How to Avoid 4 Common Internet Scams

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Consumer Reports is warning about the latest computer-related rip-offs, including unbelievable coupons and iPad contests. Here's how to protect yourself.

There were nearly 1.27 million complaints to the Federal Trade Commission in 2011 about identity theft or fraud. In 2001, the number was only 223,000.

While the number of consumers using the Web have undoubtedly increased, another factor could be that technology is making it easier to commit (and report) rip-offs.

In the latest issue of Consumer Reports, the magazine warns about some recent popular online scams that can steal your money, identity, or damage your computer. Here are four they mentioned, along with our advice on avoiding them…

1. Fake over-priced virus removal

Consumer Reports calls this the “We’ll remove the virus we found for $100” scam, and it’s actually low-tech pretending to be high-tech. Here’s how it works: A “tech support” member supposedly from a reputable company calls you to warn their gee-whiz-amazing super security system “remotely detected” bad software on your computer.

In the best case, they want you to pay $100-plus to remove it – but you laugh and hang up. In the worst case, you not only fork over the money, but the scammer installs fake virus protection that creates more problems for them to “solve” later, or they simply steal your account passwords.

Solution: If somebody is remotely guarding your computer – like your company’s IT team – you already know about it. Don’t trust anybody else who claims to know what’s going on with your computer without seeing it. Instead, just get protection on your own. But don’t waste money on antivirus software – free options like Microsoft Security Essentials work great as long as you keep them up to date.

2. Hot electronics at crazy-low prices

Consumer Reports dubs this one the “You could win an iPad. Start bidding!” scam. As they describe it, “a pop-up ad on your computer invites you to bid on an iPad, laptop PC, or wide-screen TV, but you must include your cell-phone number to play.”

This is actually a combination of two tactics: penny auctions – which are questionable but not necessarily rip-offs – and a practice called cramming.

Here’s how it works: When you put in your cell phone number to “play” for a new tech toy, you get a text message announcing you’ll be charged a monthly subscription to something you didn’t agree to. It’s tacked onto your cell phone bill: cramming a rip-off charge in with legitimate ones, where you might not notice it.

Solution: Don’t be too eager to give out your cell phone number, and pay close attention to your monthly phone statement. And if you see an offer that’s too good to be true, take a few seconds to research it.

3. Best coupons ever

CR’s name: “Buy a gourmet dog-food coupon worth $61 — for just $16.” The game: You get a message directing you to high-value coupons on expensive products. But they’re not on the manufacturer’s website – you’ll have to jump through hoops (take surveys, give personal information, risk viruses) to access them. And they’re fake, anyway.

Solution: CR’s advice in its entirety: “Avoid such coupons.” Easy enough, but here’s a list of fake coupons maintained by the Coupon Information Corporation, and we go into more depth on fake coupons in Bad Couponing: 9 Tips to Avoid It.

4. Social media thrills

CR refers to this type of scam as “OMG. Now you really can see who views your Facebook profile!!!” because it usually baits you with the promise of forbidden knowledge – leaked government files, celebrity sex tapes, unbelievable scientific claims, the whole nine yards. We call it the viral video scam in 7 Top Scams and How to Avoid Them, but it’s not always a video.

It’s a lot like those banner ads that read, “Plastic Surgeons Hate Her!!” or “Lose 30 pounds with this one weird tip,” except they’re disguised as a link, often from a seemingly credible source – your friends, who’ve already been fooled. Once you click, you open yourself up to the same risks from scam No. 3 (plus public embarrassment).

Solution: Just because a “friend” sends you a link doesn’t mean you should trust it, especially if it sounds suspicious. Before clicking, independently verify the existence of the thing on offer by opening a new window and going to the website of the company that claims to be offering it or do a search for it. You can also right-click the link and copy its address, then paste it somewhere else without actually visiting the page, to see where it leads.

The bottom line

All these schemes have something in common: They rely on you getting excited or scared, and immediately agreeing to something without understanding it. Keep calm and always investigate anything that sounds too good to be true. If it’s real, hesitation won’t cost you anything. But a scam could cost you a lot.

Stacy Johnson

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