Everyone being online all the time, especially over the past few pandemic years, has been very good for criminals. According to the Federal Trade Commission, consumers lost more than $US5.8 ($8) billion to scammers in 2021 through such a wide variety of ruses and boondoggles, it would take a library to describe them all.
While the classic victims of these kind of operations are elderly people, young folks aren’t immune: people younger than 20 had the biggest increase in fraud reports between 2019 and 2020. Rich people get scammed. Smart people get scammed. Everyone is a potential victim. Here are some of the most persistent online scams to look out for — and how to avoid them.
Online dating scams
Romance scams are as simple as they come: Convince someone on Tinder, Hinge, or Trek Passions that you are in love with them, then ask them to send you money. The end result can be more harrowing than anything in The Tinder Swindler, with victims lucky if money is the only thing they lose. Consider the sad story of Australian grandmother Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto. She met “Captain Daniel Smith” online. He first convinced her to send him all the money she had, then persuaded her to carry a backpack filled with meth through customs in Kuala Lumpur. The grandma-turned-unknowing-drug-mule was caught, tried in a Malaysian court, found guilty, and sentenced to death. Luckily her appeal was successful, so she only spent years in a Malaysian prison. But on the plus side, some romance scammers actually get caught!
How to spot this scam: If an online match is sketchy about their personal details, professes love very quickly, or won’t meet offline, you should be very wary. But the real “tell” is when they ask for money. Don’t give people you meet on online dating sites money.
NFT and cryptocurrency scams
Bogus investment schemes have been around forever, but decentralized, unregulated markets are a playground for criminals who prefer financial scams to face-to-face robbery. Hard-to-trace money in unregulated markets make NFTs and cryptocurrency scams so lucrative and easy, scammers made off with $US14 ($19) billion in 2021. They use high tech means of luring victims and getting paid, but most crypto scams are structured like traditional “fiat-currency” con games and phishing expeditions.
How to spot and avoid this scam: The best tip for avoiding crypto scams is to be highly suspicious. Do your research. Don’t invest in anything you don’t understand. Secure your wallet. Carefully check all URLs. There is no safety net.
Google voice verification scams
I recently sold a futon on Craigslist and received more scam responses than interested futon shoppers. All the scammers were all running the same game too: They’d text “I’d like to buy your futon, but I need you to verify you’re not a scammer by replying with a verification code I’ll send.” Then a Google Voice verification message would pop up on my screen. Had I responded with the digits from the message, the scammers would have set up a Google voice number connected to my phone (they have to have started the process to even get the verification sent to the number) in order to scam people anonymously. (And they wouldn’t not have purchased my futon.)
How to spot and avoid this scam: Verification codes are sent by Google to you to verify that it is you who requested the phone number. They’ll never need to be shared with a 3rd party. If your linked Google number was already claimed, here’s how to get it back.
Bogus tech support scams
There’s a whole subgenre of amusing YouTube videos of young wags screwing with the scammers who run various virus scams, but they’re not funny for the actual victims. The operation goes down like this: A non-tech-savvy person sees a pop-up window that warns of a computer virus and contains a phone number for tech support. They then call and are connected with a scammer who convinces them to give access to their computer for a “virus scan.” From there, the details vary. The scammers might ask for money in exchange for “fixing” the computer, or use some simple HTML tricks to make it seem like a large deposit has been made in the victim’s bank account by accident, and they should pay it back. No matter the route they take, the end point is always “send me gift cards.”
How to spot and avoid this scam: This scam is insidious for targeting the elderly who don’t know much about computers. Warn you parents, aunts and uncles not to call these kinds of numbers.
This insidious scam targets mostly horny dudes. The criminal poses as a woman online, strikes up a conversation with one of the aforementioned horny dudes, and requests a nude picture. When “she” receives it, sexy-time is over and extortion-time begins. The scammer texts something like, “I will send this photo to your entire contact list if you do not send me money.” Embarrassed and afraid of being found out, the mark does as told. A variation involves the scammer sending nude pictures to the victim, then sending a message from “her” “father,” that says something like, “My daughter is only 15, and if you don’t send me money, I’ll tell the police you have child porn images of her.”
How to spot and avoid this scam: One answer is to not take pictures you wouldn’t want shared with your contact list. If you send compromising pictures to a scammer, you’re probably going to be fine though. Unless it’s some kind of personal grudge, a scammer probably won’t send your picture to anyone: It takes time they could use scamming someone else, and once they share your picture, you have no reason to send them money anyway. So just block, report, and move on.
Third-party car warranties
The practice of selling third-party warranties for repairs for used cars isn’t always illegal — it depends on which state you live in and the terms of the warranty — but the industry’s use of robocalls is so pervasive and annoying, and its sales tactics so slimy, that it should be illegal. There might be a few occasions where buying third party repair insurance for your car makes sense, but if it does, seek out an established company rather than responding to someone cold-calling you.
