Scammers, spam calls and more: keeping yourself and your money safe from schemes : It's Been a Minute It's not just you – the constant texts, calls, emails and DMs from scammers are invading so many of our lives. And when the scams are successful, there's often no recourse at all. So how do we protect ourselves from these schemers?

Host Brittany Luse talks first to Laci Mosley, host of a podcast called 'Scam Goddess,' about how even a scam queen can become a victim. Then, Brittany chats with Susan Tompor, money columnist at the Detroit Free Press, about how these scams work, what's being done about them and why we all need to stop judging people who've fallen prey to scams.

You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at

Fighting back against spams, scams and schemes

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Hey, everyone. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse.


LUSE: I don't know about y'all, but every day I'm ducking robocalls, phishing emails, scammy texts - you name it. I even got caught up in a flower delivery scam this week. It's like the scams are never-ending, and it's getting harder and harder to figure out what's real and what's not because there are so many kinds of scams. Sometimes the scam is as straightforward as a spoofed phone call from your bank.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I was called two days before Christmas by a group posing as my credit union. A week later, when I checked my bank account, I put the pieces together. There was no money in it.

LUSE: Or as intricate as creating fake apartment listings, complete with a whole team of actors capable of fleecing multiple prospective tenants.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hey, boys and girls. It's tea time. Listen to how I got scammed for thousands and thousands of dollars for a New York City apartment.

LUSE: It's rough out here, and a lot of the time, the victims of these scams don't get their money back. But there are some people fighting back in their own ways.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: They called me up, and they told me that they were with the FBI. So what I did was I said, just a minute. There's somebody knocking at my door. So I had gotten some gunfire noise, like, from the internet. Then I'd play that back to them, and then I came back, and I said, can you call the local Seattle police? Because I've got a dead man on my doorstep. He got very concerned. He said, no, sir, no, sir, we can't do that. You know, I said, well, you're with the government; you can call the police. And so he got terribly flustered and hung up on me.

LUSE: Unfortunately, everyone doesn't have the range to create stage plays for scammers. But our first guest today has a whole podcast dedicated to uncovering their lies, tales and fallacies. Laci Mosley, aka the Scam Goddess, covers her favorite scams from historical Houdinis to George Santos. But even though Laci chats about scams for a living, even she can be scammed.

LACI MOSLEY: That made me angry 'cause I was like, this person is pretending to be me, and now I want blood (laughter). I went for Liam Neeson. I was like, I'm going to neck-chop everybody.

LUSE: Today on the show, Laci draws the line between small-time schemers and big-time hustlers and shares how Elon Musk's Twitter takeover likely led to her followers being scammed out of thousands of dollars. All that and more coming up.


LUSE: Laci, aka the Scam Goddess, welcome to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.

MOSLEY: Hi. Thank you. I love NPR. So happy to be back.


LUSE: I'm so glad you came on here today because we're talking about all things scam. Clearly, you're very well versed in all things scam. What made you start an entire podcast about scammers? Like, where did your fascination with scammers start?

MOSLEY: It's true crime but without the murder.

LUSE: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: Like, you don't have to hear about some nice white lady getting murdered on her jog home. Like, it's just - it's fascinating, but it's not grotesque, and it's funny, you know? Scammers - like, I feel like as an actor, like, I'm part scammer. Like, they wear costumes. They have accents. They tell all types of lies...

LUSE: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: ...And have to keep up with those lies. I recommend a lie journal.

LUSE: A what?

MOSLEY: A lie journal. You know, you write down who you lied to that day and what you told them so you can remember.

LUSE: So you can keep your story straight. OK, OK, OK. I'm with you. I'm with you.

MOSLEY: That's where George Santos got caught up. You can't just be out here just telling willy-nilly lies. Like, you know, you got to keep everything in a linear path. And I think that we watch scammers for the same reason that people watch true crime, like true violent crime documentaries. You're fascinated by people who would do something so horrendous because you can't even imagine yourself doing it. But then a little bit and probably, like, a lot a bit of you is watching it 'cause you're like, oh, let me get this information so it doesn't happen to me, you know? Like, yeah.

