A couple of years ago on this blog, I posted: "Five Email Scams That Appeal to Your Vanity." Most of them are still circulating. Beware when someone writes that they're coming to do some business in your town and would like to pre-pay for several appointments with you while they're here. Also be suspicious of people who, out of the blue, want to buy large quantities of your book or who "admire your work" and offer to set you up with an internet TV or radio show. These are all scams that can swindle you out of thousands of dollars.
Scammers have become quite sophisticated in recent years. They illegally spoof email addresses and website content, so that it's hard to tell that they are imposters. Other scammers get you to part with your money legally, but deceptively. For example:
Domain name slamming
If you have a domain name (e.g., yourpractice.com) you probably bought it through a domain name registrar, such as Godaddy, 1and1, or Hostgator. The cost is about $10-$15 per year, often with discounts for a multi-year contract. When it's time to renew, the registrar typically sends you an email. But you may also get renewal notices from companies who try to dupe you into switching to them.
After a year or two years, you may not remember where you registered your domain. When you see an email with the subject line, "Domain name expiration warning" you might mindlessly click to "renew," when in fact you would be agreeing to switch to another company, which may or may not be legitimate. You may also end up agreeing to pay a lot more than you did at your current domain registrar.
A variant of this is an offer for "search engine registration" so that your website can be found by Google and other search engines. First, there is no need to register with search engines. They have automated bots that continuously crawl the web and find all pages that are not blocked by website owners. Second, by signing up for search engine registration you may be required to give log-in details for your website, which could render it vulnerable to spam and hacking.
ADVICE: Find out where your domain name is registered. Go to whois.net and enter your domain name into the search box. Your registrar will be listed, along with the expiration date and other details. You can change registrars at any time, but never do so in response to an email. Instead, choose a company from this list of accredited registrars maintained by Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
See also these tips on how to choose a domain name.
Chinese domain name scam
Let's say you have a website or domain name, YourTherapy.com. Common variations include YourTherapy.net, YourTherapy.us, or YourTherapy.biz. There are hundreds of international suffix variations, each corresponding to a different country. For example, China has .cn, .net.cn, .org.cn and many others. Russia has variations of .ru.
You may get an email, supposedly from a Chinese domain name registrar, warning you that someone is trying to register YourTherapy in several Asian countries. The sender is advising you, "as a courtesy," that you can purchase a "brand protection" package, grabbing dozens of Asian domain name variants of YourTherapy, so that others can't get them and use them to tarnish your reputation. The sender may insist on a 5-year registration, which you pay in advance to a 3rd party email address. You later learn that the Chinese domain name registrar is not a registrar at all, and that you don't really own all those domains that you thought you paid for.
ADVICE: Ignore these emails. It is highly unlikely that someone in Asia is trying to buy up a whole bunch of domain names similar to yours. Even if they did, it's also unlikely that they would put them to use in a way that would damage your reputation - unless you are a controversial public figure.
"Update your listing"
Like most professionals you have probably received robo calls urging you to update your Google listing. This is a scam. The call does not originate from Google. Besides, as noted above, Google and other search engines have bots that continuously crawl the web and re-index pages that have changed since the previous crawl.
Another scam relates to professional directory listings. You may be contacted to "update" your listing at a directory that you never signed up for, such as OpenCare. They have very aggressive salespeople who email and call persistently.
This company is different from other therapist directories like PsychologyToday.com and GoodTherapy.org. They claim that based on rankings, you have earned their "Patient's Choice" award. They tell you to post this prominently on your website. What they don't tell you is that they give this award out to everyone they can, because embedded in the award image is a link to the OpenCare website. With hundreds of such links pointing to OpenCare from various practitioners' websites, it raises the Google ranking for OpenCare, not for you.
ADVICE: You may be listed in the OpenCare directory without your knowledge. This is not illegal as long as they are using public record information such as your name, address and phone number. However, they may contain inaccurate information about your practice. Thus, check to see if you are listed there, and request removal if you don't want to be listed.
"You've won a prestigious award"
The subject line in your email that might catch your eye says, "[your name] - Awarded for this year's Best of Business award in [your city]. When you open it up, you'll see a couple of generic flattering statements (not specific to your practice) telling you that you are part of an elite community of the 1% of top business owners in the country, based on their "surveys." All you have to do is click on the link to claim your award. When you get to the website, you will be offered plaques, certificates and other items for sale. Once you sign up, you will be bombarded with more offers for overpriced products.
