Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 20, 2013

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You ordered an item online from an unfamiliar seller and thought nothing of entering your contact information and perhaps your credit card number. Or you responded to what looked like an email from your bank asking for your Social Security number. But was that really your bank? Wouldn’t they already have your number? While the Internet offers a global marketplace for consumers and businesses, crooks also recognize the potentials of cyberspace. Some sell you things that don’t exist, and then take your money and never ship anything to you. Others are “phishing” for personal information, ready to steal your identity or use your credit card number for fraudulent purposes. What should you do if you get scammed?

Stop the Payment if Possible

Certainly if you paid by personal check, try to cancel the check as soon as you figure out you are not getting the goods you ordered. Unfortunately, it is often too late because cashing your check is the first thing the scammer will do.

If you paid by credit card, you can dispute the charges with your credit card company. Federal law limits your liability to $50 if someone makes unauthorized charges to your account, and most credit card issuers will remove them completely if you report the problem promptly. You may have other issues, however, because now the scammer has your credit card number—so let your credit card company know about the fraudulent transaction immediately and cancel the card.

If you used a U.S. Postal Service money order, let the Post Office know; they take fraud involving U.S.P.S. money orders very seriously.

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Report the Crime

Taking money fraudulently is criminal behavior, and although the perpetrator appears to have gotten away with it, there are things you can do to prevent it from happening again. If you are a victim or attempted victim of Internet fraud, it is important to report the scam quickly to law enforcement agencies so they have the opportunity to shut the bogus operation down.

Law Enforcement Authorities

On the national level, report this type of cybercrime to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, (FBI), the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C), and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). On the state level, report the fraud to the office of the Attorney General. For ease of reporting, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a partnership including the three federal organizations above serves as a vehicle to receive, develop, and refer criminal complaints regarding cybercrime.

Other Resources

  • The National Fraud Information Center will direct your complaint to the authorities, and provides information on Internet fraud and how to avoid it.
  • The National Consumers Leagueprovides many articles, research, tips, and other consumer information on cybercrime.
  • CyberCopssupplies some very useful resources. You can file a complaint about your experiences or report suspicious activity on the Net. You can also search the complaint archives, read success stories, and check out a list of reported “suspicious characters.”
  • The Better Business Bureau (BBB) registers complaints and allows consumers to check out online companies to see if any previous complaints have been filed against them.

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How to Avoid Being Scammed in the Future

There are simple things you can do to lessen your chances of being scammed online, from not falling for official looking emails until you call the company and check it out, to using the many online resources outlined above. Scambusters.orgis also a very useful consumer website that compiles a list of scams and gets updated often.

Here are some other tips:

  • Only deal with familiar entities.Check with your state or local consumer protection agency and the Better Business Bureau before doing business with anyone online. Always get a physical address and phone number in case there is a problem later. Call the phone number and make sure it’s real!
  • Be careful of unsolicited emails.Often they are fraudulent. Never respond to unknown senders. Doing so only confirms for them that yours is a working email address resulting in more unwanted emails. They may also sell email addresses to other scammers. The best approach is to delete the email.
  • Understand the offer. A legitimate seller will give you all the details about the products or services, the total price, the delivery time, the refund and cancellation policies, and the terms of any warranty. A cybercriminal will be short on details and long on payment procedures.
  • Guard your personal information. Never provide your credit card or bank account number unless you are actually paying for something from a reputable company. Be wary of companies that ask for your social security number online. Be especially suspicious if someone claiming to be from a company with whom you have an account asks for information they should already have.
  • Don’t believe promises of easy money. If someone claims that you can earn money with little or no work, get a loan or credit card even if you have bad credit, or make money on an investment with little or no risk, it is likely a scam.
  • Pay the safest way. Credit cards are the safest way to pay for online purchases because you can dispute the charges if you never get the goods or services or the offer was misrepresented.
  • Think twice before entering contests operated by unfamiliar companies. Fraudulent marketers sometimes use contest entry forms to identify potential victims.