Inside Money: Science of the money scam

EVEN SAVVY CONSUMERS fall for scams sometimes. That’s because thieves have honed their sophisticated con skills. Here’s what you need to know, so you don’t fall for 10 of today’s most popular scams.


This scam comes in many flavors. The bad guy sends you a check. Maybe you’re getting paid upfront for a job. You’re then instructed to deposit the check and return a portion of the money to the scammer. But the check is a fake and your bank probably won’t catch on until after you’ve sent money to the scammer.

What to do: Don’t withdraw money until you know the check has cleared. If a check-writer asks you to send money back, wait a couple of weeks to be sure nothing has happened with the check.


This scam targets would-be car buyers. A potential buyer spots a vehicle for sale on a website such as Craigslist. The seller suggests completing the transaction through eBay Motors so both parties are protected. Quickly, the buyer receives an email that appears to be from eBay Motors, but it’s from a scammer impersonating the website. The fake eBay seller tells the consumer about all the protections they’ll receive, then gives instructions to wire money. Whatever money the buyer sends vanishes and the car is never delivered.

What to do: Do not buy a car sight unseen, and never pay with a wire transfer.

3. THE AMAZON CON is a reputable site, but some third-party sellers use the site to defraud shoppers. The fakers post items for sale, then extract payment by emailing buyers to wire money or send prepaid debit card numbers and PINs. Of course, the items are never delivered.

What to do: The only legitimate way to pay an seller is through Amazon Payments. Anything else is just a con.


Someone claiming to be an Internal Revenue Service agent calls or emails that your taxes are delinquent and if you don’t pay now, the IRS will send law enforcement to arrest you. It’s a fraud.

What to do: The IRS will never phone or email about a debt, and it will never ask you to pay money over the phone.

A grandparent receives a call from a panicked grandchild. “Help me, I’m in jail. I need bail money to get out.” And then the “grandchild” hands the phone to law enforcement, which will help you to send a wire transfer to free your beloved family member.

What to do: Don’t fall for it. Law enforcement would not ask you to wire money.


You may click on an email or social media link or attachment that releases ransomware, which essentially locks access to data on your computer. Cybercriminals then demand payment via wire transfer or other untraceable payment methods to unlock your computer.

What to do: Once your machine is locked, there’s not much you can do, so make sure you never click on anything you can’t identify as safe. Use anti-virus programs and make sure you update your program regularly. Always back up your files on an external hard drive.


The good news usually comes via email or regular mail. You’ve won! You only need to pay taxes or some kind of transfer fee to get your big prize. All you have to do is send funds by wire transfer or another untraceable method. Or maybe they’ve already sent you the check, which will bounce.

What to do: Ignore it. It’s a scam.


Dreaded jury duty. You get a call, letter or email saying you missed it. If you don’t pay a fee immediately, law enforcement will arrest you. Untrue. If you miss jury duty, no one will call you and ask for money.

What to do: Any jury duty notifications will arrive through regular mail.


If someone messages you asking for help, get confirmation by calling contact numbers you know are authentic.

What to do: Stop clicking on any link that friends post. Know a school friend won’t message for money because she was robbed on a trip to Argentina.


The Nigerian prince. The lottery win. The stranger from Brazil, who needs your help. The attorney from any of the “stan”-suffix countries, who wants you to receive an inheritance.

What to do: Don’t read. Just delete.

Karin Price Mueller, the founder of, writes the Bamboozled consumer affairs column for The Star-Ledger, and the Money and Biz Brain columns for Inside Jersey. Send your money questions to her at


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