LUSE: What kind of scam story doesn't appeal to you?

MOSLEY: The kind of scam stories that I really don't enjoy are when people are punching down. So what I mean by that is that if you're scamming big corporations, they're already scamming. They steal from us in more ways than one - bailouts, taxes, wage theft, you name it. So if you're scamming big corporations, I'm all the way here for it. Like, get your lick back. I want to join you. But if you're scamming down, people who really need their money, people who don't have a lot of money, people who are desperate - and I hate to see people who need, you know, a leg up, who need an opportunity, get scammed because that just feels like you're punching down on people who are already in a vulnerable position. But if you're stealing from corporations, if you're stealing from Uncle Sam, get it.

LUSE: So, OK, so you talk about scams for a living or at least part of your living. We know you're an actress, an actrees (ph). We respect it.


LUSE: But late last year, you, the scam goddess, were publicly scammed.


LUSE: Can you give me a breakdown of how that day went, where you realized, oh, my God, I got scammed?

MOSLEY: What basically happened was Elon Musk walked into Twitter with that sink, and, honey, he sank it. Within 24 hours, my account had been taken over. And I just started seeing, like, the same copy paste of, like, MacBooks for sale for $300 with a photo of this MacBook. I think what was uniquely problematic for my situation is because my Twitter is scam goddess. And...

LUSE: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...So people for some reason trusted it because they thought it was me.

LUSE: I'm not going to lie. I saw those tweets going out, and I was like, now this don't seem like the type of thing she would do.

MOSLEY: Right.

LUSE: But, I mean, it seemed off to me. But, to your point, because you are the scam goddess, I was like, first of all, no way she got scammed. 'Cause also, the person who was tweeting was like, I know y'all don't believe me, but it's really me. Like...

MOSLEY: It's for charity. I won't say what charity it is, just for charity, you know, the idea of charity.

LUSE: Right.

MOSLEY: We raising awarenesseses (ph). So far, we got 50 awarenesseses (ph). So we raising more awareness. Like, what?

LUSE: (Laughter) Even with all the telltale signs there, it was still - because it was coming from your account and this is, like, your lane, I was like, oh, no way this is fake.

MOSLEY: And that's what made it so hard on me. And I really feel for the people who were victims of this because everyone who was, like, working really hard to get it back - it still took eight or nine days to recover my account.

LUSE: Wow.

MOSLEY: Then...

LUSE: Wow.

MOSLEY: ...When I recovered the account, to my dismay, when I went through the DMs, I realized - and I added it up - at least over $3,000 had been stolen from people, individuals.

LUSE: Wow.

MOSLEY: And some of them people I know.

LUSE: Oh, my gosh.

MOSLEY: Yes. I felt incredibly horrible about it. I still feel horrible. That led to me talking to hackers.

LUSE: Wow.

MOSLEY: But I was desperate to, like, clear my good name, but also, like, to try to get justice for these people who were robbed. And it's so weird because I've become the face of it now.

LUSE: Oh, no.

MOSLEY: Anytime someone starts posting that they're selling $600 MacBooks, I am tagged in it. Like, I am now the face of the scam (laughter), which is...


MOSLEY: It sucks. But also it's like, why has nobody stopped him?

LUSE: I mean, scammers are probably never going to stop scamming.

MOSLEY: No. (Laughter) Brittany.

LUSE: Oh, my gosh. Laci, thank you so much for coming on the show.

MOSLEY: This has been such a fun time, Brittany. It's great to talk to you again.

LUSE: Coming up, reporter Susan Tompor of the Detroit Free Press joins us to give some tips on how to spot a grift and how peer-to-peer payment apps like Zelle are at the center of millions of dollars in scams. But first, some listener scam stories. Stay tuned.

