How to Spot a Scam: Here are 3 I Dodged

Financial scams often come with some easy-to-spot red flags, but some are trickier. So, before you click on that fun online quiz to see what movie character you're most like, consider what information you're giving away.

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There is no shortage of ways for crooks to try to separate you from your money. All it takes is letting your guard down for one moment or overlooking the warning signs of fraud for scammers to steal your personal information.

In 2016, thieves stole more than $16 billion from 15.4 million consumers, according to a report by Javelin Strategy & Research. Often, older adults are the targets. A report published in August of 2017 in the American Journal of Public Health found one in 18 older Americans falls victim to financial fraud or scams each year.

As a financial adviser to many retired clients, I can attest that identity theft and cybersecurity are among the top financial concerns of older adults. It’s now common for me to talk with clients not about their portfolios, but about a suspicious email or letter. I’ve also been the target of financial scam attempts myself. In the past couple of months, I’ve encountered three types of scams for the first time. All told, I’ve learned to decipher the tell-tale signs of financial scam artists.

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Here are three real-life examples of financial scams and how to tell when someone is trying to take advantage of you.

Your Long-Lost Relative Is Dead – and You’re Rich

Although digital data breaches and pandemic malware get the headlines, thieves continue to use old-fashioned forms of communication, such as the phone and regular postal mail, to deceive their victims.

You should have seen the looks on my teen sons’ faces when I showed them the letter that arrived in our mailbox. It was sent from Alfred Consultants in Newmarket, Ontario, and it detailed some fantastic news — my recently deceased ancestor, James McDonnell, had left me $4.2 million.

The letter looked official. It had the consultant’s name in big bold letters. It was marked “private and personal” and it even listed a reference number. The consultant explained in the letter that he was already in possession of the funds and could easily transfer them to me. My boys were excited about our newfound wealth and asked how soon we would get the money.

That’s when I pointed out the letter’s many flaws, which are also prevalent in spam emails:

  • There were many grammatical errors and inconsistencies. For example, the letter omitted proper salutations and my first name. It was addressed not to “Sean” or “Mr.” but to “Dear McDonnell.” Further, the contact email provided was, which is not consistent with the company’s name, Alfred Consultants. (Not to mention, using a Gmail address rather than an official company email address is suspicious in itself.)
  • The consultant requested that we only communicate by email or fax – not by phone or mail.
  • While I do have multiple ancestors named James, it’s also a common name that could have been easily pulled from public records or simply guessed.
  • The consultant should not have possession of the funds, even if they really existed, for obvious reasons.
  • Finally, the consultant had already deemed me as the sole heir, instead of first trying to determine if I was of any relation to the late James McDonnell he spoke of.

While it may seem that these apparent mistakes are the work of an unintelligent scammer, there’s actually a method to the ineptitude. Fraudsters purposefully place errors in letters and emails to quickly weed out more discerning individuals who are least likely to give up valuable personal information.

Needless to say, my sons’ dreams of shiny new sports cars for their 16th birthdays were dashed. But, they learned the valuable lesson that things that seem too good to be true often are.

Which Hobbit are You? Samwise Scam-gee!

Social media is, well, social. Every day we share photos and experiences with our friends and family. But, unknowingly, we may be also sharing valuable information to unwanted strangers. With more than 2 billion active users worldwide on Facebook alone, scammers are all over social media platforms, searching for users to con.

One popular ploy used by scammers are those quizzes and surveys people frequently complete and share. They typically promise a free gift, or offer to reveal what movie character you’re most like or what city you should live in. All you have to do is answer what seem like innocuous personal questions, such as: What’s your favorite color? Who was your favorite teacher? What’s the name of the street you grew up on? Who was your best man/maid of honor? What was the model of your first car? And, so on.

Take a moment to think about these questions. You may realize they are familiar. That’s because many websites require you to set up similar security questions to gain access to things like your bank or credit card account. What seems like a harmless gimmick is a way for scammers to collect personally identifiable information.

Therefore, by filling out one of these surveys, you could unwittingly be giving crooks keys to your money. Further, people often click “accept” on the terms and conditions without a second thought, granting permission to pass on their data. When in doubt, never click on an unfamiliar link or widely share your personal details. Consider even setting your social profiles to private so that you can better control who sees your posts.

Social media can be a great way to keep in touch with family and friends, but always be careful with what you share. There’s no way to know who is keeping watch.

Imagine that while you’re reading this article, a window pops up on your screen that says: “*Microsoft Warning Alert*: Your computer has been hacked! Please call us immediately at 800-555-5555. Do not ignore this critical alert. If you close this page, your computer will be disabled. If you do not call in the next five minutes your data will be lost.”

Scammers like to try to use our emotions against us. In this case, preying on our anxiety when an alert suddenly appears.

A friend of mine recently received a warning message just like it, and with no time to spare, quickly called the number listed. A member of the “Microsoft Security Team” informed him that he did, indeed, have a breach on his computer. For $550, they could clean the hard drive remotely. All he needed to do was provide his banking information and then click on a link in an email they would send, which would allow remote access to his computer.

The red flags in this scam are relatively easy to spot. First, Microsoft is not going to contact you about a hack on your individual computer. Second, no one other than a legitimate financial institution should ever ask for your bank account information. Finally, no one with good intentions will solicit you for remote access to your computer. Once in, scammers can further infect your computer with malware and steal any personal information that you may have stored or that you keystroke thereafter.

Commands to take immediate action to resolve an issue should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Better yet, always treat anyone or anything that involves your money or personal information with the utmost caution. Ask a lot of questions. When in doubt, seek the advice of a friends or relatives.

Even in my profession, there are, unfortunately, some unscrupulous individuals. These less-than-honest advisers keep investors in the dark of high hidden fees that eat away at their portfolios. The worst bilk their clients out of thousands of dollars through Ponzi schemes or theft. So, work with only people whom you trust — and stay vigilant.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Sean McDonnell, CFP®
Financial Adviser, Advance Capital Management

Sean McDonnell, CFP®, is a financial adviser at Advance Capital Management, an independent registered investment adviser based in Southfield, Mich. He works closely with clients to create and implement customized financial plans, as well as provides a wide range of services, including: investment and 401(k) management, retirement planning and tax strategies.