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Security & privacy

How to spot 10 common election scams

The 2020 election is less than a month away. With millions of people voting, it’s a perfect opportunity for thieves to trick people and take their money.

How are crooks targeting victims? Phone and email scams are the most common tactics. But this year, they’re also leveraging social media to spread disinformation. Tap or click here to see why so many voters want social media shut down during the election.

With so many election scams making the rounds, it’s important to know red flags to look for. If you know how to spot them, you can protect yourself and avoid getting tricked. Here are 10 of the most common election scams you’ll see in the next few weeks, along with how you can catch these scammers in the act.

1. Don’t fall for fake campaign emails

Scammers are impersonating political campaigns by email and asking unsuspecting victims to donate money. If you make the mistake of opening one of these emails, you could end up on a phishing site that steals your data and credit card.

Even worse, you could end up downloading malware. Many of these scam emails instruct users to download what is really a malicious attachment that can infect their computer. Tap or click here to see how the dangerous Emotet botnet spreads through email.

The messages sometimes contain professional graphic design and official campaign photos to look more legitimate. Some even spoof official email addresses owned by campaign staffers. They may also include urgent-sounding language meant to pressure you into sending money and data.

How to spot the scam:

  • Avoid opening emails from senders you don’t know or recognize. Even if an email looks like it’s coming from a campaign, you’re better off donating by visiting an official campaign website.
  • Never download email attachments from senders you don’t know.
  • Check political emails carefully for spelling and grammar errors. These can be big red flags that the sender isn’t actually working with a campaign (or American, for that matter).
  • Always check the sender field. If the sender uses a random email address with a jumble of letters and numbers, ignore it. Legitimate political campaign workers will have email addresses ending in .com or .gov.

2. Watch for fake political websites

Fake political websites are growing in number as the election approaches. These websites are designed to look authentic, while stealing your personal and financial data. Some of them ask for campaign donations, while others ask you to sign up with your email address, phone number and credit card.

Spotting these fake websites can be tricky. Many of them use spoofed domains or slightly alter the spelling of real ones. For example, scammers may misspell election as “electon” — or use .com instead of .gov. If you’re not careful, these minor tweaks are easy to miss.

If you do fall for the trap, be prepared for the data you to end up on the Dark Web.

Tap or click here to see how much passwords and accounts go for on the Dark Web.

How to spot the scam:

  • Never click on links you receive in unsolicited emails. Even if the link text looks normal, it’s easy to disguise the real destination.
  • Check the spelling of any URL you visit very carefully.
  • If a political website asks for payment or personal information, don’t share it — especially if you clicked from an ad or a link.
  • If you want to donate to a campaign, visit the official website on your own through your browser. Don’t click through social media, email or other sites to get to it.

3. Always be skeptical about what you see on social media

Social media makes it easy for misinformation to spread — and it’s only gotten worse during election season. The FBI has already detected a massive misinformation campaign underway right now designed to weaken trust in the election process.

The FBI says foreign and criminal actors are behind the campaign, and they’re making claims that voter registration lists are being purged or hacked. Some are even saying altered or stolen voter registrations will prevent you from voting.

How to spot the scam:

  • Social media scams are designed to provoke an emotional reaction. If you read something that makes you angry, anxious or fearful, ask yourself if that might be intentional.
  • Claims about voter registration lists can be written off as fake. This information is easily obtainable, and campaigns get access to it all the time. Any claims that voter rolls are being purged or hacked are designed to make you distrust the process. Tap or click here for a quick rundown on voter registration scams found on social media.

4. Beware of election ransomware

Fake campaign emails aren’t just used for phishing. Some contain dangerous ransomware that can lock up your computer.

Scammers will send an email that looks like it originates from a campaign or PAC. If you click a link or download an attached file, ransomware goes to work scanning your computer and stealing your data. Then, it encrypts your entire hard drive with a password. To get everything back, you have to pay a ransom by Bitcoin — sometimes thousands of dollars worth.

How to spot the scam:

  • Ransomware is generally spread through malicious email attachments. If you avoid downloading attachments, you’re one step ahead.
  • Scammers can sometimes use hijacked email addresses to share malware. If an email with an attachment comes from someone you trust, contact them first and confirm that they sent it to you before opening.
  • Back up everything, often. Your best protection against ransomware is keeping your files updated. Even if they get access to your data, you can tell them to buzz off since you have copies of everything. Tap or click to see how Kim’s pick, IDrive, makes this a snap.

5. Don’t give any money to these phone impersonators

Phone scams are all about impersonation. When scammers call, they’ll usually claim to be working for campaigns, fundraisers or PACs. Some even pretend to be local officials or government agencies like the IRS or FBI.