When we first started working on this piece, we asked you, our listeners, to share your scam stories, and I was struck by the range.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: They were like, hey, we sent you some mail about, like, being eligible for the student debt relief program. Their website looks legit. All of their paperwork looks legit. And they scammed me out of all this money.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I was trying to get a hold of my dad on a Thursday. I couldn't get a hold of him. He had been told that he had won a $1.9 million lottery, but he first had to make a payment to satisfy the IRS on - in terms of taxes of $50,000.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I personally wasn't scammed, however, my in-laws were. And it all centered around some horrible people calling my in-laws and stating to them that my son, their grandson, was in the hospital and in jail, and they needed money for surgery, and they needed money to get him out of jail. All it would have taken was a single cellphone call, but they pushed that emotional button with my in-laws. And my in-laws lost $30,000. And the police said, nothing they could do.

LUSE: Like I said before, it can be really hard to identify a scam because there's grifts every day. But here to help point out some typical scam behavior and possible solutions is Susan Tompor. Susan Tompor of the Detroit Free Press, thank you so much for joining us today on IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.

SUSAN TOMPOR: Well thank you. Thanks for having me. This is one of my favorite topics.


LUSE: I mean, I can only imagine the boon that the last couple of years has given you 'cause I feel like scammers are everywhere right now.

TOMPOR: Oh, my God. You know, I counted how many times I wrote a column on scams last year and - literally, 25 times or more. And I'm like, what?

LUSE: Oh, my gosh.

TOMPOR: That's too much.

LUSE: I mean, you have covered all types of scams. You covered fake puppy scams on eBay, fake job postings, phishing, Amazon gift card scams, crypto ATM scams. Your work runs the gamut. Is there like an anatomy, a common anatomy of these scams that you've encountered or heard about in your reporting?

TOMPOR: One thing that is common is they often, as some experts call it, get into the ether. What they do is they get you going, and they convince you, well, this is part of a new process. You know, this is the way we're doing things. And they rush you. They put you in a state where you feel like, I have to act right now. If I don't act right now, I won't get the job. If I don't act right now, the IRS is going to come knocking on my door, or someone else will come a-knocking on my door. Another thing that was huge or been huge the last couple years is the Amazon scam because they'll say somebody has gone into your account and charged $1,000 for an iPhone. They'll text you on this. But oddly enough, it goes from Amazon to a U.S. marshal to money laundering, and sometimes, they've got you going to a Walmart or some other store to buy gift cards, a Target to buy gift cards. And you're reading them off the numbers in the parking lot.

LUSE: Wow.

TOMPOR: Part of it is because we were so isolated during the pandemic, we don't talk to one another as much. I'm not sure why our mental state is like this, but we're very vulnerable to it. Everybody's vulnerable to it.

LUSE: It sounds like one of the common threads is this, like, sense of urgency, as you mentioned. You must act now. And that pressure, as you mentioned, gets victims to do things that they, under normal circumstances, would not do or at least would have a lot more questions about. What do you think scammers are trying to take advantage of by creating this false sense of urgency in their victims?

TOMPOR: They're trying to stop you from interacting with somebody else who might correct the situation. So they keep you on the line. They tell you not to hang up. Victims tell me that the scammer told them when they went to the bank, tell them you're taking the money out for carpeting because they're going to ask you why you're taking the money out. They don't want you to have someone stop you.

LUSE: I also feel like those types of scams end up putting you in a position where, like, as a victim, you may be more prone to using an app like Zelle or Venmo or Cash App. Talk to me about how using an app like that might leave a victim maybe more vulnerable than if they had been scammed in some other way.

TOMPOR: What's come up with Zelle and some of these payment apps, people really aren't that familiar with how they can be scammed with them. They're used to using them with their friends. You haven't heard the warnings quite as much. No. 2, they use a sophisticated way to get into your bank account through these apps, and that's where it becomes almost like a gift card situation where you're not going to get that money back. If you've given access to somebody to, say, buy a puppy on Zelle and it's a scammer, it's not a real puppy, you've lost that money. Well, it becomes more complicated because the banks are saying often you're the one authorizing this.

LUSE: Right. Right.

TOMPOR: They don't even realize that access was granted to a checking account. All sorts of direction that they're giving you to fix a problem or to handle something. And one thing that I wrote about early this year is that many consumers were starting to hear, supposedly from their bank, saying that they've been victimized. And it's not the bank that's calling. It's the scammer. And then the scammer's impersonating the bank.

