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When you hear a scam victim’s sad story, it’s easy to think, how the hell did they fall for that? Because of course you’re too smart to get scammed. And sure, maybe you wouldn’t, say, put $50,000 in a shoe box and hand it to a stranger (should you even have $50,000 to put in a shoebox). But no matter how savvy you think you are, there’s someone out there crafting a scheme that could prey on your own particular vulnerabilities.

You know how elaborate and sophisticated scams are these days. You know that scams cost victims their time, money, and private data, and can leave them feeling like complete suckers. The fact most of us fail to fully appreciate, however, is that, truly, no one is immune to scams. Let’s take a look at how anyone can get scammed, as well as the steps you can take to protect yourself from becoming a victim.

Anyone can get scammed

The Cut’s financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles has been getting roasted on social media for her painful essay in which she admitted to handing that aforementioned $50,000 to a scammer; in the essay she lists all the reasons sure thought herself above becoming a victim—including having written extensively about scams in her work. Nevertheless, she was tricked by an elaborate scheme involving fake CIA agents and a shoebox full of cash.

Maybe Cowles’ story sounds so over the top you’re sure you wouldn’t have been its victim. Fair—but not even scam includes such obvious tells. Novelist and cultural commentator Cory Doctorow also recently wrote about falling victim to scammers, despite having researched and written a novel about scammer culture. In his case, the scam required only his inattention, as he unthinkingly gave a purported fraud alert agent the last seven digits of his credit card, rather than just the last four.

None of us are above getting scammed, and the moment you think you’re too smart? That’s when you’re most vulnerable.

In both of these scam “experts”—one a finance writer, like myself—fell for scams. Many have weighed in on social media, chalking Cowles’ story in particular up to hubris: The expert got too cocky; the rest of us can’t afford to get outsmarted on this scale. Unfortunately, the irony here is that dismissing another’s victimhood as hubris is your own hubris at work.

“None of us are above getting scammed, and the moment you think you’re too smart? That’s when you’re most vulnerable,” says financial therapist Lindsay Bryan-Podvin. She points out how younger generations in particular assume that because they grew up technologically literate, they possess a certain amount of savvy that will protect them from scams. Here’s the thing: The scammers grew up just as—and most likely more—technologically literate. Bryan-Podvin speaks specifically to the sheer pace and ingenuity of scams these days. “They’re constantly evolving,” she says. “As soon as you learn the red flags of one scam, they’re onto the next.”

We all have our particular weaknesses that a scammer can exploit if they catch us at the right moment. Maybe you’re stressed, or distracted, and your internal alarm bells fail to ring before its too late. In The Cut piece, for instance, Cowles describes how her child was used as a pawn in the scheme; the scammers led her to believe that following their directions—which included keeping everything that was happening a secret—were all that could protect her family. Whether or not you’d have fallen for this particular ruse, it’s understandable that a desire to protect your kid might, on the wrong day, supersede rational thinking and cloud your judgment.

The stakes don’t always have to be as world-altering, either; scammers are just as happy to take $50 from you as $50,000. For Lifehacker deputy editor Joel Cunningham, the scam came in the form of a secondhand couch that, quite simply, he really wanted. (A lightly used West Elm!) As a deposit, he sent the Cragslist seller $50 with plans to come see it in person the next day; when looked up the cross streets of the address he’d been given, he found they didn’t actually intersect, and the number he’d been texting was no longer in service.

This is all to say, it doesn’t matter how book smart or street smart you think you are. There is a threshold of susceptibility inside all of us, just waiting for the right scam artist to come along and take advantage of a momentary lapse in judgement. You might not believe Amazon can transfer your call to an agent with the FTC, but you might not catch that the “fraud alert” from your bank was actually a phishing attempt.

What’s your individual tipping point?

How to protect yourself from scams

Bryan-Podvin says we can use stories like today’s viral nightmare as a “check-in for yourself: What’s your individual tipping point?” Maybe you never answer unknown numbers, but you’re more likely to respond to an email that look like it came from your kid’s teacher, for example.

Here are some tips to protect your own particular weak spots.

Slow down

We have a complete guide to avoiding online scams, with tips like never giving out personal passwords and never clicking on links in random emails. But the single best way to avoid scams is to consider one guiding rule: Whether it be job postings, product deals, a hot Russian woman who wants to be your wife, or, yes, a ridiculously cheap West Elm couch: If it sounds too good to be true, it is.

Slow down and do your research before sending money anywhere. Check for red flags like typos, odd emails addresses, or high-pressure sales tactics. Scammers count on creating a false sense of urgency.

Say it out loud

When Bryan-Podvin works with clients who have been scammed, she says most report a feeling of isolation. Everyone is dogpiling on The Cut piece this week, but at least Cowles overcame her shame to share this story. Typically that shame leads people to keep their stories to themselves, contributing to the dangerous idea that there’s a such thing as being too smart to get scammed.

The simplest, most crucial tip is to call someone you trust. Before you do anything—especially before you send money or personal data—speak the situation aloud them. (Notably, the scammers in Cowles’ case explicitly forbade her from talking to anyone—including her husband—and its obvious why. As Bryan-Podvin explains it, talking through it does two things at once: You’ll be getting help from whoever you call, and also, you’ll be verbally processing the situation yourself, and hopefully gaining some perspective on what exactly is going on. At the first inkling of a gut feeling that something is off, take a breath and seek another’s advice.

Verify the facts

As Cowles shares in her own (after-the-fact) tips to avoid scams, “don’t underestimate your hardwired instinct to defer to authority.” That means you must always be skeptical of alleged authority figures. For instance, no one actually from the FTC will ever give you a badge number, ask you to confirm your Social Security number, ask how much money you have in your bank account, transfer you to a CIA agent, or send you texts out of the blue. To borrow an aphorism from the world of journalism, if your mother asks you for the last four of your Social Security number, check it out.

Independently verify any investment opportunities and charity claims before handing over cash. Monitor your financial statements routinely for any unusual activity that could indicate identity theft. If someone calls you out of the blue and says your identity has been stolen or that there’s a warrant out for your arrest, hang up and check it out for yourself. Call your bank or credit card directly. Call non-emergency lines at your police department to verify you’re actually “in trouble.” Never trust that the person who initiated the conversation is who they claim to be. (And for more case-by-case advice, here are some recommendations for avoiding the most persistent online scams.)

The bottom line

There are two things you must accept to avoid being a victim of a scam. One, the need for constant vigilance. And two, the idea that despite your confidence that you are too smart to fall for a scam, you aren’t. There’s a perfect storm of circumstances out there able to trick even you.

We all want to believe we couldn’t possibly fall for a scam. But con artists are always coming up with new schemes to catch us at our most vulnerable. Stay skeptical, trust your gut, and don’t get overconfident. Scammers are savvy, but you can outsmart them by doing your due diligence.

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