Throughout history, people have been using clever methods to separate other people from their money. There are many sad stories of con artists taking advantage of people and tricking them out of their hard earned money, sometimes leaving them completely destitute.
Fortunately, at least in the United States, there are laws and entire branches of government dedicated to preventing fraud and prosecuting these criminals. Unfortunately, criminals have become very adept at finding loopholes and using technology to come up with new ways to defraud people.
Sadly, many methods devised to trick you into handing over your money are perfectly legal. We’ve interviewed marketing veterans with hundreds of years of combined experience in marketing and advertising to find out what the biggest tricks are, and more importantly, how to recognize and avoid them.
1) Free Trial or “Just Pay Shipping and Handling”
What It Is – A clever way to get you to hand over your credit card information under the guise of paying a “small shipping and handling charge” to receive what appears to be a valuable product. Maybe it’s a skin cream or diet plan that “normally retails for $99, but we’ll send it to you today for just $9.95 shipping and handling.”
How It Works and Why It’s a Trick – Sure, they’ll send you the product for just $9.95 shipping and handling (or sometimes for no charge at all, as long as you provide a credit card). But next month you’ll probably see a $99 or $199 charge on your credit card for the product itself. And often times you’ll continue to receive additional shipments and be billed the full price on the credit card you provided. A fast talking telemarketer may mention something about being billed, but often it’s missed by the customer. Same for the tiny, tiny print at the bottom of print and TV advertisements and the terms and conditions hidden on many web sites.
How To Protect Yourself – If the product is advertised in a print ad, get out your magnifying glass and read the fine print. If you’re buying the product online, there’s usually a link for “Terms and Conditions” that will reveal what you’re really going to be billed (they’re usually very long with lots of legalese, so be patient and read it all). And if you’re buying the product over the phone, be very specific with the agent about what you’re going to be billed and when. Most of those calls are recorded, so the agent will likely tell you the truth when asked, since those recordings can be used as evidence.
2) “Get a Free iPad (or Gift Card, TV, etc)”
What It Is – A flashing banner on a website, or possibly an email, will tell you that you’re eligible to receive a free iPad (or other similarly desirable and expensive product). All you have to do is register and answer a few questions.
How It Works and Why It’s a Trick – This is really a ploy to get you to provide personal information (your name, phone number, email address, home address, what types of products or services you may be in the market for) and then to sell that information to hundreds marketers who will endlessly bombard you with emails and phone calls.
This isn’t illegal because there is technically a way to get the “free” product they’re offering. But you may need to subscribe to 10 magazines, sign up for DirectTV, get an ADT alarm system installed and switch auto insurance companies, just to get your “free” gift.
How To Protect Yourself – As they say, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and in this case it certainly is. Ask yourself, can companies really afford to go handing out thousands of $600 iPads to everyone that fills out a form? Of course they can’t. Just ignore these offers. If you really want the “free” product that badly, it’s cheaper to just go out and buy it.
3) Fake Virus Alerts and Bogus Computer Tech Support
What It Is – You’re browsing your favorite web site or playing an online game when all of a sudden a flashing alert pops up telling you something to the effect of “Your Computer Is Infected With a Virus”. Often the alert will be disguised to look like a Microsoft Windows alert, or like something a legitimate antivirus program would show. You’re given a link to click on to have this virus removed or sometimes a phone number to call for immediate assistance with this problem.
How It Works and Why It’s a Trick – These are fake ads put out by companies that will offer you a “free scan and analysis” of your computer to help detect and protect you from viruses when in fact, they’re just trying to sell you technical support services that are close to worthless and for which you’ll pay a fee every month. Often, the “system monitoring” software they’ll get you to install, under the guise of protecting your computer, will feed back information on your online browsing habits and serve unwanted ads and popups.
