Almost every second of every day, someone is defrauded of their money.
Identity theft gets a lot of press, for good reason. In 2012, according to a report by Javelin Strategy & Research, 12.6 million Americans lost $21 billion to identity theft, which equates to one victim every three seconds. But that doesn't include government, bank or utilities fraud, old-fashioned burglaries and muggings – and the kind of fleecing in which a dishonest person manages to separate an honest person from his or her money.
Scams happen, and it's impossible for everyone to be vigilant every moment of their lives. But the signs that you're about to be taken are almost always there, if you just look hard enough. Here are three examples.
The red flag. The merchandise was really, really cheap.
What happened. The Parrishes of Camarillo, Calif., produce documentaries, and in 2005, they needed a specific Mac Pro to do their editing – and found one on Craigslist.
"I was suspicious because the price was $1,300, and it should have been around $3,500," says Fawn Parrish, 57.
After the couple drove 50-plus miles and bought the computer from a seller in Los Angeles, Parrish says she finally decided to listen to her gut. When they returned home with the computer, she "drilled down deep into its memory" and found a name.
"We called them, and sure enough, they were a design house who had had all their Mac Pros stolen. We returned it, and we were not only out the $1,300, but embarrassed we'd made such a stupid mistake," Parrish says.
Why the red flag was ignored. Parrish relayed her suspicions to her husband, Joey, but he wasn't apprehensive, and she let him make the decision. Besides, who doesn't want a good deal?
"My husband is such a man of integrity that he would never imagine anyone lying to him. So in the end, I was at fault as I abdicated my discernment, ignored all the red lights and left the decision to the most guileless man on the planet," she says.
They may share the blame, but the couple deserves plenty of plaudits for doing the right thing and returning the Mac Pro.
The red flag. An acquaintance asks for a really big monetary favor.
What happened. Four years ago, Jeff Goldberg, a 58-year-old owner of a sales consultancy in Long Beach, N.Y., was taking lessons at a tennis club from a capable instructor and a heck of a nice guy. A couple of months later, the instructor asked to meet for breakfast.
Goldberg agreed, and at the meeting, the tennis instructor brought out a folder of papers. The instructor told his tennis student he wanted his opinion "because I seemed like a smart businessman to him," Goldberg says. "He explained that he had bad credit and had responded to an ad about credit repair."
The instructor showed Goldberg a receipt for a money order and explained that he had paid $1,000 to have his credit rebuilt, but it turned out to be a scam. "He wanted to know if there was anything I thought he could do," Goldberg says.
Goldberg told his instructor the money was likely gone forever and advised him to apply for a small loan and repay it on time. The instructor said he couldn't get a loan, then asked if Goldberg would be willing to cosign for one.
Wisely, Goldberg declined. That might have been the end of it, but then Goldberg said he would be willing to put some cash in an account at his bank so the instructor could get a secured credit card.
"He was amazingly thankful," Goldberg says.
Yes, he would be. But Goldberg didn't guess why.
They went to the bank together, and Goldberg put $1,600 in an account, then the bank gave the instructor a credit card for that amount. Goldberg would receive his $1,600 a year later, after the instructor had proven his creditworthiness to the bank, and then the instructor could get his own credit card.
When Goldberg showed up for his lesson the following week, he learned the instructor had called in sick. "I thought nothing of it and took a lesson with another teacher," Goldberg says. When he returned the following week, Goldberg was told the instructor no longer worked there. His cell phone number was no longer working, either.