LUSE: Right.

TOMPOR: And so - yes.

LUSE: Right.

TOMPOR: So it gets really pretty bad.

LUSE: Yeah. That's what happened to one of our producers on the show. That's how we - that's part of why we're talking to you today because she was scammed in that way. How is using these apps different from using a credit card or a debit card in a situation like this?

TOMPOR: No protection. Absolutely no protection. You know, if you use a credit card, most of the time, you are not going to be held responsible. But with these apps, there is no protection. And, you know, it's fine if you're only sending $50 to a friend, probably, right? But it's not even fine then because sometimes you get the number wrong, and they want us to use these apps more.

LUSE: Wait, so I wonder - OK, so - I mean, I have a couple thoughts about this, but why is it that there are no protections? Why is that different than if somebody, like, you know, uses a card wiper or something like that and swipes my credit card information? Why are those two things so fundamentally different?

TOMPOR: I don't know. I honestly don't know why they're different. The law is written differently when it comes to electronic transfers, and it dates back to the '70s. And so some of these things weren't in place, and some of the law needs to be adjusted. Obviously, the banks don't want to be covering you every time you make a mistake, but yet they'll do it with a credit card. There's a law that protects you with a credit card, and there isn't with an app.

LUSE: How do banks, agencies and companies respond to consumers who are the the victims of scams that happen through the aid of peer-to-peer apps?

TOMPOR: They're going to have to do an investigation. Sometimes, they'll give you the money on hold...

LUSE: Right.

TOMPOR: ...And, you know, put it back in your account. But when they go through the investigation and they determine that, you know, you gave them access, that's the thing. Did you give them access? Did you give the scammers access to the account in some way? That's when it becomes a problem and that's when they do back out. So I guess the one way to say this is if somebody came in and took the money out of your account and you weren't even ever online, then that would be pretty obvious. But if somehow you gave them your ATM card and the password, you're responsible. It's whether you've given them access. And that's the problem. You know, there was one woman I interviewed, I think it was an energy scam where the utility - you know, the people impersonated the utility. The bank told her they were giving the money back. She saw the money back. And then all of a sudden, they said it was a mistake, that they weren't giving her the money back.

LUSE: What?

TOMPOR: Yes (laughter).

LUSE: Well, so she had the money back and then the money was gone.

TOMPOR: Right.

LUSE: Oh, no. It kind of sounds like you've made a delineation between fraud, which is somebody making their way into your account and doing whatever they want with your money - right? - or impersonating you so that they can get your funds, and scamming, which is somebody cons you into trusting them with your financial information. I think we've been talking around this idea of a stigma against people who have been scammed as opposed to being defrauded. Why do you think there's such a stigma against people who have been scammed when they are also victims, too?

TOMPOR: Well, when I first started doing this type of coverage seven or eight years ago, a lot of the focuses I mentioned was on elderly consumers, and there was a stigma there that the scammers took advantage of because the elderly wouldn't want to admit that they had been scammed because that's another sign that they can't handle things, and their family can sometimes turn against them, you know, say, well, you can't handle this. You need to go into assisted living. You can't live alone. You know, you're not responsible. But then I think it kind of goes into other groups, too. People don't want to be open about it because they feel like, well, you know, I look foolish because I did this or - and then the scammer takes advantage of that because people aren't reporting the scam. And then the word doesn't get out. Well, how are they scamming people?

LUSE: God. You know, we've been talking about all these scams and scammers. And there's one big thing that seems to happen consistently again and again from big names like the Tinder Swindler to Amazon gift card scammers like the ones you mentioned. It feels like a lot of these people get away with it. Why is it so hard to bring scammers to justice?

TOMPOR: I think part of it is that sometimes it'll be a crime ring like in another country, and that's, you know, difficult to crack down on. And, you know, it's important to lock your car doors. It's important not to keep your keys in your car. These are all important things. But at the end of the day, if somebody comes in and steals your catalytic converter when you're at Target, there's a theft involved, right? And I compare that to what's going on with your money. You know, they come in, and they steal it. So there's a theft.