The most advanced scammers rely on digital technology to make realistic-sounding recordings that mimic the voice of candidates. These spoofs can be hard to spot since they sound so close to actual recordings used by politicians. Regardless of who these callers claim to be, nearly all of these phone scams have one thing in common: bait and switch tactics.

If you speak with the caller, you may be asked to make a donation over the phone. Other callers promise a reward for answering questions in the form of a gift card. Once they’re finished, they’ll ask you to pay for shipping. If you give up this info, they take your credit card number and run.

How to spot the scam:

  • Pollsters and campaigns rarely offer prizes. At this point, consider any political caller that offers you a reward a scammer.
  • If a caller asks for any kind of payment information, hang up. Legitimate callers will not ask for this info.
  • Ignore urgent or threatening calls. Scammers pretending to be the FBI or IRS may threaten to arrest you, but they cannot do this over the phone. If you hear this kind of language at all, hang up.
  • Political callers will never ask for your Social Security number. Hang up the moment anyone asks for this.

6. Voting is free — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise

Your phone rings and the person on the other end tells you that if you’re not registered to vote, they can help you — for a price. If you work with the scammer, you’re not just giving up your payment card info. You’re also sharing your private voter info.

If you haven’t registered yet, you can right now right from your desk or couch using these sites:

  • USA.gov — Register to vote, find registration deadlines and read a guide for new voters
  • Rock the Vote — A nonpartisan nonprofit that helps people register to vote and get involved

How to spot the scam:

  • There is no cost to register to vote. It’s free, and anyone charging to do it on your behalf for a fee is lying to you.
  • Real get-out-the-vote campaigns want you to register personally. Don’t trust anyone offering to do it for you.

7. No, you can’t vote on social media

Just like the voter registration tactic, this social media scam uses confusion to trick people. Scammers post ads or share viral memes inviting victims to vote online instead of in person. This can be tempting since voting from home is more convenient. The pandemic makes this scam even easier to pull off.

To make matters worse, the links scammers share for online voting sites might take you to phishing websites instead.

How to spot the scam:

  • Keep an eye out for spelling and grammar errors in social media posts. In 2016, some foreign-made election memes contained false information about voting by text — easily spotted thanks to common spelling errors.
  • You can’t vote online or by social media. Voting can only be done by official mail-in ballots or in-person polling.

8. Don’t fall for fake voting tips

The COVID-19 pandemic has more Americans than ever interested in voting by mail. Unfortunately, scammers and election-meddlers are aware of this, too. That’s why they’re making an effort to share fake info about how the process works.

Some fake information may come to you by email or text message. Other scammers share it on social media to get the biggest audience as possible. Claims vary widely — from claims mail-in voting doesn’t work to improper steps on how to do it. Tap or click here to see how the USPS is fighting this disinformation.

How to spot the scam:

  • Remember that voting by mail is safe and reliable. Millions of Americans, including many military families, rely on it every year.
  • Refer to the U.S. government’s official website for accurate information on how to vote.
  • Confirm your voter registration through your local Board of Elections site.

9. These pollsters are not who they claim to be

Polls are a useful tool for gauging an election — but in the wrong hands, they can be used to sway public opinion. Some scammers are sharing fake polls while pretending to be campaign officials or third-party pollsters. These polls may include wildly inaccurate results that include one candidate losing by large margins against the other. The intent, of course, is to discourage you from voting.

Other pollster scams are less about the election and more about making money. These criminals will ask you to participate in a poll with promises of a reward. At the end of the survey, they’ll ask you for payment information to ship you a gift card or other prizes. Sharing this info could lead to your bank account getting drained.

How to spot the scam:

  • Be skeptical of any polls that lean too far one way or another.
  • If a pollster offers you a reward for participating, hang up. It’s probably a scam.
  • Political pollsters should only ask for your party affiliation, voting preferences and some light demographic information. If a caller asks for your phone number, email address or physical address, it’s a scam.

10. Snail mail scams can still happen

Don’t count out snail mail just yet — because scammers are using it, too. Some are sending fake voter information with incorrect dates and instructions, while others are sending threatening letters demanding you pay to complete your registration. Regardless of what kind of letter you get, all of them have the same goal in mind: To trick you and steal your money.

How to spot the scam:

  • Always check who sent the letter. If it’s from a government agency, it will include an official seal and letterhead.
  • If a letter claiming to come from a campaign asks for donations, don’t follow the instructions in the letter. Instead, visit the official campaign website and follow the instructions online. If the letter is real, it all goes to the same place.

What should I do if I fall for any of these scams?

If you think you’ve fallen for a scam, don’t panic. You have several options to protect your computer, yourself and others from harm:

Scams, by definition, are meant to deceive you. If you don’t fall for them, you’ll be safe. Make sure to share this with friends and family so they’ll know what to watch out for in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

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