Another award scam, targeted at professionals, informs you that, after careful screening, you have been selected to receive an academic prize of $1 million for your research and/or writing. The email may appear to come from someone at a university, such as SusanSmith@harvard.edu. Susan Smith may indeed work at Harvard, but in this case her email has been hacked and used for sending out messages. (It's similar to those scams where you get an email from a friend or colleague saying they are out of the country, have been robbed, and ask you to wire money to them.)
The prize mentioned in this email is real. There may even be a link to the organization that awards the prize. However, there are telltale signs that the offer is a scam. First, you are advised that awardees donate 10% to scholarships for Ph.D. students. Second, to claim your prize you are given a private email address not affiliated with the organization.
If you respond to the offer, you will likely be asked to either send the 10% prior to receiving your award, or immediately after receiving what looks like cashier's check for $1 million. By the time you send the $100,000 you realize that the million-dollar check was bogus.
ADVICE: There may indeed be times when an organization nominates or selects you for an award. But beware of communications that don't mention specifics about your work, or that ask for payment for any purpose, such as printing costs or administrative fees.
Predatory Publishing and Conferences
Open Access publishing, such as PLOS, has enabled researchers to share their work with the public. However, it has also enabled unscrupulous entrepreneurs with no interest in science, to set up important-sounding journals such as "World journal of..." and to solicit professionals to submit articles - for a hefty publication fee that can run into thousands of dollars. Although an editorial board may be listed on the journal's website, the names are often fake. Otherwise, this article would never have been accepted for publication in the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology, which claims to be peer-reviewed.
You may receive an email inviting you to submit an article. The content typically contains flattering generic superlatives, such as "your excellent research" or "your valuable manuscript submission." There may be some glaring irregularities in the writer's use of English - a tell-tale sign that this is not a legitimate scientific journal.
Related to predatory publishing is the predatory conference scheme. You get an email inviting you to present at an international meeting that you've never heard of. The email often mentions prominent names in your field who allegedly will be presenting. If you're an early-career professional who wants to build your resumé, it might be tempting to submit a proposal. You'll notice that the proposal is accepted quite quickly - often within a day or two, and the conference registration fee is exorbitant. If you actually sign up to go, you'll find that the big names you had hoped to meet are not there, and that the conference is poorly attended.
ADVICE: The scientific community has been infiltrated by scammers. Be very cautious. There used to be a list of predatory publishers maintained by Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beall, but in January 2017 it was suddenly taken offline. The archived page is still accessible at the time of this writing. If you get an offer to publish or to present, google the name of the organization and add the word "fraud" or "scam" to your search terms. The results should point you to any warnings of shady dealings.
Most mental health professionals have a strong commitment to social justice. In this current climate of political divisiveness, scammers are sending out emails asking people to sign petitions supporting various causes that sound legitimate. Some are and many are not.
But consider what might happen when you sign any online petition: First, you usually have to give a verifiable email address. That's one piece of information that can be sold to third-party advertising companies or spammers. Second, by signing a petition for a particular cause or political party you reveal your values and priorities. That's another data point that can identify you as a potential customer of targeted marketing. Third, if you are asked for additional demographic information, such as your age, your income level and your occupation, that makes your data all the more valuable to third parties who send out spam.
You may be asked to give a donation. If the organization is a front for theft, you may end up losing way more money than you bargained for if you give them your credit card information.
ADVICE: If you do sign an online petition, read the privacy statement before you sign. Look for an opt-out box, so that your information is not shared. If there is no privacy statement, leave immediately. Before making a donation, research the company and look for news of fraud or scamming.
Scam information resources
Links to descriptions of common scams are at this USA.gov website.
The Federal Trade Commission tracks reported scams. They just published the latest issue of the Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book, listing various statistics on scams and frauds over time and by region.
The Better Business Bureau maintains a list of complaints, and also reports some scams on its blog.
Fraud.org is a nonprofit organization with many helpful tips to avoid being duped.
These bad deals are not fraudulent, but they can needlessly cost you money.