And something has to be done. If you're - if the consumer is picking up the tab on all these thefts, then there's no way you're going to get improved enforcement or anything like that because there's too many individuals out there, you know. But if the banks have to pick up the tab, well, then maybe I think they'd figure something out. Maybe I'm being a little aggressive here, but (laughter) they figure out it's a problem.

LUSE: You know, and thinking about, I guess, hoping that these numbers of scams go down, I wonder who's actually making efforts to protect consumers as opposed to like, you know, being there on the other end saying, I told you so, you should have known? Could you tell me more about the lawmakers who are making noise about this issue?

TOMPOR: Oh, Elizabeth Warren has been very loud on this issue lately.


ELIZABETH WARREN: And the overall numbers are enormous. We know of at least a half a billion dollars in transactions - may not seem like a lot of money to you, but to the person who just lost $450, it's a lot of money to them.

TOMPOR: Some other Democrats are working on it as well. In terms of some of these other scams, I think the Federal Trade Commission do have the FBI working on some of these issues. But I don't really know in terms of how much progress is being made.

LUSE: In your expert opinion, I should say, what can people do to detect a scam?

TOMPOR: To protect yourself from a scam, unfortunately, much of it involves not interacting with people.


LUSE: The only way to stay safe.

WARREN: It's really - it's just gotten to the point, you know, I hate to say it, but you can't answer your phone, you know, unless you recognize the number. You can't talk to strangers. You know, I mean, it really is unfortunate because people are very social and they're trusting. You know, you're going to interact. But the minute you start interacting is the minute they can start weaving because they have control. They've done this 5,000 million times before.

Another way, I think, to protect yourself is when somebody starts asking for numbers of any sort - your credit card number, Social Security number. If somebody starts trying to scare you with a story of any sort, whether it be they're going to shut down your electricity because you haven't paid the bill, whether it be the IRS, it's important to understand, you know, if I'm retired, I may be a target because I have a 401(k) or I may have some money. If I'm a non-English speaker, I'm likely to be targeted.

LUSE: What can or should they do if they are scammed?

TOMPOR: If you have been scammed, I think it's important to reach out to your city police department, the, you want to report anything in terms of identity theft. You need to talk with your bank. You do have to change those - that information to stop them from gaining access. You know, it is also recommended by the experts to Google things.

LUSE: Honestly, that's been my friend. Any time anybody calls me from, like, a number that I don't recognize, I Google it to see what the - I Google it to see, like, where the call is actually coming from. I wouldn't say necessarily that I'm any more knowledgeable than the average person, I just - I think I've been more lucky.

TOMPOR: Perfect. But the scammers sometimes are able to impersonate real numbers.

LUSE: That's exactly - now, that is something that happened to our producer. And that happening to her, that put me on notice because I was like, oh, my gosh, that was my-go to crutch, Googling the number to see if that was it.

TOMPOR: So you have to be careful. Sometimes it's best to go...

LUSE: Through the website.

TOMPOR: ...To the back of your credit card, the back of your ATM card, an actual physical statement to get the right number.

LUSE: Oh, my gosh. Well, what a journey. And now I feel like I'm just - I'm, like, sort of - I feel like I've discovered the Matrix. And I'm just looking around me realizing all the scams that lie in wait for all of (inaudible). Oh, my gosh. Well, fortunately, we have people like you who are getting to the root of these scams all of the time and keeping us informed on what we can do to protect ourselves until more protections are put in place. So, Susan, thank you so much for coming on the show and talking with me today. It's always great to have somebody from the hometown paper.

TOMPOR: Oh, absolutely. Thank you, Brittany.

LUSE: That was Susan Tompor from the Detroit Free Press. Thanks again to Laci Mosley (ph) and Susan Tompor. Thanks to the people who shared their stories with us like Annalicia (ph), George (ph), Vince (ph), Cindy (ph) and our editor's dad. This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by...





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LUSE: All right. That's our show for today. I'm Brittany Luse. See you next week for another episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR.

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