Your Money > Smart Assets
Scams that sting even smart people
You can't avoid all of them but you can at least try to minimize the damage.
August 19, 2003: 2:19 PM EDT
By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN/Money Senior Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) You're smart, you think you're good at reading people and you know those claims promising "great, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities" are pure bunk.

But that doesn't mean you're safe from scams. "Smart people never think it's going to happen to them. They think only the greedy, gullible or brain-dead would get scammed," said Dennis M. Marlock, a retired police officer and author of "How to Become a Professional Con Artist."

Sophisticated con artists can snare intelligent consumers because they are masters of human nature, can size up their prey and will say what you want to hear and make it highly believable, Marlock noted. And that's if they deal with you personally. Some scams are IQ-proof because the con artists work remotely.

Here are just a few scams that have taken in the smart and the not-so-smart alike.

ATM skimming: You don't advertise your PIN and other bank-account information, but a crook may get a hold of it anyway by rigging an ATM.

Here's one way the crime works: A tiny camera is inserted in or near an ATM's keypad and works in conjunction with a peripheral device attached to the ATM perhaps a reader through which you're asked to swipe your card.

The devices capture information about your account and the criminals then create fake cards in your name that can be used at any ATM to siphon money from your account.

At greatest risk for skimming are those stand-alone, non-bank-related ATMs, like the kind you might see at stores, or ATMs that are located outdoors, said Diane Terry, senior director of TransUnion's Fraud Victim Assistance Department.

To prevent your card from being skimmed, avoid ATMs with any obvious oddities such as a device over the card reader or a note telling you to swipe your card through a reader other than the one in the machine. And, as always, be sure to cover up the keypad while punching in your PIN.

Also, check your bank statement carefully, suggested John Hall, a spokesman for the American Bankers Association. If you notice any withdrawals that you didn't make -- even small ones -- alert your bank immediately.

If you detect skimming and report it to your bank within a "reasonable period" typically two months, but check your bank's definition "the bank will refund your money 100 percent," Hall said, so long as you can prove the fraudulent withdrawals were not yours.

Going phishing: A lot of people have gotten an e-mail in the past week that looks deceptively like it's from Citibank, complete with logo and dry bank-speak asking you to review the bank's new Terms and Conditions by clicking on the link and indicating your agreement with the new policy. Otherwise, the e-mail informs you, the bank will have to suspend your checking account.

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Citibank is warning its customers about an e-mail scam which seeks to illegally gain access to sensitive account information. CNNfn's Fred Katayama reports.

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Don't click on the link. And if you do, don't reply to the questions. Con artists interested in identity theft are "phishing" -- that is, stealing company logos to make e-mails requesting personal information look official. Once they get your information, they can wreak havoc in your financial life.

Citibank is just one among many companies that have been the target of phishers. Others include Best Buy, eBay and Bank of America.

One telltale sign the e-mail you get is fraudulent: the return address isn't from the company the sender claims to represent. For instance, one version of the fake Citibank e-mail came from a "" Another sign? Everybody and their brothers get one, even those without accounts at the company in question.

For other phishing scams, click here.

Getting crammed: Ever get a phone bill littered with international calls you never made? You may have gotten crammed.

Here's one way it works: Say your teenage son is using your home computer to view a porn site on the sly. He wants to view an image but doesn't have a credit card to pay. No problem. The site offers him an opportunity to see the image anyway by clicking on a given button.

Doing so automatically downloads dialer software, which disconnects the user's modem from its usual Internet service provider, triggers the modem to dial an international number and reconnects the modem to the Internet from an overseas location.

Often, Federal Trade Commission spokesman Daniel Salsburg said, "consumers have no clue they've been victimized and have no way to prevent it."

What's more, your phone carrier may expect you to pay the charges anyway even though you never authorized them, since the phone bill is in your name. The FTC has argued otherwise and even won one legal case on the matter in New York. But, unfortunately, it's still true that "a lot of consumers have a very difficult time getting rid of those bills," Salsburg said.

There are other ways you may get crammed on your phone bill or credit card. To learn about them, click here.

Passing bad checks: Say you're selling a big-ticket item like a car in an online auction and the highest bidder just happens to be someone overseas who sends you a cashier's check for, say, $4,000 more than the price agreed upon. Recognizing the error, the buyer tells you his or her secretary made a mistake and asks you to send a check back for the extra $4,000.

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Being efficient, you deposit the cashier's check from the buyer and have the $4,000 check cut from your account during the same visit to your bank. Surprise, surprise the cashier's check sent to you turns out to be counterfeit and now you're out $4,000.

Remember, Marlock said, a cashier's check isn't necessarily gold it can take a week or more for a bank to certify that it's a good check. So if you find yourself in this situation, tell the buyer that you'd be happy to cut a check for the amount overpaid but only when the original check clears.  Top of page

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