How to spot and avoid this: Use your phone’s junk call fighting features. If those don’t work, just hang up on every robocall.
Current events scams
Bottom-feeders are ingenious. They’ve found ways to monetise everything, even the simmering political outrage destroying our nation. Scammers use hot-button issues to establish a connection with you, whether it’s official-seeming COVID emails, urgent messages from a “relative” trapped in Ukraine, a Gofundme campaign for building a border wall, or a yet-to-be-determined scam centering on the repeal of Roe V. Wade. Once you believe you’re talking to likeminded people who are just as passionate about [THE POLITICAL THING] as you are, the phishing/scamming is easy.
How to spot and avoid these scams: If you’re passionate about politics, online activism may feel good, but your time would probably be better spent actually volunteering somewhere. If you must send money in support of a cause, make sure it’s to an established, verifiable non-profit or political group like the ACLU.
“Digital kidnapping” is a particular creepy online practice. There are strange corners of the internet devoted to role-playing as families or children, using images of strangers’ children scraped from social media. It seems like this is mostly some kind of hobby, with weirdos commenting on the stolen images and even setting up “virtual adoptions.”
It’s obviously disturbing to parents whose children’s images are stolen, but it could lead down darker avenues as well. “People are creating fantasy adoptions, people are creating virtual fantasies. It may be just an obsessive act on their part but it can be manipulated to become dangerous,” Len Edwards, director of the Commission of Missing and Exploited Children, said. “This could turn into a real child abduction or even child pornography.”
How to spot and avoid this scam: If you must post pictures of your children on social media, make sure your settings limit who can see them.
Almost everyone uses Amazon, and scammers have created a cottage industry over using its name to drain people’s wallets. According to the NY Post, Amazon scam emails have “skyrocketed” by 500 per cent since last year, with the hottest scam involving sending Amazon customers (ie: everyone on earth) receipts or shipping orders for purchases they never made. “Click this link to take care of it/verify your account” these emails exhort. Victims are then brought to a professional looking (or a really fake-looking) “Amazon” account page where they enter their personal information.
How to spot and avoid this scam: Only go to Amazon’s account page from your own browser, not a link from an email. Amazon isn’t going to send an email asking you to verify your password in the first place, and every official company email address ends in “@amazon.com.”
Online lotteries and sweepstakes scams
If you receive an email, call, or text indicating you’ve won the lottery, you haven’t. Ignore it. If you follow through with the instructions for collecting your millions, you’d be asked to pay a fee (probably through the purchase of gift cards) or give up your personal information. But you will receive no winnings, because there are no winnings. Your prize will be spending months trying to wrestle your identity back from a scammer.
How to spot and avoid this scam: If you haven’t entered a contest, you didn’t win a contest, and even if you did, no legitimate lottery is going to ask you to send cash to claim a prize.
The ‘Nigerian Prince’ scam
It’s hard to believe, but people are still falling for “Nigerian Prince” scam emails in 2022. Named for the country that popularised it in the 1980s, this hoary con has been around since the French Revolution, when it was called the “Spanish Prisoner Scam.” No matter its name, the specific details, or the means of communication, the scam has been the same since the days of the guillotine: A criminal tells a mark they have a ton of money tied up in some way, and if the mark sends them some small amount of money to get it out, they’ll split the windfall when it becomes available.
How to spot and avoid this scam: Delete all emails from unknown sources, and remember: If a foreign prince has a cache of gold bars worth $US35 ($49) million, he doesn’t need a perfect stranger’s help to get at it.
Online shopping scams
At their most basic level, online shopping scams are easy to understand, but the anonymity of the internet make these operations lucrative and nearly risk-free for criminals. It works like this: someone sets up a virtual storefront and takes money for products they don’t deliver. Not only do the scammers make off with your cash, they also have your credit number.
How to spot and avoid this scam: Shun suspicious retail websites in favour of known retailers. Make sure the website starts the https:// and has that little lock icon next to it. That means it’s secure. Make sure you pay with PayPal or a credit card, each of which offers you some degree of fraud protection.
Law enforcement scams
Scammers pretending to be authority figures is not new. Even though the means of communication might be a call on your cell or an email, the trick works for the same reason it always has: It’s scary when the cops (or the IRS) calls. An angry agent saying you’re connected with a crime is frightening enough that it can short circuit some people’s more rational minds. The threat of a legal nightmare or even jail time is enough for many to send gift cards (it’s always gift cards) to make it go away.
How to spot and avoid this scam: If you commit an actual crime, the police do not call your cell phone; they arrest you. They do not offer to let you pay them to get out of arrests either. In general, don’t talk to the cops unless you have to, and even then, make sure your lawyer is with you.