How to Protect Yourself from Scams

I’ve only known two mules up close. One is a sweet-eyed mule I petted at a farm, and the other – well, it’s me (sort of).

As savvy as I thought I was, I was almost the victim of a money mule scam. Never heard of the phrase “money mule”? (Don’t worry, I hadn’t either.) To put it simply: A scammer tried to use me to move stolen money.

Money mule scams are just one of many types of scams out there today, and people of all ages can fall victim to them. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) lists 30 types of scams perpetrated through phone, texts, internet, mail and email.

Financial institutions and credit unions across the U.S. work together to help prevent fraud and scams and keep their customers’ money safe. Zelle®, the largest bank-owned payment network, has experts that have spent years tapping into the strategies of scammers.

Here are some tips from Zelle on how to protect yourself from scammers and what to do if you do fall victim to a scam.

Don’t Be a Money Mule

I was busy working. An email came in from Elizabeth, a very dear friend. I read her long, distressing message. The gist was: She had sent me a check so I could buy a $200 gift card for her niece’s birthday.

Elizabeth told me which vendor she wanted the gift card from. I went to that website, but realized I needed her niece’s name and guidance on what message should be attached to the card. Her email response was, “Flora, just write whatever you want.” That is not how the Elizabeth I know would respond. So, I called her. Elizabeth said I was the sixth friend who had called that morning. We were all caught in the same scam. While we were talking, the scammer emailed me impatiently, “Have you sent the card yet?”

In my desire to do anything I could to help my friend, I almost became the money mule for the scammer. Fortunately, I knew Elizabeth well enough to know that she would want a heartfelt message attached to the gift. Whoever had hacked her email account only cared about the money.

Money mule scams may have other variations. The scammer may send money to your bank account and ask you to send it to someone else. Why? Because stolen money would be “washed” by your “clean account” prior to being sent to someone else. The final recipient of the payment now has “clean” money instead of illicit money.

What can you do if you find yourself in this situation?

  • Break off contact with the scammer and stop the money transfer immediately.
  • Alert your bank, the wire transfer service, or any gift card companies involved.
  • Report the incident to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint or the FTC’s Internet Crime Complaint Center directly at https://www.ic3.gov/

Watch Out for COVID-19 Phishing Scams

Unfortunately, scammers often use events like natural disasters, economic uncertainty and other times of crisis as an opportunity to take advantage of people. Currently, scammers are exploiting the global Coronavirus pandemic.

Phishing is when a scammer impersonates your financial institution, a charity, a friend’s email, or a website in order to trick you into giving them your personal information.

For example, you receive an email from what appears to be a charity you have donated to before. It reads: “Urgent, feed the children who are starving during the pandemic. Act now and your donation will be quadrupled. Click here now.”

The scammer plays on your empathy and desire to do good by multiplying your gift, but before taking action:

  • Be observant. Maybe the logo of the charity is misspelled, or the sender’s address is from an unfamiliar website domain.
  • Don’t click on any links in the email, open or download attachments. You risk downloading malware that infects your computer or spyware that can steal passwords or your identity.
  • Never give out personal information such as your bank account numbers, passwords and credit card numbers in an email. Contact the company or organization directly to confirm the email’s validity.

Know Who You’re Buying From When Using P2P Payment Platforms

If you’re using a P2P payment platform such as Zelle, you should only send money to people you know and trust. Check reviews, and if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Practice caution when purchasing in-demand products. Online sellers may claim to have in-demand products, like cleaning, household, and health and medical supplies when, in fact, they don’t.

Get more tips and resources for safe payments.

Think With Your Head, Not Your Heart

In the COVID-19 era, scams are more emotionally-charged than ever. Remember: Be wary of anyone who tries to use fear tactics to rush you into taking action. Don’t let scammers take advantage of the situation to take your information or your money. Being informed of the common methods scammers use to take advantage of people can help you spot scams and keep your information and money safe.

This post was sponsored by Zelle, a service we genuinely love!


Penelope S. Tzougros, PhD, ChFC, CLU. Financial Planner, Author, National Speaker. Wealthy Choices.com. 781 577 2311. Penelope@wealthychoices.com. In all 50 states, Penelope S. Tzougros is registered with, and securities and advisory services are offered through, LPL Financial, Member FINRA/SIPC. 2019 Eric Hoffer Award Honoree, Your Home Sweet Home: How to Decide Whether You Should Stay or Move in Retirement. 2014-2020 Five Star Wealth Manager (Award based on 10 objective criteria associated with providing quality services to clients such as credential, experience, and assets under management among other factors. Wealth managers do not pay a fee to be considered or placed on the final list of 2014-2020 Five Star Wealth Managers.)

Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Senior Planet and Wealthy Choices® are not registered broker/dealers and are not affiliated with LPL Financial.

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