Nowadays, online scams are commonplace and scammers are smarter than ever. Though you may get warning after warning about specific emails and websites, fraudsters are quick to adapt. By the time your company is sending out memos on how not to fall prey to the latest phishing attempt, the criminals are already crafting their next unique approach.
There is a silver lining, though. Most scams, regardless of how sophisticated, do have a few things in common. If you receive a suspicious email or follow a link to a dubious website, you don’t need to wait for anyone to tell you that it’s a scam—there are things that you can do to verify your intuition all on your own.
Follow these tips next time you’re in doubt, and you may just save yourself a lot of grief:
It seems obvious, but it really is your first line of defense. If you receive a suspicious email, for example, copy entire sentences and paste them in the Google search bar. Make sure that they are surrounded by quotes, since this will allow you to get an “exact match.”
What did you find? Did it turn out that others have received this same email before? What did they have to say about it? Often you’ll find that it’s a scam.
- Search Google for Reviews
Similarly, if you’re thinking of buying something from a certain website or you want to try a product after seeing a sales page, do your research first. Google for reviews on the business that you’re thinking of buying from, and see what people are saying.
You might not get to the truth right away, since scammers that are very good at SEO can manipulate the search results to some degree. That’s why it’s a good idea to use this method in conjunction with others.
- Look for Objective Articles on the Product
If there is any information on the product from a relatively unbiased news outlet or a trusted informational website, then take what they say into account. Beware of websites that tend to write articles about sponsors and only show them in a positive light, though. You want someone who is not swayed either way. You can often check at the bottom of an article (sometimes at the top) whether an article was sponsored, though not all content creators will reveal this.
There are some private websites like ScamAdvisor and RipOffReport, which will tell you if a given website or company is safe based on a variety of factors.
RipOffReport in particular is very valuable because you can see what others are saying about a given company, and sometimes the company even responds. Please note, however, that even some of the reviews on RipOffReport are scams themselves. Sometimes scammers post bad reports on innocent businesses and individuals, and then proceed to ask them for money to remove the report. So take the stuff on this site with a grain of salt, but if you see the same kinds of complaints over and over again by many different people who seem genuine, you might want to avoid the business.
- Check the Better Business Bureau
You’ve probably heard about this nonprofit organization before. Basically, you can go to their website and check the rating of a given business, and it will tell you how trustworthy it is. There are reviews from customers that you can read and other random stats about the business. You can also check charities to make sure they’re legitimate.
Again, take these with a grain of salt. A few bad reviews doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re looking at a scam. People don’t tend to leave reviews of products and businesses when they want to say good things, but if you notice that just about everyone says that it’s a scam—then, yes, it’s probably a scam.
- Gut Feeling
Do you ever get that feeling in the back of your mind that something’s just not right? Oftentimes, your subconscious mind will already know that something is a scam before your conscious mind does. Is something too good to be true? Is the product described with the creepy hyperbole that you find in scams? Your brain has collected years of patterns concerning scams, and just from experience it can give you strong warnings if you’ll just listen to it.
One glaring sign that you’re not listening to your gut is when you’re making excuses in your mind to go ahead with a business deal or a purchase. If everything seemed perfectly legitimate, why would you need to make any excuses? “Oh, yeah, the sales copy on the site has a lot of misspellings and makes ridiculous claims, but what website doesn’t these days, right? The writer was probably just in a rush.”
All of this may seem obvious right now as you’re reading this, but it’s not rare for otherwise reasonable people to be taken in by a scam because the company is offering to provide them with something that they really want. For example, people will often overlook the absurdity of an online product if it offers to bring them “easy money” or success without the pain of hard work.
What impression does the business give upfront? Though looks can often be deceiving, and a scam will try to seduce you by looking legitimate upfront, it is very rare for a perfectly legitimate business to appear scammy upfront.
Did the website look terrible? Is the content written in bad English? Did you contact the business owner and he didn’t respond—or worse, was rude to you?
Don’t just shrug off those first impressions. They are clues as to the character of the company and who is behind it. Would you buy an expensive computer from a dilapidated storefront with boarded-up windows and broken glass on the floor? Probably not. So why would you buy from the website version of that?
- Ask People You Know
There’s a reason people value the word of their friends and family over anonymous reviews online. You know that the chances are low that the people you spend your time with will give you a “fake review” (unless they’ve been taken in by an MLM scam). Often, you can just ask around and people will be more than eager to give their honest opinion about this or that business. Try to find people who actually have experience with the kind of product or service you’re looking for; this will get you more accurate information. Watch out for the folks who like giving their opinion just to give it, and they don’t actually know what they’re talking about.
This is why it’s a good idea to network as much as you can in your industry. If you’re, let’s say, an Internet entrepreneur, you can find yourself surrounded by scams that offer to help you make more money. Some tools and products work, and some don’t—but there’s always people eager to take your money. If you’re just starting out, focus on building a network of trusted colleagues, as these are the people that can give you real advice and help you avoid all of the scams.
- Test Your Target
If everything checks out about the product or business that you’re looking into, but you want to be extra sure, then a good idea is to start with a small test. Let’s say you’re thinking of starting an importing business and you want to sell luxury pillows manufactured in China. Start off by making a small order with the manufacturer and see if they deliver what you asked.
This is just one example. You can do the same when it comes everyday services. For example, if a business guru is selling information, buy a small course from him before you pay for expensive consultation. Buy an oil change from a mechanic before you trust him with huge repairs. Though it can be more cumbersome, build trust slowly over time; you will often get better results.
This is no guarantee that the business won’t scam you later once you trust them, but it does help weed the scammers out to a great degree. Most scammers lie, cheat, and steal from others because they have a short-term approach to life. They are too impatient to actually build a viable business and would rather just do a one-off scam to random people who take the bait. It’s very rare that they will give you great service, and then suddenly stiff you one day.
Scams are an annoying—and sometimes costly—part of doing business, especially on the Internet. Luckily, there are quite a few things that you can do to protect yourself. While there will never be a completely foolproof plan for avoiding these criminals, you can stay vigilant and avoid most ripoffs by following the tips above.
If you do fall for a scam, though, try not to be too hard on yourself. Report it to the authorities if you can, and just remember that anyone can potentially be taken for a sucker. It’s just part of being human.