One momentary lapse of judgment, one careless moment of instant reaction, and we can descend into a hole from which it's hard to emerge.
A particularly cruel scam involves preying on those -- the elderly or those not well versed with officialdom, for example -- who are most willing to believe an official-sounding phone call is real.
The caller may claim -- as did one I received the other day -- that they're from the "Department of Taxes." They may claim that a member of your family has been arrested and needs to have their bail paid. And, as panic may set in, the request is simple: you can make this all go away with some gift cards.
That may sound completely scammish to most, but not to all. Yet, how can you get through to the most vulnerable?
Cybersecurity platform Scam Spotter, a non-profit collaboration between the Cybercrime Support Network and Google, is trying something different. Instead of dire warnings that may not get through in a relatively dire world, it's gone for the action movie treatment.
"Your granddaughter has been incarcerated in a foreign jail," begins the robotic voice. "She has provided your number as a family representative to pay her bail. The only form of payment we accept is gift cards."
Because that's the currency of most foreign countries. Everyone knows that.
In this case, however, instead of presenting grandma as a victim, Scam Spotter turns her into an action hero.
She's not going to pay with gift cards out of fear. She has quite another gift in mind.
Fortunately, she's adept at driving very fast, leaping very high, piloting a helicopter, skydiving with accuracy, and disabling horrible little men.
She rescues her teenage grandaughter with consummate aplomb, as this message appears: "If it sounds unbelievable, it probably is."
Scam Spotter's website offers simple rules to go by when you receive one of these calls: Don't fall for the apparent urgency of the situation. Double-check the details. (There really is no Department of Taxes.) And never, ever send anything to these people.
"No reputable person or agency will ever demand payment on the spot," says Scam Spotter.
The scammers keep doing it because people keep falling for it. Scam Spotter is, at least, trying a different way to attack an issue that causes so much needless suffering.
One can only hope it works. Or begins to work. Or has at least a tiny effect.