Smart About Money: When trying to be helpful hurts you

Nick Maffeo

A customer came in to talk to Canton Co-operative Bank Branch Manager April McKee. He had received an email that seemed a little off and wanted to get an objective 2nd opinion from her.

April was able to reassure this gentleman immediately. “Between the email itself and what he told me, the email just sounded like a fraud,” April said.

Specifically, the email claimed to be from a business the man supposedly had an account with. It said he was due a rebate. But he didn’t remember ever doing any business with that company.

His first instinct was to call the phone number in the email to “try to help set the situation right.” And he was honest – if he was owed a rebate, he wanted to get it.

A lot of scammers’ success comes directly from the fact that most people want to be “helpful” and set the record straight. Also, scammers know that basically everyone would be delighted to get an unexpected genuine windfall. So they prey on people’s curiosity too.

Had this gentleman called the number in that email, the scammers would have made every effort to engage him. They would search for openings in everything he said, parroting back his responses to build credibility. They may have even asked for personal information “for security purposes.” Scammers are very good at this kind of data-mining.

Anyone could be taken in on a scam like this. It happens every day, especially when something is “just believable enough.” What can you do if you want to be helpful and also check it out in case there is a genuine windfall out there for you?

First, take your time. If it’s legitimate, a few days won’t make a difference. (And – importantly – any pressure to “Hurry!” from the individual who contacted you almost certainly indicates you are dealing with a scammer.)

Second, get other people involved. Show the communication to someone else – a family member, a friend, your banker or even the police. If it’s good news, great. If there’s any question that it’s a scam, other people can help you dial back your natural desire to be helpful and/or your curiosity.

Third, if the communication is supposedly from a legitimate company, call that company yourself on a trusted phone number you get from a statement or their official web site. DO NOT trust any contact information provided in a communication from a stranger. If you get hold of that legitimate company and they don’t know what you’re talking about, that’s more evidence that the communication you received is a scam.

There’s an old saying that an honest person can’t be cheated. Being honest usually works in your favor. It certainly helped this gentleman who knew he was probably not due that rebate. But scammers also know it can be easier to engage honest, helpful people in order to take advantage of them.

Remember — trying to be helpful can hurt you! Feeling uncomfortable or not wanting to be rude may be your best warning signs. Feel free to disengage until you’re sure who you’re dealing with. Only a scammer would take offense at you protecting yourself!

Nick Maffeo is the President & CEO of Canton Co-operative Bank in Canton. Have a question? Email to

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