Hand holding 100 dollar bills that are on fire
Real-seeming schemes can trick anyone out of money, personal info, or other valuable assets. Discover some of the reddest red flags.
Tuesday, March 19, 2024 - 12:39pm

Savvy crooks can con just about anyone. Witness the personal-finance writer who recently confessed she’d been taken for $50,000.

Charlotte Cowles wrote about her experience in New York magazine. She took a call from a scammer claiming to work for Amazon. That caller routed her to accomplices posing as government and law-enforcement agents. They convinced her she was an identity-theft victim and, eventually, that she needed to hand over a shoebox full of cash.

The story shows how thieves use technology, personal information, and social-engineering tactics to trick even people who’d swear they know better. It’s a warning to all of us.

Learn how scammers operate—and how you should respond.

Complex scams that feel real

We’re all familiar with awkwardly worded phishing emails, blatant social media “hacks,” and other day-to-day online trickery. But some of the more elaborate scams deploy teams of people, legit-seeming details, and personalized persuasion. They can feel scarily real.

Polished scammers can operate out of call centers, furnish fake ticket numbers or government credentials, and supply a surprising amount of personal information. They may cite readily available info like your address or your spouse’s name or stolen information like Social Security numbers.

They can spoof phone numbers, posing as banks, government agencies, people you know—anyone. They can easily fake social media or email accounts, too.

Perhaps worst of all, they’re experts at conjuring crisis. They can convince you you’re in legal or financial jeopardy and insist you need to act right away.

Major red flags

Look out for variations on any of these telltale signs you’re being scammed:

  • “You’re at risk”: Crooks often fake emergencies, from a mundane problem like a misdelivered package to a major issue like identity theft. Don’t fall for it—chances are, the risk isn’t real.
  • “I’m from the bank/government/police”: Crooks frequently assume false identities. Verify contacts are real by getting their information, ending the conversation, and reconnecting via phone numbers or emails you look up separately.
  • “I’m on your side”: Some scams start with crooks building relationships. They can play out over weeks or months. Be wary of strangers—especially online—and look out for subtle signs of manipulation.
  • “I need some information”: Crooks may ask for account numbers or other private information. Don’t comply. And remember that legitimate organizations will never ask for system passwords.
  • “Send gift cards/cryptocurrency/app payments”: Crooks will ask for payments via methods that are difficult or impossible to trace. An odd form of payment is a sure sign of a potential scam.
  • “Don’t tell anyone”: As scams play out, crooks may insist you keep details from colleagues, family members, and others, suggesting they can’t be trusted or that the matter is too urgent to get others involved. Secrecy is always suspicious.

Protect the people around you

As you become more familiar with red flags like these, spread the word. Warn young people, especially, about the risks of online manipulation. Help folks around you, recognize the signs of tech-mediated cons. Let all the people you care about know you’re available to assist.

Shame is another weapon in the scammer’s arsenal. If you think you’ve been a victim, reach out for help from IT support, financial institutions, or the police, as needed. Remember, scams can happen to any of us.

For on-campus technical support, contact your local IT support, the ITS Help Desk, or Health Care Information Systems support. For more info about online security, see the Information Security and Policy Office.