What “The Sting” Can Teach Us About Scams
- Scams are being carried out in more sophisticated ways.
- Technology both protects us and makes scam artists more effective.
- Diligence, proper “digital hygiene,” adherence to processes and protocols, and skepticism remain the primary tools to protect ourselves from scams.
Scams have been around a long time. They continue to get more and more sophisticated. Fortunately, the warning signs and basic principles of scams have not changed much over the years.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the movie, “The Sting.” The film, which was set in 1936 and starred Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Robert Shaw, won seven Oscars, including Best Picture.
In one of the scenes, the group of con men discuss which con they would attempt to run on their intended victim, aka “the mark.” They settle on a version of “past posting.” They set up the scam by creating a fake betting operation and giving their mark a tip on a horse race such that the mark believes the results are known before the rest of the public. As such, placing a bet on this inside knowledge appears to be risk-free, easy money.
The mark in the film has ripped off many people himself and is a savvy, highly skeptical man. Pulling off the con would be challenging for even these experienced grifters. “Con” in this context is short for “confidence game.” Cons are called such because they involve giving the victim confidence that what they are doing will pay off. That’s exactly what unfolds.
Cons are called such because they involve giving the victim confidence that what they are doing will pay off.
To the mark, it looked like a real betting parlor. He got paid on the winning bet made from the tip he received. He just needed to keep things quiet and he and his contact on the inside could make money and punish a mutual enemy. So, having won on the information he received, the mark then makes a very large bet on what he believes to be a sure thing. It is at that point things go against the mark and he loses his enormous bet. What seemed real was fake.
In today’s information age, you might think it would be harder to pull off such a scam but the technology that makes getting information so easy is also what further enables today’s scammers.
One example is a cryptocurrency scam. The mark is encouraged to take an interest in cryptocurrency. The scammer tells the mark about how much money can be made and shares a trading tip. The mark opens an account at a legitimate looking organization through a legitimate looking app and dabbles to great apparent success. The app shows him he’s made money on the tips.
Once convinced he has found a low-risk way to quick riches, he deposits a lot more money and is soon told he is sitting on a small fortune by his app. It is only when the mark wants to withdraw some of that fortune that he finds all of it – the organization, the app, the trading insights, the results – was completely fake and his money is gone.
While the scammers are crafty, many of the red flags we have previously written about are present such as urgency, appealing to greed and fear of missing out, an air of exclusivity, and a mandate for secrecy. You can read about one incident of this “pig butchering” as the scam artists call it, and see how it plays out. The victim is a software engineer, intelligent and familiar with tech.
The bad guys are running a variety of other scams with frequency. We received these tips from Amazon:
“Order Confirmation Scams. These are unexpected calls/texts/emails that often refer to an unauthorized purchase and ask you to act urgently to confirm or cancel the purchase. These scammers try to convince you to provide payment or bank account information, install software to your computer/device, or purchase gift cards.
Remember, if you received correspondence regarding an order you weren’t expecting, you can verify orders by logging into your Amazon account. Only legitimate purchases will appear in your order history – and Customer Service is available 24/7 to assist.
Tech Support Scams. Scammers create fake websites claiming to provide tech support for your devices and Amazon services. Customers who land on these pages are lured to contact the scammer and fall prey to their schemes.
Remember, go directly to the help section of our website when seeking help with Amazon devices or services. If you do use a search engine, use caution. Legitimate Amazon websites contain “amazon.com” such as “amazon.com/support”.
Here are some important tips so that you can identify scams and keep your account and information safe:
- Trust Amazon-owned channels. Always go through the Amazon mobile app or website when seeking customer service, tech support, or when looking to make changes to your account.
- Be wary of false urgency. Scammers may try to create a sense of urgency to persuade you to do what they’re asking. Be wary any time someone tries to convince you that you must act now.
- Never pay over the phone. Amazon will never ask you to provide payment information, including gift cards (or “verification cards”, as some scammers call them) for products or services over the phone.
If you receive correspondence you think may not be from Amazon, please report it to us (to Amazon). For more information on how to stay safe online, visit Security & Privacy on the Amazon Customer Service page.”
New twists on an old scam
Here is how a recent version of a tech support scam is run on customers of a financial services firm:
- People receive a pop-up message appearing to be from either Microsoft or Apple warning that their computers have been compromised.
- The popup instructs clients to call a provided “tech support” number that connects them to a fraudster.
- After speaking with the fraudsters, they will be contacted by someone claiming to work for the company as a “security officer,” who informs them their account is “compromised.” In order to protect them, the employee impersonator tells the client they must transfer their funds into an account in “federal custody” and their money will be returned in three business days, once their account has been “encrypted” for safety.
- Once the client follows these instructions, their money disappears.
The scammers are getting more and more creative and using new tools to fool their victims by making them more confident they are responding to legitimate parties. To make the story more believable, people are receiving personalized letters in the mail that purport to be from the Federal Reserve, referencing the real name and titles of genuine personnel, tech company employees, and FDIC analysts who are supposedly the individuals contacting them by phone. The letter encourages clients to verify each person’s identity through their LinkedIn profiles, making the scam even more convincing.
How you can help avoid scams
- Do not click on links or call any number based on instructions from a computer pop-up.
- If you are approached by someone purporting to be from a company or government agency like Social Security, the SEC or the IRS wanting funds, it is likely a scam. When in doubt, find the contact information of the entity independent of the solicitation and verify the issue. If still unsure, call us.
- Plan ahead and communicate your need for withdrawals well in advance of the need.
- Keep your funds invested. It is more difficult to get funds out of an investment portfolio than a bank account because securities need to be sold to generate cash.
- Practice good digital hygiene by using strong passwords and multifactor authentication. Put a security freeze on your credit files with the nationwide credit reporting companies below:
How MFT helps you avoid scams
- We verify requests for cash. When we receive an off-schedule request for a cash disbursement or wire transfer, we will not process it until we have verbally verified the withdrawal. We do this to protect you, not annoy you. This can slow things down some, but remember, urgency is a key ingredient in many scams.
- We watch account activity. When we see unusual activity, we become concerned and will report it to you or the authorities if appropriate.
- We provide a barrier between your funds and the outside world. Our portal system has important security measures to keep people from seeing your information. However, even if you were to give a scammer access to your portal, they would be unable to get to your funds. The portal has no function which allows people to disburse cash, make transfers, change banking information, or do anything else with accounts or the holdings in them. Those functions can only be used via the systems of the financial institutions holding your funds. Since most major financial institutions have such strong security, scammers do not even try to hack into the systems. Instead, they try to dupe people into giving them access.
Diligence, proper digital hygiene, adherence to processes and protocols, and skepticism remain the primary tools to protect ourselves from scams. By planning ahead for your financial needs and exercising some vigilance, you do not have to be scared of being ripped off. We are here to help.
Scam Me If You Can: Simple Strategies to Outsmart Today’s Rip-off Artists by Frank W. Abagnale, whose life as a professional imposter and con man inspired the 2002 film, “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks.
Moisand Fitzgerald Tamayo, LLC is an Orlando, Tampa and Melbourne, Florida based fee-only financial planner serving central Florida and clients across the country. Moisand Fitzgerald Tamayo, LLC specializes in providing objective financial planning, retirement planning, and investment management to help clients build, manage, grow, and protect their assets through all phases of one’s life and the many transitions in between. If you have any questions or would like to discuss anything further, please give us a call or send us a note. If you are not a client and wish to receive emails notifying you of new posts – no more than once per month – fill out the subscription information in the sidebar to the right. For more frequent updates, follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.
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