Skip to Main Content

Evaluating Media in the Age of Fake News: Common Scams

A guide to figuring out the reliability of news and media content

Avoiding scams

Scammers are everywhere, and they want your money.  You know better than to fall for an email from a prince needing a place to stash millions, but there are so many scams that are less obvious.  Here are some of the most common scams directed at college students.

It's important to remember that scammers often want to make you panic, because once panic sets in, you stop thinking clearly.  If anyone is trying to scare you into giving them money, perhaps by using the words "IRS" or "Social Security," or perhaps by making you afraid to lose out on a great deal, it's guaranteed to be a scam.  Never give anyone your ID, bank account number, Social Security number, or remote access to your computer.  Never send Bitcoin or a money order, or buy gift cards for someone demanding money.  Don't believe anyone who claims to want to give you money or help you invest.  Don't download apps.

If you fall victim to a scam, report it!  The only way to stop scammers is to track them.  Report to:

Apartment scams

If you've ever moved and looked for an apartment, you know that there are plenty of scammers out there who would like to con you out of your money.

Craigslist and both have excellent pages on avoiding scams.  The short version:

  • Always deal in-person.  If the other person says they've moved, are out of town, or can't meet (but you can drive by the place!), it's a scam.
  • Never take cashier's checks or send money orders   A very common scam is to send you a cashier's check for way too much money, ask for the extra back by money order, and then stop payment on the check.
  • Don't succumb to pressure or fear.  If this incredible deal has to be closed right now, then it's a scam.
  • If you need a moving service, don't pay ahead of time.  Meet in person, and pay after you get the service.

screen shot from a phone of an apartment scam

Credit card scams

Credit cards also target college students.  Always check carefully into any credit card you are considering, and scam by Zulfa Mahendra from the Noun Projectwatch out for:

  • High interest rates (over 25% APR)
  • High annual fees (over $30)
  • Identity theft: a fraudulent credit card that isn't even real, and wants your personal information.

It's better to do your own research and apply for a card from an institution you know something about, than it is to respond to a solicitation.  Never give your personal information to anybody you don't trust.

Money giveaways

MacKenzie Scott is Jeff Bezos' ex-wife, and she's known for giving away millions of dollars in philanthropy without going through a foundation.  She just gives money to whatever organizations she wants to.  Unfortunately, scammers have taken advantage of this known habit, and are preying on people in need by promising them money from Scott.   Read this New York Times article to learn about the criminal gangs running these sophisticated scamsTL;DR: MacKenzie Scott does not give money to individuals, only to organizations.  Anyone who offers you money is a scammer.

Computer scams

You've probably gotten a phone call in the past from somebody who claims to be from Microsoft and wants to fix your computer problem.  Or you might happen upon a pop-up that says you have a virus, and to call a certain phone number to get it fixed.  These scams mostly target older folks, but scammers are happy to take anyone into their nets.  The important thing to remember is to never, ever give anyone remote access to your computer, or your bank information, or anything like that.  You can learn a lot about computer scams, and be entertained at the same time, by watching some of the videos at Jim Browning's YouTube channel.  Scam-busting is his hobby.

If you have elderly family members, warn them about scam phone calls and computer popups!  Many scammers target older people who may be naive or easily frightened.

Take a deep dive

Want to learn a lot about cons and scams?  Try these e-books; just click, log in, and start reading.

Romantic scams

Romantic scams have gotten huge in the last couple of years, and are aimed at all ages, even young students.  They are often run by large organizations and employ sophisticated psychological techniques and highly accurate demographic information.  Elements to watch out for:

  • lots of attractive photos, phone calls, but always a reason why they can't video chat
  • they schedule a visit, but a horrible personal tragedy prevents it at the last minute
  • the person is amazingly wonderful and understanding
  • strategies to win your confidence include asking your opinion between, say, two expensive items for purchase, which implies that they have lots of money
  • they are super into cryptocurrency and encourage you to invest through an app THEY suggest, such as Hillsu, which gives them the money but makes it look like you're profiting!
  •  they're just about to get a great contract at work, or some other financial windfall, but a sudden disappointment (an unexpected tax bill for the contract that they can't afford to pay, etc.) invites you to offer them money
  • the pressure for money builds until you either give in or push back.  Give in, and they'll milk you.  Push back, and they ghost.

Learn more about romantic scams and crypto scams at Global Anti-Scam, which maintains a list of sites NOT to send money to.

A Bingo card of common scam traits

Financial Aid or tuition scams

debit card fraud by ProSymbols from the Noun ProjectThere are so many ways for scammers to target you through financial aid or tuition:

  • Financial Aid search services: These people offer to find you grants or aid money, for a large fee.  You pay the money, and they disappear.  (You can search for financial aid opportunities for free.)
  • Someone calls you and says you won a scholarship!   They need your account number in order to deposit the money.  Nobody ever needs your bank information, Social Security number, or other ID in order to give you money.
  • Someone calls you and says your tuition money didn't get paid in and you need to pay right away in order to stay enrolled.  Or you get an email that claims to be from your school, saying you need to click on this link, log in, and see the announcement/pay your tuition.  Never use an email link to log in to anything.  It's too common for scammers to grab your login information that way.
  • Textbook scams: Fake websites offering expensive textbooks for amazing prices may never actually deliver the book.  Purchase your textbooks from trusted sources.
  • Student debt relief scams: there are many outfits that will claim to help you pay down student debt, and a lot of of them are fraudulent.  Read about student debt relief here.

Work-at-home scams

Scammers often target college students with offers to make big money by working from home, maybe by stuffing envelopes, putting up online ads, filling out surveys, or some other thing.  Here's what to watch out for:

  • Don't give your ID or bank information to someone who contacts you for an interview.  Nobody needs that information in order to interview you.
  • If they want YOU to pay THEM first, for training or materials, it's a scam.   The trainings will never end, or you'll wind up owing money for materials you can't use or sell.
  • If they claim that little or no job experience is required, it's probably a scam.
  • Offers of high pay for little work do not exist.  If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
  • Car-wrap scams also target college students.  They offer you money just for driving around town with an ad on your car!  But they'll send you a check and then ask you to send money back to pay the "specialist" for putting the ad on the car.  The check is fraudulent, and you lose a lot of money.

The FTC has a page on work-from-home scams.scam by monkik from the Noun Project