In the seventh episode of the eighth season of The Simpsons (“Lisa’s Date with Density”), Homer finds an auto-dialer and sends messages to his neighbors telling them they can have eternal happiness if they send him one dollar.
Even better, after he gets caught, he sends out a new message apologizing and telling them to send a dollar if they forgive him.
You’d think silly scams like this are only fodder for comedy shows, but they’re not. They’re everywhere around us and it doesn’t take a Springfieldian to fall for one. Scams out there that we might laugh at (the Nigerian prince, the promise for dsc0unt V1agra) are just waiting for you to slip up and click the link because for whatever reason, you believe what it says. They used to do this via snail mail, too. They were called chain letters back then.
You can’t be on guard all the time and you can’t be aware of all the scams that you’ll laugh at later but right now, might seem legitimate. The only way to be prepared is to recognize the signs of suspicion that indicate something is amiss. Before you open that email or click on that tweeted link for WRITER’S WANTED, watch out for these signs:
1. You don’t recognize the sender. A friend may have changed his/her email address, but that shouldn’t be the first thing you jump to, especially if the address just seems to be a random assortment of letters and numbers.
2. The subject line is Hi or Hello, or says it’s a forward or reply. Yes, I’ve gotten replies to emails I never sent. Combined with number one above means it’s a match for your spam folder. I suggest whenever you send an email, don’t use a generic greeting in the subject line. Do anything more specific, because Hi should be in your spam filter.
3. The tweeter doesn’t have a picture. If that big egg is up there, be cautious, especially if they have no blurb underneath. They might be new, so check their profiles to make sure they aren’t only tweeting links. I’m not on Facebook so I can’t get into specifics, but I think the principle is the same: if there’s nothing that makes them seem real, they probably aren’t.
4. Be wary of clicking on links, especially shortened ones. The short links are nice for getting your point out more briefly, but can’t be verified by a mouseover or simple check of the source. I link quite a bit, so I try to explain what it is I’m linking to. Never click an unexplained link and avoid those of people you don’t know.
5. Never click a link in an email, even if you’re sure it’s legit. There are a lot of websites out there with the sole purpose of mimicking a more famous website. If Someone@FaceBook.reply.net emails you saying your account has been hacked, please click on this link to visit it, don’t do it. Go to Facebook and check your account on the website. The only exception to this rule is if you’ve just signed up for a website or had to ask for a new password because you forgot yours. In those cases, they usually send an email out to confirm that the person at your email address is really you. Lucky for us, most of those addresses are NoReply@twitter.com, so there’s a lot less of a chance of hacking.
6. Your spyware/antivirus software popped up saying your computer is infected but it can’t erase the infection. This in itself is an infection. It happened to me once; Windows Defender kept popping up saying I had a virus but there was something wrong with my Key Code and I needed to reenter it. Something about the window that popped up looked wrong, not quite Windows-y, and then it asked me for a credit card to renew my prescription. That’s when I knew it wasn’t right. But every time I clicked exit, it just popped up again a few minutes later. My computer was infected with a bad virus that was blocking my antivirus software. I needed to use System Restore to go back a few days in my computer’s memory. If this ever happens to you, don’t assume it’s okay. Your security software sends emails when you need to renew and you go to their website, not some strange box on your desktop.
7. If someone on Twitter or Facebook or any social networking site asks you for money, don’t do it. There are a lot of scams going around where someone claims to be an old friend of yours (hey, people share this information online and it’s not that hard to find), chats you up for a few weeks, then emails you with an emergency saying they’re trapped in another country with no cellphone and no money. They beg you to send a few grand for them to get back home and since it’s a friend (or so you think), you do it. But it’s not! If anyone, even someone who seems to be someone you know, asks you for money, start asking questions only they would know. Make it vague, something they wouldn’t put online (ask about the time they got hammered and drunk dialed their ex, not what their sister’s name is). If you really believe it’s your friend, they’ll accept something that requires an ID and signature to obtain, too. If they get defensive, cut off communication. It’s a scam.
This public service announcement has been brought to you by: The annoying spammers who keep tweeting those links. Stop bothering me.