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Don't Be a Scam Victim This Holiday Season

By Jan McFarlane
Posted: 10/23/2023
Tags: fraud, scams, jan mcfarlane

Have you ever been scammed? Your education, professional status, work experience — they don’t matter. We are all vulnerable to falling victim.

I’m going to tell you how I fell down a rabbit hole recently — and then offer some tips that might help you avoid a similar mishap.   

Two weeks ago I was scrolling news stories on the internet. Off to the side flashed an ad for a laptop with a 15-inch screen, all bright and shiny, for $39. Wow, doesn’t that sound great!

Tip #1: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” The price should have been a tip-off.  Who sells a brand-new 15-inch laptop for the price of lunch for two?

I thought it was a little odd. But did I stop to think about this? Nope. Red flag #1.

Tip #2: “Do your research.” Did I stop and review similar laptops on the internet to see what they might cost elsewhere and compare prices? Nope. 

If I had taken five minutes to search on Google, I would have noticed that prices for such a laptop cost anywhere from $250 for a sale item from a warehouse to $2,000 for a high-end brand. Then I would have questioned how a reputable company could sell such an electronic item for a fraction of its regular price. Red flag #2. 

Tip #3: “Pause if you feel pressured to act fast.” However, I just kept barreling ahead, clicking on the link to see this great bargain, a beautiful laptop. And a red message kept blinking, “Only 25 left.” Did I want to be one of those 25 to get this real steal of a beautiful laptop ? You betcha! I was already thinking who I could give it to for the holidays.   

If you feel pressured to buy, it might be wise to stop and wonder why you feel you have to press that “buy” button so fast. Did I pause? Nope. Red flag #3.

Tip #4: “Product details matter.” As I was studying the laptop, I wondered what brand it was.      I kept zooming in trying to read the label. But the image was blurry. I kept zooming in and out.  No luck. Did I wonder why this was so? Nope, too busy wanting this great buy. 

If the advertisement doesn’t give adequate information about the product, such as the brand name, ask yourself why. What might they actually be selling? Red flag #4.

Tip #5: “Independently verify.” The laptop was on a website page that said Best Buy. Maybe Best Buy was having a flash sale, I thought. Customers gave great reviews of the product.

But it didn’t even occur to me to check out if Best Buy was the actual seller. Red flag #5.

Check out the store’s website. If the store isn’t advertising the product on its website, call the store. If the store isn’t selling the product, then whoever is selling the “knock-off” has high-jacked a store’s web page and added their product to it illegitimately.  

Did I even pause to check anything out? Nope, I just got out my credit card — breezing past any security concerns — and punched in my account numbers. Then I pressed “submit.” Done.   

Right away, a message popped up showing the product would be coming from Hong Kong and the shipping fee was only $6. Now, I was really nervous. A product coming from a foreign country, with the postage a pittance? When I send presents to my little nephews in England, postage is outrageous. A red flag finally triggered a buzzer in my head. I called my credit card company right away to cancel.

The nice Citibank lady who took my frantic call gave me bad news. Since I had voluntarily purchased the item and the sale had gone through, even though the bank’s web page only showed “pending,” I could not dispute the charge until it had “posted,” which took a few days more. And my grounds for “dispute” would have to pass muster with the credit card company, i.e., the item would have to have been damaged in transit or arrive “not as advertised.”  

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong sellers had my credit card information. According to Jane — now I’m on first name basis with the Citibank lady — the first remedy was to close that card’s account number and open another. Then she advised me to see if I could stop the order.

While I was doing that, I got a confirmation email saying my order had been packed for shipping. What? It’s Sunday afternoon in Hong Kong, and in five minutes someone has already packed up a laptop for overseas shipping?  To make matters worse, the email had a return address of “No reply.”

Right away I was back on the seller’s product page, hunting for “return policy.” Finally, I saw a chat option. I typed in: “I do NOT want this laptop. Cancel my order.” Then another message, “I have already reported this to my credit card company and asked them to cancel this sale. I do NOT want this laptop. Please refund my money.” No response.

I called Jane back at the Citibank fraud department. She commiserated with me. She said something similar had happened to her. Her sister had sent her a link in an email and, without thinking, she had clicked on the link and gotten into a scam. As did her sister. So, even the expert in the bank’s fraud department had fallen victim to a scam. Then Ms. Fraud Expert led me through my purchase process to give me these tips on how to prevent a reoccurrence.

Tip #6: Finally, “Ask for a second opinion.” Particularly if the purchase is expensive, take the time to ask someone you think might have some expertise in the matter. A techie friend with experience in online activities might help you assess concerns about internet purchases. 

And, if the situation is urgent, call the police to see if they are aware of recent scams. Ask their opinion to see whether your situation sounds legitimate or fishy.

My story had a happy ending. Not many do. 

Later that day, I returned to the product page and found a message in the chat saying the company would refund my money, but it would take a few days. Soon after, I saw a credit for $45 on my credit card account. I was lucky.

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