Financial Scams And How to Avoid Them

Thieves, scammers and other questionable characters are skilled at honing in on targets that are either vulnerable to attack, desperate, or ironically, eager to protect themselves. Even the most street smart and money savvy people can sometimes fall victim to these traps if the right situation and circumstances are in place.

But knowledge is certainly power, and seeing the signs and knowing the pitfalls beforehand can do wonders in keeping you and your money safe. Here are some common traps and how to avoid them.

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Phishing Scams

scams and how to avoid themWhy You’re Vulnerable: Many phishing scams are created with a call to action or threat that sparks a desire to protect yourself.

Look For: If it’s an email communication, notice the senders email address and keep an eye out for long links in the body that don’t appear to direct you to the company’s website. Also, check for strange use of language or spelling and grammar mistakes. Cybercriminals aren’t always vigilant about their use of the English language.

Financial institutions and reputable companies don’t ask for social security or account numbers over text. That alone is a red flag. If it’s a phone call stating that they need to confirm your account or gather other sensitive information, that is also a red flag.

What to Do: If the email appears to be from someone you have an account with, or if a caller states that they are from your financial institution, etc., call that company directly and ask them to confirm if they do indeed need information from you.

Phishing emails can be reported to

Charity Scams

Why You’re Vulnerable: Charity scams play on your desire to help those in need, and in the wake of tragedy, you might feel more compelled to decide on a whim to send money.

Look For: Pay attention to the name of the charity – sometimes they sound like a name you’ve heard before, but they are just similar, not the same. If it seems like an organization that might not be real, do some research and determine if they have an EIN number – real charities are registered and have the proper documentation (although, not all “real” charities are necessarily worthy of your money either).

What to Do: As a rule of thumb, try not to dole out money on a whim. The more time you give yourself to research, the better off you’ll be.

Try to donate to large charities with a positive reputation when possible, and avoid organizations that use only a portion of your donation for the cause at hand by checking the America’s Worst Charities list.

Also, don’t offer financial information over the phone – especially if you were contacted first. Always find a secure way to pay.

Rental Scams

Why You’re Vulnerable: Searching for a rental property is often a tiring, drawn-out task, so it can be easy to go along with a questionable scenario if the end result might be a great deal for a great place.

Look For: If the price seems particularly low for the location and quality of the rental, it is almost always a scam. Also, pay attention for hijacked ads. If you notice that the same property was listed earlier for a much higher (probably more reasonable price), it’s likely someone just stole the photos.

If you have gotten in touch with the owner or leasing agent and they are intent on getting personal information from you before even allowing you to view the property, think twice. Don’t hand over your social security number to a stranger because they need to “see if you’re qualified first.”

What to Do: Do your research. Know what rental properties in your desired area are going for, and be wary of offers that are too good to be true.

Check property records to determine who the rightful owner of the property is – especially if the “owner” is trying to put off a meeting in which you could view the property.

Grandparent Scams

Why You (or Your Family Members) Are Vulnerable: Many people would do anything for their family members if they were in a life threatening or otherwise serious situation. This scam plays on that desire to protect.

Look For: If you receive a panicked phone call or email from a “family member,” pay close attention to the storyline. Is the situation plausible? Are they able to share personal information about that person or others in the family without prodding? Does it sound like them? Are they forcing you to act quickly without looking deeper into what they are saying?

What to Do: Ask questions that only the person they may be impersonating would know – i.e. birthdays, anniversaries, previous conversations, etc.

If possible, find a way to reach out to another friend or family member to confirm the details of the story. Until the story is verified, absolutely do not wire any funds or give any personal financial information.

Mortgage Fraud

Why You (or Your Family Members) Are Vulnerable: This type of fraud has increased in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis. Some people have used fraud as a way to unload distressed or underwater properties, while others take advantage of unsuspecting home buyers who can be convinced to pay fees without getting anything in return.

Look For: If you are solicited with an opportunity to buy a house or to invest in a property in a way that seems suspicious, and especially if you are asked to put down a small payment (of, for example, several thousand dollars) to secure an investment in a home, be very cautious.

What to Do: Always make sure to see a home before you begin the process of buying it or investing in it. Do not take out a mortgage without first getting some confirmation that you are truly speaking with the owner of the house. To be sure, it’s usually best to work with an authorized real estate agent or to check municipal records to verify the veracity of ownership. While you’re at it, it’s also a good idea to learn how mortgage interest works and to know how a mortgage affects your credit.


Your gut reaction to a situation or interaction is usually a great indicator of whether or not it’s a scam. Pay careful attention, and don’t be afraid to back away from something that doesn’t look or feel right.

Last Edited: 8th October 2013

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  1. G says

    A coworkers parents are being scammed at church. The put all their retirement money with one guy at their church. “He is a Christian and would never hurt me” is the best scam ever. I don’t know how much they got with this guy, but it will not end well I am sure.

    • says

      Well hopefully the guy is actually investing it in a diversified portfolio at a low cost, or as a fee only advisor? If not, it’s disappointing. Disappointing, but not necessarily surprising. There are people willing to do sinful things just about everywhere, including in the church unfortunately. And often they use the church as a guise to hoodwink people.

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