Smart Money Podcast: Avoiding Financial Scams and Changing Your Money Mindset

Sara Rathner
Sean Pyles
By Sean Pyles and  Sara Rathner 
Published
Edited by Kevin Berry

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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions. In this episode:

Protect yourself from sophisticated holiday shopping scams and explore the psychology behind changing your money mindset.

This Week in Your Money: Hosts Sean Pyles and Sara Rathner discuss tactics for avoiding three common financial scams, including social media ad scams, charity scams and gift card scams.

Today’s Money Question: Sean and Sara answer a listener’s question about how to change your money mindset. They discuss methods you can use to understand your current attitudes and behaviors towards money, the emotional connection to money and the stories we tell ourselves about our finances. They explain how past experiences and family dynamics can shape your money mindset, and offer tips for identifying and potentially changing harmful money habits. They also provide three clear steps for shifting your money mindset.

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Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, go to the podcast homepage.

Episode transcript

This transcript was created from podcast audio by an AI tool.

Sean Pyles:

It's the holiday season and that means time with loved ones, maybe some shopping and scammers just waiting to snatch your hard-earned money.

Sara Rathner:

So in this episode, we'll help you protect yourself from holiday shopping scams.

Sean Pyles:

Welcome to NerdWallet's Smart Money Podcast, where you send us your money questions and we answer them with the help of our genius Nerds. I'm Sean Pyles.

Sara Rathner:

And I'm Sara Rathner. Listener, as we head into the holiday season, what money questions are on your mind? Wondering how to find the best deals on holiday gifts, or whether New Year's resolutions are actually worth setting? Whatever's on your mind, send us your questions.

Sean Pyles:

You can email a voice memo of your money question to [email protected] or leave a voicemail on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD. You can also text your questions to the Nerd hotline or write an email to [email protected].

Sara Rathner:

In this episode, we answer a listener's question about how to shift your money mindset, including how to enjoy your money a little more. But to start things off, we'll give you some tips for staying safe and hopefully scammer free this holiday season.

Sean Pyles:

That is right. Like evil little elves, scammers are working extra hard this time of year. During the 2022 holiday season, three quarters of U.S. consumers were targeted by or experienced at least one form of fraud, according to AARP. So Sara and I are going to tell you about three scams to look out for this year.

Sara Rathner:

First up, the classic social media ad scam. Here's how it works. You're swiping away on your favorite social media app as usual to avoid talking to your weird relatives during a holiday dinner, and you see an ad for something that you just have to buy, so you pounce. And the next thing you know, you've entered your credit card information into the company's website and you bought the item you didn't even know existed just an hour before, except you didn't really. It was a scam website and you might not ever get that item. Or if you do, it won't actually be what you saw online.

Sean Pyles:

Yeah. Okay, Sara. Embarrassing story time. I recently fell for one of these scams.

Sara Rathner:

Oh, no.

Sean Pyles:

Yeah. I was in bed after a long day, just swiping my life away on TikTok as usual. And I saw a video where someone was talking about how they worked at a jewelry company and they had a discount code. So next thing I know, I've entered my credit card information into the company's website and I bought myself a bracelet for all of $12. And only the next morning did I think, "Hey, that was a little weird." And sure enough, I Google the company and the first thing that comes up is an article about how sketchy they are.

Sara Rathner:

Oh, no. So what happened?

Sean Pyles:

Well, I did end up getting the bracelet, but it looked like something you would get out of a quarter machine at a grocery store. It was flimsy and made of plastic, so at least I wasn't out a lot of money, and I do now have this little memento of trying to be more thoughtful about my spending. But I did feel pretty embarrassed when it happened. And I mean, it was just a case study in what not to do.

Sara Rathner:

Exactly. So would you like to tell our listeners maybe what you should have done instead?

Sean Pyles:

Yes, happily. So the first thing is to not shop online while sleepy or otherwise mentally compromised because doing so-

Sara Rathner:

Oh no.

Sean Pyles:

... I know.

Sara Rathner:

That's me at 3:00 in the morning while breastfeeding.

Sean Pyles:

Sorry.

Sara Rathner:

Don't do that.

