Consumer IQ

How to Spot a Scam: 7 Questions To Ask Before Buying

Lyn Cacella found an unbelievably good deal on a Royal Caribbean cruise to Bermuda through a website she’d never heard of called GlobalCruisesOnSale.com. The catch? She had to wire $1,359 to the business for her fare.

But when the tickets didn’t arrive, she phoned the cruise line, which had no record of her reservation. When she asked a GlobalCruisesOnSale.com representative by email about the preponderance of bad reviews, she was referred to a site called BuySecureOnline.org, which “certified” the business as legitimate.

“I think it’s a hoax,” she told me.

Actually, Cacella’s cruise is a textbook scam. Here are a few telltale signs something is wrong with a company.

Ever heard of the business?

If you don’t know the company, it could be a scam. If no one you know has heard of it, there’s an even better chance. And if you can’t find any information about it online – good, bad or otherwise – run. I receive regular emails from readers asking me if I’ve heard of a particular company that’s offering an attractive deal. Good businesses leave a trail of happy customers. Bad businesses try to cover their tracks. A fraudulent enterprise won’t even offer an address or phone number on its site.

Is the price unusually attractive?

Most scams look too good to be true. That’s because they are too good to be true. And you probably already know that on a subconscious level, but you’re consciously overriding it because you want it to be true. Fact is, if something looks wrong to you, it probably is.

Do they want you to pay by cash or money order?

Virtually all legitimate businesses accept credit cards for major purchases. (Some exceptions apply. A hot dog vendor may be a cash-only business, but for reasons everyone understands.) Beware of businesses that sell big-ticket items like TVs, cruises or cars but doesn’t accept cards. And if they want you to wire the money, turn around and don’t look back. You can’t dispute such a transaction if something goes wrong. Once an unscrupulous business has your money, it’s over.

Do they ask for personal information by email?

No legitimate business asks for your credit card information or passwords by email. If a business demands that information by email, it’s almost certainly a scam. Never, ever share personal data in an email.

Are they asking you to buy now?

Shady businesses apply high-pressure sales tactics, claiming they’re offering you the last available unit in a timeshare or that only one more car model is on the lot. While this may be true, the tactic suggests the company may be ethically challenged in other ways, and it may signal a problem with its products. They may also worry that you’ll shop around and compare their products to those of a competitor. Take your time, and don’t rush into anything.

Are they offering something for “free”?

Remember, there’s no such thing as free. But if a business says something is free, you shouldn’t have to pay anything for it. Most of the scams I deal with start with a “free” offer but it turns out you have to buy something in order to get it. That’s a classic bait-and-switch game, and it may indicate a problem with the company. The product you’re buying may not be what you expect.

Do they tell you not to worry about the contract?

The most accomplished scam artists assure you the contract is “nothing to worry about” or offer a “Reader’s Digest” version in either a brochure or verbally. Neither count for much. What does? The actual contract, which you should read carefully before you buy something.

How many of these applied to Cacella’s cruise? Too many.

I contacted Royal Caribbean to find out if it had ever heard of the business. It hadn’t. It referred the matter to its legal department, which sent the company a cease-and-desist letter. Before I could ask the online agency for a reaction, both GlobalCruisesOnSale.com and BuySecureOnline.org went offline.

“We are out a whopping $1,300,” Cacella told me, urging me to share her story with others so that they could be warned. Most, she says, let them know that a legitimate business accepts credit cards.

“And just because a website looks good with authentic logos and terrific pictures and correct schedules does not mean that they are authorized or trustworthy,” she adds.

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 On Your Side or by email.