Sometimes it's a matter of a Web page that just doesn't look right or an offer that sounds too good to be true, but often it's just a matter of spotting the words and phrases that tend to be pop up with great frequency on scam Web sites. And we're not just referring to obvious buzzwords like the spam-filter-evading "v1agra," but also such seemingly innocuous words as "congratulations" and "free."
Indeed, detecting such keywords in context became the basis of a tool developed by online security firm PC Tools to flag suspicious sites. The company gave us a look at some of the keywords that set off its software's alarm bells. Here are a few.
Remember when hearing the word "congratulations" used to mean that something good was about to happen to you? Well, the Internet ruined that for all of us. Most of us have seen (and perhaps heard) a garish banner ad declaring "congratulations, you won!" And most of us have figured out by now that we didn't win anything.
Here's the thing: There's no such thing as a free lunch on the Internet. That Web site telling you that you can get a free iPad is probably just going to steal your information. And whatever the banner ad says, you're not actually the 1 millionth visitor to the site, and you're not actually entitled to riches and free merchandise.
Acai berry has been popping up in everything from energy drinks to colon cleansers lately. And if you're like us, it's also been popping up in your inbox and Web searches, too.
It's marketed as an all-natural miracle drug capable of promoting weight loss, virility and countless other health benefits, and these wild claims have started to catch the attention of government regulators. The Federal Trade Commission began cracking down on companies promoting the stuff back in 2010, shutting down a number of firms who made false health claims or otherwise tried to scam consumers into buying the supplement. And we've seen scammy-looking sites try to cash in on the controversy by offering the "truth" about acai berry.
Context is everything. The word "home" is innocuous on its own, but if it arrives in the phrase "work from home," then it should set off all sorts of internal alarm bells.
Don't get us wrong: There are definitely some legitimate work-from-home jobs out there. But much like miracle weight-loss supplements, such jobs are seen as a holy grail for people who don't want to get off the couch to accomplish their goals. As such, there are plenty of disreputable Web sites offering to pay you thousands per month but actually offering nothing but trouble.
To avoid these scam, here are some tips on how to spot a fake job.
Here's a tip: If a Web site takes pains to assure you its offer is "risk-free," it almost certainly carries plenty of risk. In fact, just last year the FTC cracked down on an international scheme that offered "risk-free" trials of everything from weight-loss pills to penny auctions and charged the customers with exorbitant monthly charges.
"Although the defendants offered a money-back guarantee, consumers were often unsuccessful in canceling the charges or obtaining refunds, and the process involved time-consuming phone calls and other steps that made the deals far from risk-free," the FTC explained in a statement.
There are certainly legitimate businesses out there that use this phrase, but in general it's a case of "methinks the scammer doth protest too much." If a guy ran up to you and the first words out of his mouth were "Don't worry, I'm not going to stab you!" you would probably turn and run away. Do the same for "risk-free" offers.
If you see the word "service" along with "bill" and "charged," there's a good chance you've stumbled upon some kind of mobile phone scam, say the experts at PC Tools. These words and phrases will usually pop up even when you're signing up for a legitimate phone service, but if you see the fine print on a suspicious-looking Web site start to talk about subscribing you to a service and billing you, you can be sure it won't be long before they're asking for your credit card number.
The acai berry scammers don't have a monopoly on weight-loss scams. Getting thin quick is just as popular as getting rich quick, and various sites offer miraculous diet solutions that will probably just sign you up for a free trial that isn't all that free (and which won't make you any thinner). You might see such sites also feature another buzzword identified by PC Tools: "mango," as in African mango, another supposed natural solution to weight loss.
The truth about weight-loss pills? The Food and Drug Administration is constantly reviewing such supplements made by legitimate pharmaceutical companies, and they tend to find that the side effects far outweigh any benefits. In other words, a miracle diet drug simply doesn't exist, and any Web site that claims it does is probably out to scam you. If you want to lose weight, hit the gym and start eating right.
Once again, context is everything. Lots of Web sites, including this one, talk about stocks and provide investment advice. But when an odd email or site starts talking about can't-miss investment opportunities, you may want to back away slowly.
We know: Everyone wishes they were the guy who caught early wind of Apple's revival or bought a bunch of shares of IBM decades ago. And it's that desire to get in early on a stock no one else knows about that allows scammers to entice gullible investors on the lookout for a hot tip.
Our hot tip? You could wind up relieved of a good chunk of change or wake up to find you were a patsy in a pump-and-dump scheme. The Securities and Exchange Commission recommends avoiding any stocks that aren't traded on a major exchange such as the Nasdaq or New York Stock Exchange, steering clear of unregulated "over the counter" exchanges. The SEC's best advice: "When you see an offer on the Internet, assume it is a scam until you can prove through your own research that it is legitimate."
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