I pay almost all of my bills online, and I also get a lot of notifications through email telling me when the new bill has been generated. Sometimes the bill tells me how much I owe, sometimes it doesn’t. Still, in general I feel I’ve got anything I owe covered at least 99% of the time.

So you can imagine my surprise when an email came telling me that I owed Verizon more than $1,000 on one particular bill. I knew it had to be a misprint of some kind, especially since I’m actually owed a giant credit because I tend to overpay my monthly bills. I went to my bookmarks, pulled up the account, and saw that the new bill hadn’t yet generated; I didn’t owe anything according to them.

Because I use a program called Mailwasher that allows me to take a better look at any emails coming my way (because I never download any emails before checking them out first), I took another look at the online bill and realized that the link went to another place other than the Verizon site. I knew I should have looked at that first before I went to look up the bill, but I was glad that I hadn’t downloaded the email and then clicked on the link; no idea where that might have taken me or what might have happened.

This is one of the types of scams that’s been taking place for nearly 10 years, and luckily I knew better than to just accept what I was initially seeing, but I wanted to make sure. These emails used to only come from Nigeria, but this one came from India (you can tell by the extension of both the web link and the email). People are getting sent fake notices of outstanding bills due, both online and through regular mail, with a phone number to call about that balance that’s due.

Sometimes it’s pretty easy to figure out that when you get a bill from someone you don’t know telling you that you owe something that i’’s a fake, but you still have to look at them just in case. I had to do when I received a bill from a company representing the anesthesiologist who handled things during my shoulder surgery, which was totally covered under no fault, which turned out to be real. In that case I contacted my insurance company and they took care of it; whew!

Many people, especially the elderly, will just pay the bill. Sometimes these fake bills come with lower amounts that make you feel that if you just go ahead and pay it off then you’re done with it. You are, but if it’s a fake then you just threw your money away, and scammers can make a lot of money off smaller amounts if enough people just pay them. Not only that, but if they fool you once, they’re going to try to fool you consistently; no one wants to deal with that, do they?

If it’s an outrageous amount you might pause for a bit and try to make the phone call. You have to be careful there as well though because if it’s not a straight 800 number you could be calling someone that will automatically charge you some strange amount as soon as the call goes through. Never, and I mean “NEVER”, use your smartphone to make those calls, because they’ll know it’s a cell number and even if you can duck paying a fake bill, they’ll sell your number to scammers who will start sending you a lot of spam messages.

Always question everything that comes your way, even your traditional bills sometimes. If you get a statement that doesn’t look quite right, be sure to question that. Don’t call the number that’s on the statement if you can help it; go online to see if that number if legitimate; if it is then call.

One other thing; make sure you read the letter thoroughly because a dead giveaway is how the letter is written. You’re never going to get a poorly written letter with a lot of grammatical errors from a real company you’ve heard of.

The rules above apply to regular mail also. Sometimes they try to confuse you by changing the color of the paper; don’t fall for that diversion tactic.

By the way, this same scam is being performed by using a valid collection agencies name, mimicking the letterhead, and saying you owe certain amounts for creditors you may or may not know. The same for actual companies whose names you know that you might even have a monetary relationship with. I get a lot of these emails saying they’re American Express, but there’s always something off about the email and hopefully you’ll be paying attention to it.

If you know you don’t owe anyone, or are unsure, investigate it online first; never just part with your money without verification.

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