Sean Pyles:

Well, I'm sure you know doing that will make you all the more susceptible to the urgency that advertisers, both fraudulent and legitimate, will try to impress upon you. Because remember that no impulse purchase is really that urgent. And also realize how clever some of these scammers are too, because that TikTok video I saw was a viral marketing campaign to try to dupe people like me into making these purchases. So realize how sophisticated some of these scams really are. But also next time you see an ad for a company that you've never heard of, do some research before you buy anything from them. Poke around the website and look for an about page and a physical address. Both are indicators that the company is legitimate. And as always, read reviews. Your fellow online shoppers are your friends, at least in this situation.

Sara Rathner:

Yeah. And if you're going to shop online, think about using a credit card instead of a debit card because credit cards have greater fraud protections than debit cards do. So in case you made a purchase and it wasn't a real company, you can file a grievance with your credit card company and have them investigate the situation and get your money back pretty quickly. Okay, now let's turn to our next scam to look out for this holiday season, charity scams. A lot of us are feeling more charitable this time of year, and scammers want to take advantage of that too, along with everything else. And in fact, some scammers will make phony websites that look like they belong to charities you've heard of and would want to donate to.

Sean Pyles:

Yeah, so before you give to any organization, spend a little time doing some research like you would do if you were buying from a company you just learned about. The Federal Trade Commission recommends using sites like the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, which you can find at give.org or charitywatch.org to vet an organization that you're considering donating to. And you can also use the IRS's tax-exempt organization tool to see if your donations would be tax-deductible.

Sara Rathner:

And now onto our final scam to look out for this holiday season, and this is a pretty common one, the gift card scam. If you're trying to buy something online, maybe from Facebook Marketplace or a similar site, and the vendor wants you to pay with a gift card instead of cash, run away. Do not do a damn thing-

Sean Pyles:

Yeah. Asked.

Sara Rathner:

No. Or since you're online, just block the person and maybe close your laptop, put your phone down, go outside and get some fresh air.

Sean Pyles:

Yeah. Like any good scam, gift card scams are a little genius. When a fraudulent vendor demands payment via a gift card, they'll typically want one from a store like Walmart or Apple or eBay. And then to buy the item from the scammer, you'll have to give them the gift card number and PIN. When the scammer has that, they can add the funds that you put onto the gift card to their account. And just like that, your money has been stolen. At that point, the scammer will probably block you and then it's really difficult to track them down. But that said, you can try to ask for your money back from the company where you purchased the gift card. You might not get it, but it's worth looking into.

Sara Rathner:

Yeah, and here's how the scam can play out because this has happened to me. I didn't fall for it, but you ever get a text message from a wrong number and they're like, "Hey, Andrea, it's me, Mike. And I wanted to follow up with you about that thing we talked about the other day." And my first impulse is to be like, "Oh, he's got the wrong number, so I'll just be like, 'Wrong number.'" And they always apologize for taking up your time.

Sean Pyles:

So courteous.

Sara Rathner:

And then they start, that's when this starts the conversation. So what you need to do is just block them. Just if somebody pretends that they're texting the wrong number, that's another way they try to get you and they start engaging you in conversation and all of a sudden they're taking your money. So what you get... Honestly, any communication you receive that is not from somebody you already know or something that you're expecting to receive, just assume that it's a scam and then proceed as if they're trying to take your money and then do your due diligence. And then if they are actually a legitimate person who needs to talk to you, then go for it. But yeah, there's too much out there and it's sophisticated. It's really easy to fall for this stuff.

Sean Pyles:

Right. And it's also a good idea to check in with your loved ones, especially ones who might be a little bit older and maybe less media savvy, to see what their online habits are as well, because a lot of scammers prey on older people who may not be aware that it's really easy to make a fake profile to impersonate someone that they know and start building up a relationship with them through social engineering. And then next thing you know, your uncle Larry has given a bunch of money to someone who lives across the globe.

Sara Rathner:

Yes. This is something that unfortunately happens to so many people if they are not technologically savvy, and that can happen to anybody at any age, but it is especially more common for people who didn't grow up with this technology. And so they're a little bit less familiar with how it could possibly work and how it could be used against you. So instead of avoiding your relatives at Thanksgiving or Christmas by just hanging out on your phone the whole time, look up from your phone and have the conversation with them about what these scams could look like so they know what to look for before they go down the rabbit hole of getting their money taken from them. So-

Sean Pyles:

Yeah.

