Ah, scams. The world is full of them, and I ought to know: I just spent the better part of the year researching a book about scams. And yes, even I’ve fallen for a scam a time or two. And I’m not alone.
Meet Jim and His Elderly Mother:
Jim Daniel’s mother almost got scammed.
One evening, he remembers, she received a call from someone who identified himself as “her favorite grandson.”
“Aaron?” she said, before thinking. ”Yeah, grandma, it’s Aaron,” the voice on the other end said. “I’m in some trouble and I don’t want anyone to know. I got arrested in Portland and I need $3,000. Can you send it on Western Union so I’ll have it here right away?”
Fortunately, a Wal-Mart clerk stopped her and begged her to verify the story before she sent the money. Sure enough, none of her grandchildren had been arrested.
“What we later found out is that the scammers were targeting old folks in residential facilities. The police won’t even bother to investigate because they can never track down anyone they are able to arrest,” Daniel told me.
Aman’s Shady Contract:
Aman Quadri remembers a misadventure when he and his wife moved to a new home in Austin, Texas.
“I did searches regularly and came across a reviewed moving company offering good rates,” he remembers. Quadri agreed to pay the company $55 an hour for two movers and a truck, which is a pretty good deal. But there was a catch. “They then showed up to the new home and stated that they need payment before they can unload the truck,” he recalls. The total cost: $4,900.
Turns out they’d thoughtlessly signed a contract that allowed the company to charge an extra $20 per shrinkwrapped item, and they had wrapped everything. Quadri called the police, but they couldn’t help because he had signed a contract.
Nancy’s Overseas Nightmare:
Nancy Miller is still kicking herself for getting scammed in Bangkok. “I really hate admitting I fell for this one,” she says.
She’d met a friendly local on a recent visit who spoke excellent English and said he worked for the “tourist police.” He added that this was her lucky day, because the Thai government was having a three-day “tax holiday” on gems.
Miller paid about $1,000 for a sapphire at a business the tourist policeman pointed her to. It was worth far less when she had it appraised later. “I don’t know what I was doing,” she says. “I grew up in New York City and am skeptical about everything. How did I get suckered into paying twice as much as I should have? I was definitely jet-lagged.”
All of these readers agreed to share their stories in order to prevent you from making the same mistakes.
Avoiding a scam isn’t as hard as it sounds:
Trust, but verify.
The Russian proverb is true. If someone makes a claim, check it out. Especially before you send $3,000 to your favorite grandson.
Read the contract.
You’d be surprised, even shocked, by the funny stuff that companies put in the fine print.
Never make a major purchase on two hours of sleep.
You’re simply not thinking clearly. Go back to your hotel and get some rest. Your wallet will thank you.
So, what’s the bottom line? You can avoid most of today’s scams by thinking before you buy. Don’t skip any steps, don’t cut any corners, and you will avoid more than 90 percent of the shady deals that people fall for.
And what about the other 10 percent? Well, that’s what I’m here to help you with.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions at by email