A couple of weeks ago I got scammed big time. To be honest, I really don’t want to provide the details here though because I have to say, I feel a bit stupid for having been duped and manipulated so easily.
So why go public about it at all? Because part of how so many of us have this happen is just that, the fear of looking dumb before our friends and family. Each day across this country, folks of every background are suckered by unscrupulous characters, but fear admitting it. While back in the day, being robbed took place face-to-face in one’s home or, if one were incredibly unlucky, out on the trail, today we can be ripped off with ease without ever leaving our homes and without ever seeing who it is that so easily stole our hard-earned cash before our very eyes.
The manipulations I am referring to can take all kinds of forms. Many folks are already familiar with the idea of someone randomly calling on the phone or sending an email with some sort of offer that seems too good to be true – and of course the deal is just that. Folks learn that they have won lotteries that they don’t recall entering or are offered cruises or other extravagant prizes. Many of us may even know someone who has been victimized by such nonsense (my 93-year-old dad lost thousands believing that he had won just such a prize). So if you get an email from Nigeria or a phone call from Jamaica, just know that it’s a pretty good idea to run for the door.
But there is another far more insidious and nefarious form of scam than now poisons our society and that is far more difficult to identify until, unfortunately, it is too late. Because in the technology age, we now seek out and purchase goods and services from individuals and companies that we will never see and that reside in a realm which by definition relies upon a new set of systems in order to maintain trust, dependence, and reliability. Put differently, in the past, one might shop in a certain store because that store came highly recommended by friends and family. Meantime the owner was known in the community and recognized as being trustworthy, honest and willing to stand behind his products.
Today, we have a similar but far less dependable system online: we rely upon reviews or other ratings to tell us if we should trust a seller or company. But as we all know, such systems are subject, like everything else online, to manipulation and falsification.
The bottom line is that the idea of “let the buyer beware” was a reasonable enough expectation at one time, but in today’s cyberworld, the buyer’s ability to have complete knowledge of the market is simply impossible. This is especially true when scammers seek to purposely mislead and cheat, to misrepresent and to, in effect, use today’s technologies to accomplish what at one time required a gun and a ski mask.
So what is one to do? Here are a few pointers that, while not foolproof, can help. First, be vigilant. Because such online scams exist, some people refuse to use credit and debit cards, don’t own smart phones, resist making online purchases and so on. Someone I know who thinks this way is my father and we know what happened to him. So no, you don’t have to hide from an e-commerce culture, but do your best to be aware of who you are dealing with. In my most recent experience, for example, I used an online company that I’d never heard of. As a result, I paid for it, both figuratively and literally.
Next, avoid using cash in your transactions. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Use PayPal for online purchases – they are great at following up if you have a dispute when some random company decides not to send you something you ordered online. The same can be said for Amazon. Also, I recently learned, credit cards provide you with more protection than debit cards. Personally I prefer debit over credit as I don’t want to worry about interest payments. But better to charge a large purchase on your credit card and then immediately pay it off than to use your debit, though in my case I did luck out – my bank backed me up, even though I used debit.
But lastly, the Better Business Bureau notes that nowadays anyone can be scammed, and that one of the problems with the phenomenon in the hi-tech age is that, like many crimes, those who are victimized often do not wish to report them because they feel foolish and believe (like myself) that they “should have known better.” So long as these crimes go unreported, the criminals, of course, will continue to operate. It surely helps to share information about those who are disreputable because otherwise, they can continue to victimize others. Know that you are not alone: according to the Insurance Information Institute, some three million people report being defrauded every year in the U.S. Since 2013 alone, reported financial losses from cybercrime have risen by 80%.
It is tempting for someone like me to second-guess myself again and again, even weeks after the fact. And yet, no victim should ever come away from an experience asking “how could I have been so stupid?” Rather, it is the criminal who should be asking themselves “how do I live with myself knowing that this is how I make my living?”
Steven C. Dinero, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Carbon County Museum.