Sara Rathner:

... Yes.

Sean Pyles:

Or believing in a bunch of conspiracy theories.

Sara Rathner:

Well, yeah, I mean, that's another story entirely. Yeah, those are other fun conversations to have over the holidays or not, whatever.

Sean Pyles:

Yeah.

Sara Rathner:

Anyway, so bottom line, if somebody wants you to pay for something with a gift card, block, block, block, block, block them and maybe even report their accounts to the platform that you're on, whether it's social media or something like that. Or you can maybe even report them to the Federal Trade Commission. Maybe something will come of that. I don't know.

Sean Pyles:

Hopefully.

Sara Rathner:

Yeah.

Sean Pyles:

All right. Well, listener, hopefully those tips help you shop a little more safely this holiday season. Now let's get on to this episode's money question segment.

This episode's money question comes from Gary, who left us a voicemail. Here it is.

Gary:

Hey guys, my name is Gary Pelton and I was calling to ask a little bit about how one can reframe their mindset about money. This stems from my time as a broker with a certain wirehouse based out of Boston and an old lady who had inherited something like $7.6 million from her late husband, but she did not know that he had that. He was, to say a word, a little bit of a scrooge, but I guess to him spending money was just unfathomable and he died before spending a penny of it. So how does one reapproach money to see it again as a tool, but without being completely wild with their spending? Thanks, guys. Look forward to hearing from you. Take care.

Sara Rathner:

All right, Sean, this time around, we are not joined by additional genius Nerds, so you and I just have to be genius Nerds together to answer Gary's question. So let's get to it.

Sean Pyles:

I am excited to do it. Well, first off, I want to address how wild the situation is. I mean, imagine having over $7 million and just sitting on it and then dying after not using it. It’s really kind of heartbreaking.

Sara Rathner:

Oh, the things you could have bought yourself. Oh, man.

Sean Pyles:

Yeah. I think this is a really good jumping off point for the question of how to reframe a money mindset so you can enjoy what you are earning or maybe get to the point where you have $7.6 million. So we're going to take on Gary's question in three steps because reworking your money mindset involves knowing where you are now, how you got there, and also knowing how to get where you want to go. So if you followed all of that, let's dive into it.

First, I think if you want to change your money mindset, it's really important to know your current attitudes about money. And you can explore this by asking yourself a few questions. One is, do you shy away from money management and money conversations or do you find yourself being more proactive? Also, how much do you plan for the future including saving for retirement? And when you think about financial challenges that you're facing, are you more solutions oriented or do you feel resigned that these issues will always be around? And I raise these questions because we all carry a lot of attitudes around money, many of which we may not even be aware of. But having a mindset of being financially empowered and taking active steps to build the life that you want, even if you don't currently have a lot of money, will take you a lot further than an attitude of defeatism.

Sara Rathner:

Yeah. I'd also add in the case of this couple that the caller is talking about, are you secretive about money? If you're in a partnership with another person, is your inclination to hide information from them or do you share openly money information with them? And if you hide from them, why might that be? Is it something that's going on within you? Is it something about the way they manage their money that gives you pause? Those are also really important things worth considering if you're going to be managing money with somebody else.

Sean Pyles:

Money is also an opportunity, unfortunately, to exercise control over people and reading between the lines and maybe making an assumption or two, I get the impression that the late husband was a little controlling with the money and didn't clue his wife into the fact that they had so much saved up. And that is potentially a generational thing, potentially a result of sexist attitudes. But at the end of the day, because he passed away first, now she's in the situation where she has to figure out what to do with all of this money. And maybe she wasn't the money manager previously, and that's a really tough place to be in.

Sara Rathner:

Yeah. It's a combination of grieving the person you lost, but also being thrust into this completely unfamiliar set of circumstances and not quite knowing how to handle them at an age where you might not necessarily have the energy or the health to deal with that sort of thing.

