Hoaxes and scams take an emotional toll

Michael Bugeja

MICHAEL BUGEJA, IOWA CAPITAL DISPATCH

The cost of internet scams and hoaxes isn’t limited to money. (Photo by Michael Geiger via Unsplash)

Countless people have lost millions of dollars to online hoaxes and scams, but the biggest collective loss concerns trust. Losing trust hurts us more than money ever could.

Internet deceptions afflict everyone, from a child awaiting a pet to a pensioner awaiting a Social Security check.

Let’s deal with pets first, as these scams have become prevalent during the pandemic.

 Freya, pictured here at 12 weeks, is a Maine Coon purchased from an Iowa breeder registered at The International Cat Association (TICA) and Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA). (Photo by Michael Bugeja)

Many people, including me, wanted a kitten or puppy to help alleviate the stress of working at home. Unbeknownst to us, there are hundreds of fraudulent websites that prey upon your longing for that perfect pedigreed pet.

For instance, I wanted a Maine Coon but was almost taken in by scams.

Maine Coons, the largest cat breed, are highly desirable and typically go for between $1,500-$4,000. Often there is a waiting list with non-refundable deposits.

Internet has acclimated us to get anything we want on demand, and so many fall for these scams.

When you google “Maine Coon Kittens for Sale,” or crowdsource for them on Facebook, you will get hundreds of websites with adorable pets that somehow have not been reserved, selling for bottom-basement prices.

Here’s a screenshot of a scam site. (All pet scams use the same methods.)

 Screen shot of an internet site claiming to sell pedigreed kittens.

Those photos featured here are likely pilfered from reputable breeders registered with the International Cat Association or Cat Fanciers’ Association. The kittens would cost thousands. But wait — there’s a sale on this site! You can get these gorgeous cats for $400 apiece.

If you click on “Buy Now,” you won’t be able to telephone this breeder. Everything will be done online through their websites. But wait — there’s more! You’ll get your kitten with a half-price shipping rate of a few hundred dollars.

It’s a bargain, and your pet will be shipped immediately.

You’ll be asked to pay via Venmo or Zelle or other pay site. As soon as you hit “send,” your money is lost.

By now you and perhaps your children have invested emotionally in a particular pet. You have become a prime target for more deception.

Here’s what comes next. You will be asked to cover boarding fees. Perhaps the pet has missed its flight or became ill and now you must pay for a ventilated cage as well as vet fees. And if you refuse, threats about pet abandonment and legal costs follow.

You will never get the kitten or pup.

These sites are so numerous that as soon as you report one to the website hosting company, the scammer simply creates another site with a new name and same script.

How to spot a scam

To check if you are dealing with a scammer, go to the “About” tab of the site. Select and copy a suspect sentence that does not sound quite right — perhaps one with an awkward word or seldom-used phrase. Then paste that suspicious sentence onto an internet search engine.

If it is a scam, you will see multiple websites with the same sentence, all offering kittens depicted with different backgrounds (because photos are stolen various from legitimate breeders).

Other popular scams include fake Amazon charges, Social Security/IRS violations, and internet/telephone service refunds.

No matter the con, fraudsters often read from the same script.

Case in point: IRS scammers will state that you were audited and must pay penalties with gift cards or face jail time.

The scam has been so successful that the IRS has a video about it.

But this is just one of thousands of scams that most of us deal with or ignore daily. The AARP reports up to 150 million illicit calls per month.

Hoaxes do as much damage as scams. Those are associated with mainstream and social media and prey upon our fears, beliefs, and values. Here are common ones:

  • Fear of a certain ethnic, social-class or political group.
  • Belief that people who look different are inherently immoral, moral, unintelligent or intelligent.
  • Belief in or skepticism about the paranormal.
  • Conviction about a political party, candidate, religious deity, etc.

Hoaxsters typically persuade us to take action by affirming our fears or validating our biases. And in an age of deep fakesvoice cloning and conspiracies, we just might take the bait and base life choices on falsehoods.

Dealing with emotional fallout

The outcome is not in squandered funds but in loss of trust and the pervasive feeling that everyone is out to deceive us.

If you fear or suspect being scammed, visit the Federal Trade Commission site about what to do and how to report fraudulent activity.

If you have been scammed, you are likely feeling unhealthy symptoms, including anxiety, shame, depression, fear, insomnia and much more.

There is no government entity to help with that. Restorative practices include forgiving yourself; joining a local support group; confiding in a psychologist, pastor, mentor or trusted partner; and becoming active in your community.

Serving others, especially in volunteering, builds confidence in yourself and trust in others. Often that is the best remedy.

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