at the rental site. They’ll be directed to go to another rental instead. This substitute rental will be in far worse condition than the one the vacationer has actually rented. 

In yet another variation, a vacationer unknowingly books a rental on an Airbnb look-alike site. Scammers lure their targets toward these sites by utilizing “URL squatting,” or creating a site that has a similar URL as a well-known site, which in this case, is Airbnb. The fake website enables scammers to capture the payment information of their victims and use it to empty their accounts, or worse. 

In a more recent version of the vacation rental scam, criminals are exploiting people’s kindness and the war in Ukraine to con victims out of their money. Here’s how it works: Generous donors are booking vacation rentals in Ukraine without intending to actually use them as a means to get money to Ukrainians. Airbnb has been supporting this initiative by waiving all host fees for rentals in Ukraine. Unfortunately, though, scammers have been creating fake listings in Ukraine and simply using the money to line their pockets. 

Red flags

Avoid a vacation rental scam by looking out for these warning signs: 

  • The listing is relatively new, yet seems to have multiple reviews from alleged past guests. This is especially true if the listing is in Ukraine.
  • The listing is riddled with typos and spelling mistakes. 
  • The images of the listing look too professional and perfect. 
  • The pictures and description of the rental don’t match up to its price.
  • The URL of the listing site is not secure.
  • The owner asks you to finalize the reservation on a platform that is not the hosting platform.
  • The owner insists on being paid via prepaid gift card or wire transfer. 
  • The owner demands you share more information than they should need for you to reserve a rental. 

Protect yourself

Take these steps to protect yourself from a vacation rental scam:

  1. Check, double-check and triple-check the URL before booking a listing. Look for signs of a secure site, like the lock icon and the “s” after the “http”, and make sure you are still on the authentic host site, such as Airbnb.com, and that you haven’t been lured into a bogus look-alike site. 
  2. Verify that the street address of a rental does indeed exist. You can also Google the address to see if there are any images associated with the address outside the vacation rental site. 
  3. Do a reverse image search to confirm if the photos are doctored up or copied stock images.
  4. Never share sensitive information online with an unverified contact. 
  5. Use a credit card for all online purchases. 
  6. Do an online search of the owner and look for anything suspicious. 

Don’t let your dream vacation turn into a nightmare. Follow the tips outlined here and stay safe! 

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a vacation rental scam? Tell us about it in the comments.