The holidays are approaching and with them comes the annual increase in scammers and con artists. One place to be especially wary is on Internet message forums. If you spend a lot of time on forums, particularly ones where people share intimate details of their their lives and issues, it’s easy sometimes to be fooled into thinking that you genuinely know these people. Thus, when they ask for help it can seem natural to give whatever aid you can, be it money, gift cards, or presents for their children. No matter how well you think you know these people, though, don’t give in to your impulse to help.
Message boards are full of scammers. And you can’t tell who is a scammer just by their post count. Inexperienced scammers are pretty easy to spot. They have just a few posts and they usually begin with some sob story about much trouble they are in, or how they can’t afford to give their kids a good Christmas this year. The worst of the lot will ask directly for money or gifts. The slightly better scammer will probably say something like, “Tell me what I should do or whom I can approach for help,” hoping that others will jump in and offer something.
The most experienced scammers, though, started laying the groundwork for their holiday scams much earlier. They probably started with several normal posts earlier in the year related to whatever the board is about. If it’s a disease forum, they probably started by asking simple questions about the disease. As time has worn on, they’re likely revealed more about themselves and their “unfortunate” situation. They may have talked about a spouse leaving or a job loss. That’s probably been followed by some sad story about how they couldn’t afford to buy a gift for their kid to take to a party, or how they had to eat nothing but bread for a week until they got paid.
These are fictional scenarios, but you can see how it builds until, come holiday time, they hit with, “I can’t give my kids a good Christmas this year. Is there anyone who can help?” They may phrase it differently and be a little less obvious, but you’ll know that this person wants some help. The problem is that while you may be well-intentioned in helping, this person may not be honest. They will probably re-sell any physical objects you give on eBay or Craigslist and the cash will most certainly not be spent on the kids.
So why do people fall for this year after year? We want to believe that people don’t lie, particularly people that we feel we’ve come to “know” through the help and advice we’ve given and received on the message boards. We especially don’t want to believe that people will lie about their kids or tarnish the holidays with scams. But scammers know this. They know you’re feeling sympathetic at this time of year. They know you’re feeling generous. They know that you’re busy and stressed and not likely to ask a lot of questions and that you are likely to have your guard down a bit. That’s why they target the holidays and that’s why they’re often successful.
If you think someone on the boards is a fraud, report them to a moderator and let that person investigate the problem. That’s what they’re there for. If the board is unmoderated, you can start a separate post warning others of what you see as a potential scam. If enough people “out” the scammer, they’ll likely go away. Whatever you do, don’t give them anything. If someone is in genuine need, there are assistance programs in their area that can help them. If you feel generous or that the person might not really be a scammer (or you just don’t want to chance offending someone who might be legitimate), you can post links to some helpful organizations and suggest that the poster approach those places.
If you want to give to those in need, there are many legitimate charities in your local area that would be happy to receive assistance. You could give to a food bank, homeless shelter, or an assistance organization like the Salvation Army. With the economy in bad shape, these legitimate charities are seeing an increase in people seeking aid and a decrease in people willing to give. If you’re willing to give, give to an organization that will ensure that the money or goods will go to a good use.
You just don’t know about the honesty of people on the Internet. They may be genuinely in trouble, or they may be out to scam you. Don’t take a chance that your well intended help goes to a scammer. Give to legitimate charities that you have carefully researched.