Bamboozled January 2, 2016: Top scams to watch for in 2017

It’s a new year, so you might expect Bamboozled to offer a list of new scams.

Nope.

The trend we’re seeing is that the same old scams keep popping up, sometimes with a new twist, and we expect the same for the coming year.

Why do scammers keep up the same old tricks? Because people keep falling for them.

Here are Bamboozled’s top five scams to watch for in 2017

5. Trust us! We’re the real thing!

Continue to be cautious of emails that seem to come from legitimate senders.

Before you say you’re too smart to fall for a phishing scam, read on.

Phishing emails often look like they’re coming from a real institution, such as your bank, credit card or utility company.

But they’re imposters.

They often look authentic, using a combination of real company logos and convincing-looking email addresses.

If you open an infected email, you’ll download harmful software to your computer. The sender is hoping to gain access to your machine to find private information that they can use to steal your identity, take out loans in your name and do other dastardly deeds.

Other emails direct you to click on a link. It may say you need to update your account information, or review a purchase, or approve another kind of transaction. It will take you to a fake website that looks an awful lot like the real thing. The fake site will ask you for your login and password, and the thieves can use that to get into the real site. Or it will ask for your Social Security number and other information, which they can use to steal your identity.

To protect yourself, don’t click. If you receive an unexpected email that looks real, instead of clicking, open a new browser and go directly to the website you know to be true. Or call — not any phone number offered in the email, but the one on your credit card or bank account statement.

4. Taking your device hostage

Ransonware will continue to be a big problem for users of computers, cell phonesand other devices.

If you click on a bad link, usually sent to you in an email by someone pretending to be a trusted source, you could download malware that locks up your device or encrypts your information. Or you might download a seemingly innocent attachment that does the same.

You won’t be able to access your files.

Unless, of course, you pay “ransom.”

You could also fall victim to a double-whammy: the scammer could next impersonate a tech help service — for a fee — but rather than fix anything, they’ll continue to milk you for additional payments to free up your files.

To protect yourself, don’t click. But because mistakes happen, be sure to regularly back up your files using an external hard drive or in the cloud. That way you’ll be able to wipe clean your machine and restore your data.

3. The trouble with a type-o

If you regularly visit the websites of your financial institutions, you’ve probably mistyped the web address on occasion.

Be careful. Some ne’er-do-wells purchase commonly mistyped domain names. They hijack the logos and color schemes from authentic sites, and they create their own fakes. This is called “typosquatting.” The hope is that you’ll log in with your user name and password, which are conveniently swiped by the scammer.

They next take your info and use it to sign into the real company’s website, and well, have at it with your accounts.

So when you type in your company’s URL, type carefully and check your work before you log in, or consider bookmarking the sites you visit most often.

And always look for “https” at the start of the URL.

2. Imposter Scams

The top scam of the past few years has been the IRS scam. In this fraud, a caller impersonating an IRS agent or a member of law enforcement says that unless you immediately pay your overdue taxes, there will be a warrant out for your arrest. Phone calls are the most common way they try to pull the scam, but it also happens over email and text.

The IRS, law enforcement and consumer advocates have been getting the word out that the IRS will only contact you with traditional postal mail, and the scammers know it. That’s why they’re also sending phony letters to pull off the hijinks.

If you get an IRS notice, don’t immediately answer it. Pick up the phone and call the real IRS using a number you find independent of the phone number on the letter.

Other imposter scams will continue to be popular: fake debt collection calls, lottery or sweepstakes calls, threats of deportation, threats of arrest for missing jury duty, those Microsoft tech support people who say they’ve detected a virus on your computer, offers from fake government agenciesand more.

When these tricksters ask for money, they most commonly ask for gift cards.That’s because once you hand over the gift card numbers and the scammer has your money, it’s almost impossible to trace.

Also keep an eye out for the “Grandma scam,” in which a caller says they’re with your grandchild, who has been in an accident and they need money. Or they’ve been arrested and they need bail money. Or they’ve been kidnapped and you need to pay ransom.

Sometimes the caller identifies themselves as your grandchild himself, playing the odds that you’ll give away important information that the scammer can use to be more convincing.

In these cases, just as with the IRS, independently confirm that your grandchild is okay. Call his parents — even if the caller says he doesn’t want to get in trouble so “please don’t call my mom!” — or call the child directly.

1. Fear scams

As we saw during the long election season, fearmongering stories were rampantly shared on social media. The stories were often fakes.

But many other stories came from quasi-news organizations or hyper-partisan blogs. They had elements of truth, but were twisted in an attempt to whip up fear of one candidate or hatred for another. Then there were stories created to put readers in a frenzy about hot-button issues such as immigration, future Supreme Court nominees, same sex marriage and more.

We’re not talking opinion writing, but websites on the far left or the far right that take a nugget of truth and bend it to further their own agenda.

The issues from the heated presidential election are still here, and as President-elect Trump makes his policies known and starts to act on them, you can be sure to see more stories designed to scare. To get attention. A reaction. Any reaction.

Facebook says it’s taking steps to curb fake news on its site, but you have to do your part.

Whatever your politics, don’t just share these stories without consideration. Consider the source. Consider the message. Consider whether what you’re reading could possibly be real. Fact check and cross reference.

Use the power of social media for good, not as a minion of those — on both sides of the aisle — who want to use fear as a weapon.

Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.

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