Sean Pyles:

It's awfully late in life to begin to understand the fundamentals of how to manage money. So I really feel for the wife in this situation. But I think once people begin to understand what their current attitudes are around money, it's really helpful to go a step further, which is also a step backward and understanding the origins of your money mindset. And Sara, what do you think people might want to ask themselves to explore this a little bit?

Sara Rathner:

Yeah, it's like going to therapy and they're like, "Tell me about your mother."

Sean Pyles:

Yeah.

Sara Rathner:

It's basically that. So it's about asking yourself or having a trusted person ask you, a therapist or a friend, how money was handled in your household when you were growing up. How did your family of origin handle money and how might that affect your spending and saving habits now that you're an adult? Because you might be carrying around some baggage that might not be serving you too well. Or maybe you were given a very good example about money by your parents or other caregivers, grandparents, family friends, that is serving you well, and it really can go back and forth. And so a lot of this work is about getting to the why behind your current money mindset. And it's not easy to do this, but this exploration can help you find out whether or not you're carrying these attitudes and habits that you were taught that maybe made sense to the older generation, made sense to you when you were younger, but now they're holding you back and it's worth exploring whether or not you need to make some changes.

Sean Pyles:

So this also reminds me of a conversation we had with a listener recently where they described how they grew up in a household where money was really tight and they've had a hard time shaking the feeling that they're still in a situation where money is scarce. And even though right now they have plenty of income coming in, they're doing well financially, they still are trapped in that thinking of when they were younger. And they can't even do things like buying the nice shampoo that they want at the grocery store because they're trapped in the way they were thinking about money and the little amount they had when they were growing up.

Sara Rathner:

Yeah. I mean, I have multiple friends who, when they were younger, got into credit card debt. And even now that they've been out of debt for years, they've managed to pay the debt off and stay out of debt, they're afraid of using credit cards. They will not do it. They are debit card or cash only. And it's that trauma from having that debt, even though their financial situation is totally different and they have a better cushion just in case they have an unexpected expense, they just don't want to go there.

Sean Pyles:

Yeah. On the other end of things, I grew up with parents who both had fairly tight incomes at certain parts of their lives, but also enjoyed spending their money. So I have carried this with me, where even when money has been tight for me, and that's gotten me into trouble in the past. So I've had to think through, "Okay, why am I wanting to purchase this thing knowing that I'm actually on a fairly tight budget at the moment?" And a lot of it does come back to the modeled behavior that I saw growing up with what my parents were doing.

Sara Rathner:

Yeah. I mean, these things are baked into us and not all lessons are bad, but not all lessons will serve you in the long run. So it's just, this exploration is so important.

Sean Pyles:

And also beyond attitudes and habits around money, it's worthwhile to explore your emotional connection to money and the stories that you're telling yourselves around your finances because so many of the things that we feel and the habits that we are enacting every single day are related to the narratives that we have about our finances. Maybe someone saying, "Oh, I'm just not good with money." And that can be a self-fulfilling cycle. Also, that can be the case if people have shame or guilt over mistakes that they've made with money. So say someone has credit card debt, for example, instead of beating yourself up over the fact that you found yourself in credit card debt, because oftentimes that's due to circumstances beyond people's control. They lost their job or they had a medical incident happen. I think it's better to reframe that, maybe break that negative narrative loop and find the opportunity and the challenge that you're in. Debt can teach you how to regain control over your money or even spark really creative thinking about how to earn more money.

Sara Rathner:

So now that you've done the hard work of looking backward, now it's time to move forward and think about ways that you can change your money mindset. And you want to get clear on exactly what you want to change because not everything, like we've said, is going to be something that doesn't serve you. Some things are good to keep around. So what is it that you want to make changes in? Do you want to save more money or stop impulse spending? Or in the case of this listener's question, actually enjoy your money more?

Write it all down and write down why. The why is really important. And spend time envisioning what your life would be like if you made this change, because that helps you get concrete about what you'll do and what the results of this effort will be. So maybe you are determined to save more and as a result, you don't have to take on credit card debt if your car breaks down, or you'll actually have money available to take that big vacation you've really been wanting to take all this time, or you'll finally be able to buy your first home. If you just want to enjoy your money more, then it means that you'll be able to add a little bit of luxury to your life that you've been depriving yourself of, but you can actually afford. If you give yourself the space to dream and you write down those dreams and you see that they are possible, I mean, think about how much you can change.

