Consumer IQ

Fix Your Scam Filter: 5 Tips for Avoiding a Rip-Off

If you thought you were in line for a “free” government grant from a company called Grant Connect, I have some bad news for you.

The federal government just cracked down on the operation which offered, among other things, nonexistent government grants, bogus dietary supplements and dubious credit offers that amounted to nothing more than a costly shopping club, say regulators.

That’s quite a combination that I’m not making it up. You can’t help but read about this operation and shake your head.

How did anyone fall for this?

It’s simple, really.  The good folks who were ensnared by these allegedly bogus offers didn’t have a working scam filter.

A scam filter – the ability to tell a legitimate offer from a fraudulent one – isn’t something you’re born with. In fact, corporate America tries to whittle it away with a constant barrage of advertising messages or by suggesting that there’s no such thing as “too good to be true.”

That being said, you don’t have to live with a broken scam filter. Here are a few ways to repair yours:

1. Watch for “scammy” words.

Certain phrases like “Nigerian prince” and “free vacation” should trigger your scam filter. Why? Because they are almost certainly scams, that’s why. Once you start being aware of classic scammy words, other less obvious words will start make your scam guard go up. The Grant Connect case is an excellent case study. For example, the terms “government grant” and “dietary supplement” are red flags. With all due respect to the government and the dietary supplement industry, these businesses are breeding grounds for the bad guys.

2. Do your homework, kids!

The fabric of your scam filter is made up of information. Just how are you going to know what’s a fraudulent offer unless you stay informed? (Answer: You can’t.) The best way to avoid a scam is to stay informed. The Federal Trade Commission website offers advice for avoiding scams. You can also regularly read my Mint Life column for tips on how to be a smart consumer. Finally, find a reliable local news source that reports crimes, and for goodness sakes, pay attention to it. You could avoid a world of trouble.

3. Become a student of scam-ology.

Scams follow patterns- learn them. For example, scam artists tend to ask for money upfront and they often request it to be wired to them. (Never, ever wire money to anyone you don’t personally know.) They also lie. For example, the government recently charged one couple with helping “fix” credit scores by making false statements to credit agencies in order to help their customers. Scam artists make outrageous claims that are unsupported by facts. As a student of scams, your radar should go off whenever you hear these kinds of statements. Once you hear them, run for the hills!

4. Practice safe consuming.

You know what they say about an ounce of prevention? You can avoid most scams by installing a good adblocker on your browser, having a decent spam filter for your email, and adding your number to the National Do-Not-Call registry. Finally, for goodness sakes, stay away from the places that attract scam artists.

5. Watch your purchases like a hungry hawk.

It is now possible to monitor your credit card purchases in almost real time. I’m not kidding. I have the Mint iPhone app and can see my credit card purchases almost the minute they appear. Such close monitoring of your bills may not be necessary, but I also know customers who don’t look at their credit card statements for months. That is not a smart habit. The sooner you spot a bogus charge, the sooner you can dispute it. When it comes to credit card scams, time is of the essence; you often only have a limited amount of time to red-flag a fraudulent transaction.

These simple strategies will help you build and strengthen your scam filter, which should protect you from any scheme, swindle or shady deal that you come across.

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.