How To Protect Yourself – Get a good antivirus program for your computer (there are some very good free versions and many others that are less than $20), install updates provided by Microsoft or Apple, which typically patch security vulnerabilities and don’t click on suspicious links in emails or questionable websites. This will do far more to keep you and your computer safe than any bogus tech support service.
4) Home Warranties
What It Is – A warranty that will supposedly cover repairs or replacements for your expensive home appliances – dishwashers, refrigerators, hot water heaters, furnaces, etc. They’re sold primarily online and through radio ads.
How It Works and Why It’s a Trick – You’ll often notice that in their ads, they say that they’ll pay for 100% of covered repairs. The key word is “covered”. If you read the fine print (and there’s usually lots of it), there are so many catches, exclusions, caveats and exceptions, the odds are that when something actually breaks, you won’t be covered for one reason or another. Furthermore, they often charge a “service fee” for each repair which can sometimes be hundreds of dollars. This of course is in addition to the cost of the warranty.
How To Protect Yourself – Consider an extended warranty when you first purchase your appliances (read those carefully also). But ultimately, you’re usually better off just putting some money aside to cover unexpected repair costs. Remember, these warranty companies make big profits and that’s because they pay out far less than they charge you.
7) Credit Repair
What It Is – A service, usually promoted online or on the radio, that offers to “fix” your credit and improve your credit score, potentially giving you access to lower interest rates. They claim they can get payment delinquencies, unpaid bills and other negative marks removed from your credit report.
How It Works and Why It’s a Trick – The three major credit rating agencies – Experian, Trans Union and Equifax – compile and maintain your credit history and provide information to potential creditors. If there are real inaccuracies on your credit report (for example, if you’ve paid a bill on time but they show that you paid it late), they’re required by law to correct their records. But that’s something you can do yourself. You don’t need to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to one of these services that have no ability at all to change accurate information on your credit report.
How To Protect Yourself – By law, all US consumers are entitled to one free credit report each year from the three major credit bureaus. You can request them individually or just go to www.annualcreditreport.com and get all of them, at no cost whatsoever. Review them and if you spot anything that looks inaccurate, put together documentation that proves the inaccuracy and contact the credit bureau directly. You’ll get the same results without incurring any cost.
8) For Profit and Online Colleges
What It Is – Colleges and Universities, with legitimate sounding names, that usually provide courses online and offer degree programs that cost as much and sometimes more than legitimate state and private universities. They have virtually no admissions standards other than your ability to pay their often exorbitant bills.
How It Works and Why It’s a Trick – These colleges often spend millions of dollars on marketing and recruiting, and pay telemarketing reps a commission for every new student they sign up. Additionally, they work closely with shady financial institutions to provide students easy access to loans so they can afford tuition. The graduation rates are abysmally low and the job prospects are terrible. Any corporate recruiter will tell you they give no value to these degrees and would much prefer someone with a degree from a community college or with no degree but valuable experience.
How To Protect Yourself – Do your research and don’t give in to aggressive sales tactics. There’s plenty of information online about these types of colleges.
9) Shady Charities
What It Is – Companies with names that sound like legitimate charities (like The US Military Servicemen’s Benevolent Society) but are in fact just marketing companies. They usually have a pitch meant to play on your sense of patriotism, sympathy or guilt to get you to make a donation.
How It Works and Why It’s a Trick – These are usually not charities calling you, but for-profit telemarketing companies that remit a tiny portion (and sometimes nothing at all) of what they collect to a legitimate charity. Furthermore, once you donate to one of these, your name goes on a list that gets sold to other similar companies, ensuring that you’ll be inundated with similar pleas for money.
How To Protect Yourself – Ask the person calling you if they are an actual charity or a marketing company. Ask them what percentage of your donation actually goes to the people they’re purporting to be helping. And finally, do a quick Google search for the name of the organization they claim to be calling on behalf of. If they’re legitimate, you’ll know right away. Same goes for organizations that aren’t. And finally, if you do decide to donate, tell them you want to do it by mail instead of providing your credit card over the phone.