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5 "Free Money" Scams to Avoid

Alex Huntsberger
Alex Huntsberger is a personal finance writer who covered online lending, credit scores, and employment for OppU. His work has been cited by, Business Insider, and The Motley Fool.
Read time: 7 min
Updated on May 12, 2022
woman helping man identify 5 “free money” scams to avoid
Repeat after us: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

You might not realize it, but there's probably not a day that goes by where you don't see a scammer at work. Between the late night infomercials peddling books that claim to have "100 Secrets Banks Don't Want You to Know," online ads pushing "Free Government Money Programs," and all those spammy emails from your local Nigerian prince, your world is filled with people trying to squeeze money out of you any way they can.

Why are money scams so common? Sadly, it's because they actually work on a lot of people. After all, who doesn't want to pad their wallet a little bit? The worst part about this new culture of scamming is that the people getting ripped off are often people who really need help. People with bad credit and meager incomes, who can't get access to traditional lines of credit like credit cards or bank loans, are often sucked in by "free money!" scams peddled by criminals looking to make a buck off their backs.

But you don't have to be a victim. When you know what you're looking for, it's easy to spot a scam and shut it down in its tracks. Here are the five most common money scams (and how to avoid falling for them).

1. Free government money grants

Open up your spam folder and you're likely to find several emails promising to send you scores of Uncle Sam's cash—with no catch. Typically, these emails will sound something like this:

"Hey there Bob! The government is rewarding citizens who pay their taxes on time with grants of up to $10,000 per person! Because you're such an upstanding American, you qualify for a grant of $8,589.40! Send us your checking account information and we will deposit that amount RIGHT AWAY! No strings attached!"

Can you guess what happens if you send them your bank account info? Instead of getting a bunch of magical government dollars deposited into your checking account, you'll probably find it cleared of funds entirely. Oops!

While there are legitimate government grants out there, they're for businesses, not for random people who pay their taxes on time. According to the FTC, there are several steps you can take to avoid getting taken by one of these fake government grant programs:

Don’t give out your bank account information to anyone you don’t know. Scammers pressure people to divulge their bank account information so that they can steal the money in the account. Always keep your bank account information confidential. Don’t share it unless you are familiar with the company and know why the information is necessary.

Don’t pay any money for a “free” government grant. If you have to pay money to claim a “free” government grant, it isn’t really free. A real government agency won’t ask you to pay a processing fee for a grant that you have already been awarded — or to pay for a list of grant-making institutions. The names of agencies and foundations that award grants are available for free at any public library or on the Internet. The only official access point for all federal grant-making agencies is

Look-alikes aren’t the real thing. Just because the caller says he’s from the “Federal Grants Administration” doesn’t mean that he is. There is no such government agency. Take a moment to check the blue pages in your telephone directory to bear out your hunch — or not.

Phone numbers can deceive. Some con artists use Internet technology to disguise their area code in caller ID systems. Although it may look like they’re calling from Washington, DC, they could be calling from anywhere in the world.

Take control of the calls you receive. If you want to reduce the number of telemarketing calls you receive, place your telephone number on the National Do Not Call Registry. To register online, visit To register by phone, call 1-888-382-1222 (TTY: 1-866-290-4236) from the phone number you wish to register.

File a complaint with the FTC. If you think you may have been a victim of a government grant scam, file a complaint with the FTC online, or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

2. Foreign lottery winner

"Congratulations! You just won the North Korean State Lottery!"

Next time a number or email address you don't know reaches out to tell you that you've just become a millionaire in some distant land, stop to think for a minute. First, do you actually remember buying a lottery ticket in Pyongyang? Have you actually even BEEN to Pyongyang? Does North Korea even HAVE a lottery? If they do, is it legal for a foreigner to enter that lottery? Unless you've been galavanting around the Hermit Kingdom buying scratch tickets, the answer to all of these questions is going to be a big, fat, NO.

In fact, according to the FTC, it's actually illegal for an American citizen to play a foreign lottery. Additionally, buying one so-called "foreign lottery" ticket from these scammers puts you at risk for getting more and more solicitations from similar scams. In reality, notices like these are from fraudsters looking to get access to your bank account or credit card information. Don't let make it easy for them to steal from you.

3. Work at home job scams

Who wouldn't want to work from home every day? You can make calls in your pajamas, have lunch with your cat, and set your workday around your TV-watching schedule. LIVING. THE. DREAM.

If you spend any time on the internet, you'll see constant ads for jobs you can do at home. "Area Mom Makes $200,000 From Home!" they claim. Sadly, that Area Mom isn't making $200,000 from home. She can't, because she doesn't actually exist.

Click on these ads and they'll send you to spammy-looking sites for "jobs" like mystery shopping—being "paid" to spy on mall employees—or reshipping, which involves receiving and re-mailing packages bought using stolen credit card numbers and/or packages containing counterfeit postal money orders. Neither of these things will make you rich, and the latter could get you arrested.

Additionally, some of these work at home scams might send you to multi-level marketing companies, or pyramid schemes, that require you to spend money in order to become a distributor of their products. Because over 99% of people who start "working" for MLMs actually lose money, you're not likely to start raking in $400,00 every month.

4. Binary options robots

Binary Options sites claim to exist to help you make investments, but don't be fooled. In fact, these sites are nothing more than good, old-fashioned gambling sites.

According to Forbes:

"A Google search for binary option Web sites produced 870,000 hits with promotions like 'earn up to 75 per cent every hour' and '81 per cent profit in one hour or less, trade all major markets,' You can buy these options, which are also known as all-or-nothing options, digital options, or Fixed Return Options (FROs), on stocks, commodities, indexes, foreign exchange, and other derivatives.

In fact, you can place a bet (which is what it really amounts to) on just about anything that is publicly traded, depending on which Web site you use (some offer a wider range of choices than others). Some sites provide free guides to binary option trading to get you started."

Basically, "Binary Options Robots" or "Binary Trading Options" is sophisticated-sounding terminology for what is essentially just rolling the dice. Imagine a guy asking you to pay him $200 bucks just to walk you into a casino. That's what these trading schemes are. That's not even a gamble, that's just a rip-off.

5. Nigerian Prince scam

Nigerian Prince Scams are the Abbey Road of email scams. Oldies, but goodies.

Here's a tip, if you get an email from a Nigerian Prince who asks for your help in retrieving his frozen assets and who claims he will offer you a million-dollar cut in return, delete it. Just delete it. That might seem obvious to you, but someone is paying these con artists. In 2012, the FBI calculated these scams cost victims close to $60 million!

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