Money

Ex FBI agent: 2 things you need to know to avoid falling for a money scam

No one thinks they'll fall for a financial scam and lose thousands of their hard-earned dollars — until it happens.

In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission received almost 1.3 million complaints related to fraud. In those complaints, people reported losing over $744 million to the scammers.

And for young people, scams can be particularly dangerous.

According to a 2017 survey by First Orion, millennials were six times more likely to give away their credit card information and twice as likely to give out their social security numbers than older generations, even though they received fewer scam calls as a group.

The Better Business Bureau found similar results in a study of more than 2,000 adults — people ages 18 to 24 were three times less likely to recognize a scam than their older counterparts. And, people ages 25 to 34 were most likely to report losing money.

If you do get scammed, law enforcement is unlikely to be able to get those dollars back, retired FBI Special Agent Jerri Williams tells CNBC Make It.

"When it comes to these type of frauds and schemes, in most cases, there is not going to be anybody around who will be able to investigate it," she says. "When they are investigated, it is for the purpose of convicting and charging the violator, and getting your money back is very seldom a focus."

Retired FBI Special Agent Jerri Williams
Jerri Williams | Michael Schweisheimer
Retired FBI Special Agent Jerri Williams

And Williams would know — she spent 26 years in the FBI investigating economic crimes, including a $350 million Ponzi scheme. (That case ended in a 12-year prison sentence.)

"With a gun you can steal hundreds. With a pen you can steal millions," she writes on her website.

So, it is up to you to be smarter than the scammers. By watching out for two basic tricks that many schemes rely on, you can do just that, she says.

Here are the two big red flags, according to the FBI veteran.

1. Beware of any sense of urgency

Scammers will try to convince you that something needs immediate attention, and you have to handle it right away.

For example, they want you to think, "You've done something terribly wrong, and the IRS or the police are going to come and get you if you don't do something immediately," she says.

These scams might look like a call that a relative is in trouble or an email seemingly from the IRS saying you made a mistake in your taxes or asking for information. Whatever form it comes in, the trick is the same.

"Don't ever react quickly without having a chance to first verify who you are talking to." -Jerri Williams, retired FBI special agent

"If they can get you to react before you have a chance to either question it yourself, or to talk to others who will say 'Hey, hold up for a minute,' that is an important key to any fraud," she says.

To prevent getting swindled, the best idea is to take your time.

"Really investigate anything that asks for you to provide information that you normally would hold close: account numbers, social security numbers, your bank account," she says. "Don't ever react quickly without having a chance to first verify who you are talking to, and then make a decision as to what they're asking your for is legitimate."

Also pay attention to email addresses and phone-number area codes, then search the internet to see if there are previous complaints about that account or phone number, says Williams.

2. Scammers know you want good deals

Williams explains that another common tactic among scammers is to capitalize on people's zeal for bargains.

"Everybody is looking for that discount," she says. "Everybody is looking for that coupon, that special deal. Sometimes, because you are being told that you are getting something of value for less than what it is worth, you're thinking 'oh what a great deal, I need to jump on this right away.'"

Scams that play on your self-interest might look like an email about a brand item being sold for a lower price, then after you pay for the item, it isn't real or never even shows up. Or, it could be a call proclaiming you won the lottery, but in order to collect the winnings, you have to pay a transaction fee.

"That little bit of greed that we have to get something more than what we normally would pay for allows scammers to take advantage of you," Williams says.

To avoid falling victim, always do your own homework. Take your time, search the details, and verify the information for yourself.

And don't listen to your friends.

"The biggest trap is using the words or the opinions of your friends and associates as proof that something is valid," she says. People will hear that their friends got a great deal on a pair of new headphones and run to buy them too. Then, the fraud grows.

"Nobody stopped to do their own true due diligence," she says. "One person has been pushed into a shady deal, and now based on that very shallow social proof, they are getting other people to do it. You can't depend on just a recommendation from a friend."

If you encounter a scam, federal organizations say the best thing to do is report it. The FTC has a complaint system to report scams, and you can report IRS phishing scams by forwarding the suspected email to phishing@irs.gov. If you do lose money in a scam, the IRS asks you report it to the Treasury Inspector General Administration.

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