The Washington Post

Beware of digital cons


I received a distressing note from “a friend” named Mark who needed help with his bills after his bag and passport were stolen in Manila.

“I have made contact with my bank but it would take me 3-5 working days to access funds in my account,” read the e-mail. “The bad news is my flight will be leaving very soon but I am having problems settling the hotel bills and the hotel manager won’t let me leave until I settle the bills. I need your help financially and I promise to make the refund once I get back home, you are my last resort and hope.”

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Many of you would spot this note for what it is: a scam.

I don’t know Mark. Had the scoundrel’s e-mail not been captured by my spam filter, I might have been tempted to open it because of the subject line — “SAD NEWS!!”

Or, if I weren’t super sensitive to cons and I was lonely, I might respond to another e-mail that said: “It is a thing of surprise for you to receive my message this morning. Though we have never met each other face to face but i decided to contact you after going through your profile and i felt convinced that you will be a good person to trust. I have a problem in which i think that you will be of good help to me but before sharing that problem with you i will like us to know each other very well and i will like us to build trust first.”

The misspellings and poor grammar would warn most people, but such correspondence has worked, with the person, usually operating overseas, successfully soliciting money.

Who falls for such schemes?

Well, lots of people — millions, in fact. According to a Federal Trade Commission survey conducted in late 2011 and early 2012, an estimated 25.6 million American adults, or nearly 11 percent, have been fraud victims.

Where do people get duped the most?

Not surprisingly, the Internet. Specifically, e-mail, social media, Internet auction sites and Internet classified advertising.

“The Internet was the most common way victims first learned about offers that turned out to be fraudulent,” according to the FTC report.

People placed orders using the Internet in almost 40 percent of the fraud cases in 2011, up from 20 percent reported in the agency’s 2005 survey. The most frequent frauds involved weight-loss products, prize promotions, work-at-home programs and falsely billed buyer-club memberships or Internet services.

You may smugly think that you couldn’t be conned, but the FTC found that there are circumstances and personal characteristics that make people more susceptible.

Who are these victims?

●Risk-takers. The FTC says it used two measures to examine the relationship between risk-taking and the likelihood of becoming a fraud victim. The agency looked at the self-reported willingness of survey participants to take risks. The FTC also examined consumers who had engaged in risky purchasing practices such as buying a product after getting an unsolicited e-mail from an unknown company. Those who reported a high willingness for risk-taking were three times as likely to have been victims of fraudulent prize promotions. Those who met the definition of risky purchasing practices were almost four times as likely to have been victims of fake prize promotions.

●Grieving people. Folks who had recently experienced a bad life event — a divorce, death of a family member or close friend, serious injury or illness in their family, or job loss — were much more likely to be victimized. If someone had experienced a major disruption in the previous two years, they were more than 21 / 2 times as likely to have been a fraud victim.

This is why experts recommend that you don’t make major financial decisions too soon after a death of someone close or another calamity. Your judgment could be impaired.

●Debtors. This makes sense. Many of the cons go after people in debt because they want to escape their financial troubles. And their anxiousness is just what the con artists count on. If you’re desperate, you’re more likely to want a quick solution.

In fact, “victimization rates were lower among those who self-reported themselves as more patient,” the report said.

The FTC says its examinations of how people are deceived helps the agency’s enforcement and education efforts. Check out the FTC’s “10 Ways to Avoid Fraud” at or call 877-382-4357 to order it by mail. But the agency can only do so much. So just be careful out there.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or singletarym@washpost.
com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to

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