It's National Consumer Fraud Awareness Week, which seems like a sound reason to revisit the topic of how to avoid getting fleeced online. Advice on how to avoid getting ripped off often seems obvious -- but the continuing success of scams clearly suggests that obvious advice is often ignored.
According to the Australian Consumer Fraud Taskforce, 1 in 20 people will fall victim to a scam this year. That might be something as simple as a non-existent charity donation, the infamous Nigerian scam which offers to help transfer money and then suddenly seeks "expenses", or a complex investment scheme that takes off with all your cash. The collective total lost to fraud by Australians will be more than one billion dollars, according to the taskforce.
While the global financial crisis might mean that we've all got less money to waste, the sense of panic it has engendered also provides plenty of opportunities for the criminally-minded.
"The global financial crisis is just the latest excuse some scammers are using to contact victims and talk them into handing over money, banking details or personal information," taskforce chair Peter Kell noted in a release earlier this week.
"Scammers can use all kinds of tactics, including text messages and made-up profiles in social networking sites to pretend to be someone known and trusted. They use a number of avenues to reach victims, including door-to-door, snail mail, email, telephone and text messages, and over the internet." And scammers are quick to leap on any major event, as the attempts to set up scams in the wake of this year's bushfires demonstrated.
For all that, avoiding scams doesn't require much more than some basic technical skills and a modicum of common sense. Google is your best friend here. Look up the company name in any "money making opportunities" emails you receive -- you'll almost invariably run into a page debunking the scam.
Email correspondence itself needs to be treated with suspicion. No reputable financial institution will ever ask you to confirm your details via email. If they do need to contact you (to question a credit card transaction, for instance), they'll invariably ask you to respond by telephone. That's annoying if you like to live your life online, but it's a consequence of the modern world.
Finally, report any suspicious sites or emails to the government Scamwatch site, which also has useful overviews of popular scams (online and offline).
Lifehacker's weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money.