Sean Pyles:

Oh, I love that framing, giving yourself space to dream. And I think it's worthwhile spending time sitting in this space of imagining different possibilities because going back to the idea that we have these narratives that we are continuing to fulfill each day around how we feel about money, they are often very limiting when we can do so much more with our time and our money in this life. So maybe you want to buy a beach house somewhere, or maybe you want to move across the country. What's the craziest thing you think that you could do with your money? Even if it's never really going to happen, it's worth it to push yourself and imagine that just for the sake of this mental exercise, and then maybe bring yourself back down to earth after a little bit and understand the few concrete things that you want to change and make a plan for that behavior change.

So maybe you want to get really clear on how you're going to save more money or how you're going to actually enjoy your money more, going back to this listener's question. If that is your goal, that might mean maybe planning a vacation and staying at a nicer hotel than you would typically book or buying yourself something nice that you've just had your eye on, or honestly just donating to a cause that you feel passionately about because enjoying your money more doesn't have to be all about consumerism. But it's worth it to push yourself in specific ways and make very concrete behavior changes because that's the only way that you're going to get to this new money mindset.

Sara Rathner:

And by the way, doing these new things with your money is supposed to feel a little uncomfortable. You're doing things that are outside of your normal ways of operating. You're stretching yourself beyond any place you've ever been. So if you aren't feeling a little weird about it, you might not be pushing yourself enough, which is not to say, don't go crazy and spend all of your money. Don't do that.

Sean Pyles:

Yeah.

Sara Rathner:

But just a little bit beyond your comfort zone and then a little bit further beyond your comfort zone is a good place to start.

Sean Pyles:

Yeah. And because this can feel awkward and uncomfortable, it's a good idea to build in some rewards as you make progress. Positive reinforcement is a tremendously powerful thing. So if your goal is to pull back your spending so you can save a little more each month, if you hit a certain savings goal, maybe it's $200 in your new high yield savings account or whatever it may be, think about planning a nice meal for yourself and a friend. Doesn't have to be expensive. You can just make it from things you have around the house, but taking a moment to really celebrate the progress you've made so far can be very powerful.

So those are three pretty clear steps that you can take to shift your money mindset. First, understand your current attitudes, then think about where they came from and what is and isn't serving you. And finally, make a very clear plan for what you want to change and how you will change that. And if you keep going back to these three steps, I think you might be surprised by how much you can change your mode of thinking. And to exemplify this, it actually might be a good idea, Sara, if you and I talk about times that we have changed our money mindsets in our lives.

Sara Rathner:

Sure.

Sean Pyles:

Do you want to share a story?

Sara Rathner:

Well, I mean, I haven't amassed $7.6 million or anything close to that.

Sean Pyles:

Oh, really?

Sara Rathner:

No. Yeah, Sean was like, "Leave it all to me."

Sean Pyles:

I will take it if you do have that.

Sara Rathner:

Okay. Well, I don't. But when I was in my younger years, early career, early 20s, I was definitely a bit of a scrooge, which came from advice that I was given by people in the finance world that I worked with to save as aggressively as you can for as long as you can, which was really good advice. And for a long time, I saved as aggressively as I could, which makes it hard to loosen the purse strings when you need to because you're constantly just like, "I have to save, I have to save, I have to save. I have these goals." Especially early in your career where you're not earning as much as you are mid-career, it's hard to save when you have other expenses.

And now I am in a more expensive life phase. I own a home, I have a kid, and I have to remind myself that these are all the things that I was saving for all those years. So it's okay to spend on the things that we need and want provided we have the money and we budget for it and it's part of our plan. And it is hard to shift from, "I have to save, I have to save, I have to save." To, "This is why I have this money."

Sean Pyles:

But I think your story shows how sometimes life circumstances will force you to have a shift in your money mindset. The steps that we outlined before are really great for when you are intentionally wanting to change something about yourself when life is going in a normal way, as normal as life can ever be. But the truth is that there are going to be things that happen in life that are going to force you to change the way that you're managing your money and the way you think about money.

