Ask This 4-Word Question to Protect Yourself From Scammers, FBI Says in New Warning

Taking a second to pause and ask yourself this could save you time and money.

Scams have, unfortunately, become a part of daily life. You probably receive a "potential spam" robocall, an email with a mysterious link, or something in the mail claiming you've won a prize on a regular basis. By now, we're all pretty well-versed in tactics to ward off scammers, including not clicking those sketchy links and never providing personal information to people you don't know. But the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is now suggesting a new tactic you can use to avoid being scammed. Read on to find out the four-word question they say you should ask to protect yourself from scammers.

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It's the most wonderful time of the year—until it's not.

holiday shopping online
Bogdan Sonjachnyj / Shutterstock

The holiday season is getting closer every day—some of us have already started playing Christmas music and making plans for Black Friday shopping. Depending on which holidays you celebrate, you probably have quite a few gifts to buy—but thieves are aware of this as well.

Criminals want to capitalize on the money you're prepared to spend on your friends and loved ones, and according to a press release from the FBI, at this time of year, "thousands of people become victims to holiday scams."

Thieves do this one of two ways: They either take your money but never deliver the items or services you're paying for, known as a non-delivery crime, or they have you ship them items but never pay you, known as a non-payment crime. In 2021 alone, scams using these tactics cost Americans over $337 million, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center's (IC3) 2021 report—and that's not including the extra $173 million lost to credit card fraud.

Thankfully, there's a crucial question you can ask to avoid putting money in scammers' pockets, the FBI says.

Take a minute to pause and ask yourself this.

man questioning computer
fizkes / Shutterstock

In a Nov. 2 tweet, the FBI field office in Pittsburgh noted that "early holiday shopping deals have begun," but urged people to proceed with caution. "When shopping online, ensure a website is secure and reputable before providing your credit card number and personal information," the tweet reads.

The following day, Acting Special Agent in Charge Doug Olson of the Pittsburgh office spoke with CBS-affiliate KDKA to provide additional information about how scammers target holiday shoppers.

"Scammers are always after us for our money and our personal information, but especially during the holiday time," Olson told the outlet. So, before you make a payment or agree to sell something online for the holidays, Olson stresses that you should pause and ask yourself a four-word question: "Who reached out first?"

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Doing so might just help you avoid being scammed.

online shopping
fizkes / Shutterstock

According to Olson, this question is intended to make you stop and think about the person that you're dealing with, giving you time to consider whether they're reputable.

"In other words, if somebody is reaching out to you and you didn't start the engagement, then be very wary about providing personal information, especially personal banking information," Olson explained.

According to the formal press release from the FBI, you should always "verify the legitimacy of a buyer or seller before moving forward with a purchase," and you can check their feedback rating if you're buying from an online marketplace or auction site. Also check that the URL is legit and secure, and don't do business with sellers "who act as authorized dealers or factory representatives of popular items in countries where there would be no such deals."

To keep yourself protected, you should also "practice good cybersecurity hygiene" and look out for other tricky scams like auction fraud, where items for sale are "misrepresented" online, and gift card fraud, where you're asked by a seller to pay with a pre-paid card, the FBI says.

Don't be embarrassed if this happens to you, but do take action.

A senior woman wearing glasses and sitting at a desk looks at her smartphone with a surprised and confused look, maybe the victim of a scam.
Shutterstock

Despite warnings, many people do end up falling for these ploys. During the first few months of the year, specifically, the FBI sees an uptick in complaints, "suggesting a correlation with the previous holiday season's shopping scams." Olson told KDKA that victims shouldn't feel embarrassed if they're conned during this busy shopping season, and recommended they file a complaint.

"What we can do through the IC3 is we can see if there's actors that are targeting hundreds of different victims and then we can go after those largest offenders," he said.

You can file a report directly on the FBI's website.

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