There is someone always willing to separate me from my money. When there's a product or service I want, that's fine.
The Internet has provided numerous ways for people to separate people from their money.
Many of these scams prey on a person's desire to make a quick buck, such as the famous Nigerian money-laundering scheme.
But other scams are truly intended to do more than extract a few dollars from someone.
One that I have received at least three or four times is a telephone call in which someone claims to be calling from the "Microsoft Windows Security Center" or some officially named -- but bogus -- organization. The claim is their servers have reported that my computer has been infected by a computer virus, and they want to help me fix it.
Of course, there is no Microsoft Windows Security Center that calls people to let them know of viruses. But how is a typical computer user to know this?
A few times, I've played along to hear their story. Unfortunately, I typically ask too many questions and they eventually hang up on me.
One time, they wanted me to go to a Web site and download some software, which I found suspicious (I didn't download the software). When I asked what the software would do, I was told it was anti-virus software that would remove the virus from my computer. When I asked what virus was on my computer, they wouldn't tell me.
Another time, they were pitching their virus-removal service for only $29.99. Not particularly expensive, but when I asked how it differed from the Norton AntiVirus on my computer, they couldn't say.
Yet another time, I asked what servers they had that were monitoring my computer and why they would do so without me asking them to.
Finally, because they were claiming to be the Microsoft Windows Security Center, I asked if they were part of Microsoft. The only answer they would give me is that they were the Microsoft Windows Security Center, never answering my question.
Had I gone through with these instructions, not only would I have lost a small amount of money initially, it's impossible to say what software I would have downloaded onto my computer. At best, it would have been neutral and done nothing. The list of what could have been installed on my computer is virtually endless.
In many cases, scams prey on FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt). And it's certainly very difficult for the typical computer user to discern between a valuable offer and something that is going to at a minimum deprive you of a few dollars.
The best way to protect yourself is to be cautious of offers that seem too good to be true (They are.); ones asking for private or sensitive information (such as providing you with a password or logging into your bank or credit card account using a link they provide); or to take emergency action on something.
If you're unsure of a request, do one of the following:
First, if this is a matter of banking, phone your bank using the phone number on your bank card -- but NOT a phone number provided in the email. Ask your bank about the inquiry and, if need, take the request to the bank to confirm its validity.
Second, if someone claims to be part of an organization, such as Microsoft or Apple, ask them for the Web address (URL) of the product or service they're selling. If the address they provide doesn't include the company name (e.g. Microsoft or Apple), it's probably not who they say they are.
Third, ask a trusted source. If an offer is valid now, it will be valid 24 hours from now. Have them email you some information that you can show someone else and then call them back.
As with most things, a healthy dose of skepticism and caution will go a long way to keeping your Internet experience safe.
Tom Henske is a Westport resident and partner with Lenox Advisors, a wealth management firm with offices in New York and Stamford. His "Money-Smart Kids" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.