Sara Rathner:

Yeah. Not to brag that I was saving aggressively or anything.

Sean Pyles:

Well-

Sara Rathner:

I mean, that came at a price. I mean, there were definitely things I said no to, so I could not spend that money on something.

Sean Pyles:

It's interesting because I used to be just the opposite. I would spend pretty lavishly, especially in my early 20s when I landed my first job out of college that was paying me an okay amount of money. I would go on some nice vacations with my friends. I had a decent apartment in San Francisco, which is expensive, and I just wouldn't look at my checking account for months on end. The thought of doing that now is absolutely terrifying.

But then speaking of life circumstances catching up to you and forcing you to change your money mindset, after months of neglecting my finances, I got slapped with a pretty big tax bill. And this was also right around the time that I got a job as a very junior writer at NerdWallet. And I was forced to confront what it means to manage money well by virtue of having a bill I had to pay off and also learning as much as I could as a new financial journalist about what it means to practice good money management. So even though one of those things, the tax bill, was not so fun to endure, I'm thankful for that kick in the butt to force me to change my money mindset because it got me to where I am today.

Sara Rathner:

Yeah. It's a journey. And the thing is, your money mindset today, as you are now, it's not going to serve you in 15 or 20 years either. So this is an evolution. And so these are conversations that you should have with yourself every once in a while, or you should have with your loved ones every once in a while, because as your circumstances evolve, your values are going to shift. Your financial ability to meet those values is going to shift. So this is an ongoing, lifelong process. This is not a one and done situation.

Sean Pyles:

And what you just referred to is called the end of history illusion where people have this illusion that their experiences and personal growth has maybe reached an ultimate point and their needs and desires won't change 10, 15 years down the road, which is simply not true. So realize that this conversation with yourself around changing your money mindset is going to be a lifelong practice.

Sara Rathner:

Yes. Your life is going to change in ways that you can't even predict today. I read this article today that somebody said the line that millennials are constantly trapped in thinking that they're 28 years old, and some millennials are actually 28 years old, but most aren't. So yeah, you do want to evolve your thinking over time because you look in the mirror and you're like, "Oh, I aged. What happened?" Because you still feel so much younger than you actually are, hopefully. Hopefully you feel pretty young. That's good, to feel young and energetic. But you also just need to be realistic about how your money can serve you at this point in your life and how it can serve you going forward and how it can serve others and younger generations if you have enough money to leave to other people.

Sean Pyles:

And there's one other thing I wanted to touch on from Gary's question, which is about how to use money as a tool but not being "completely wild" with our spending. And one really helpful tactic for this is to give every dollar that you have that comes into your life a job. You can dedicate money for saving for retirement. You can have savings buckets for goals like vacations or buying a house. And I think it's also a smart idea, at least in my own life, to have some money set aside just for having fun. It's not for a specific type of fun, it's just for, "Oh, I wanted to buy this shirt that I saw online and there's my impulse purchase of the month, so I'm going to go and get that and not feel guilty about it." But having some kind of structure like this can create nice guardrails so you don't go completely wild, but you aren't croaking with millions of dollars untouched.

Sara Rathner:

Yes. This is why I'm a fan of the whole reverse budgeting thing where you have the automatic transfers to bill payments, you have the automatic transfers into savings for different goals, and then whatever's left is available to spend. That way, I know that my financial obligations and my savings goals are met before I go out and spend money on something that I don't need but I do want because there's got to be space for some fun too.

Sean Pyles:

Yeah. All right. Well, listener, if you have any experience with changing your money mindset or there's something that you want to shift with how you're thinking about money and managing your finances, let us know. That's what we're here to talk about. So you can call or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373 or email us at [email protected]. And that is all we have for this episode. If you want any more information about anything that we just talked about, visit nerdwallet.com/podcast. Also remember to follow, rate, and review us wherever you're getting this podcast. This episode was produced by Sara Rathner and me. We had editing help from Liz Weston and Tess Vigeland. Kevin Tidmarsh and Kaely Monahan mixed our audio. And a big thank you to NerdWallet's editors for all their help.

Sara Rathner:

And here's our brief disclaimer. We're not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

Sean Pyles:

And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.