(TNS) — Teenagers are super tech-savvy. Having been born and raised in the era of smartphone ubiquity and social media pervasiveness, they have an expansive digital network, can navigate the web with ease, are app-smart and speak in text code, as foreign a language to most older folks as French.
Turns out, those tech-shrewd teens are also easy targets. Teenagers and young adults — those who are considered “Gen Z” — are also falling for online scams at a higher rate than seniors, according to a new study conducted by SocialCatfish.com, a California-based social media investigation service. A record $4.2 billion was lost by Americans to online scams in 2020. Those younger than 20 who fell prey to online predators grew by 156 percent over the last three years, for a total loss of $71 million.
Seniors are still the most vulnerable group overall with 105,301 victims losing $966 million in 2020, but the surge among Gen Z is unprecedented, said David McClellan, president of SocialCatfish.com.
“That age demographic seems to be more comfortable, even too comfortable on the internet,” McClellan said. “They’ve grown up in an age where everyone comes to them for computer/tech help and they seem to be overconfident.”
Teens are sometimes easy targets for con artists because they are social and eager to make new connections, and they enjoy a public platform, McClellan said. Plus, the pandemic’s early isolation meant social media platforms and photo-sharing sites were the only way for teens to connect with — and make new — friends.
Cybercriminals create fake profiles and connect with teenage targets on social media platforms, gaming apps and dating sites. Soon, that new friend needs money or something else of value, like gift cards or a cellphone. They might also ask for an illicit image. Because of the ease of maintaining anonymity, Facebook, Google Hangouts, Instagram and WhatsApp are the sites that scammers use most often.
“Where we grew up in the ‘don’t talk to strangers’ era, they’re growing up in ‘the strangers can be your online friends era,'” McClellan said.
It’s not just social media. Like adults of all ages, teens can be victimized when making an online purchase on an illegitimate site or by opening phishing emails that contain links to fake websites masked as trusted businesses. Even those innocent-looking online quizzes can be a trap that gives scammers access to your personal information.
“We need to educate our children and students,” s McClellan said. “We learn about math, science, sex and even drugs in school but not online safety.”
To help, McClellan and his team at SocialCatfish.com came up with this list of five common scams targeting teens.
1. Job scams: The pandemic made it difficult for young people to find work. Scammers capitalized on this by dangling fake jobs that can be done remotely with high pay. They post on job sites and then request advanced payment for training. They ask for personal information during the “application process” and use it to drain your bank account and commit identity theft.
How to avoid: Be wary of any job that seems too good to be true or asks you for payment prior to beginning. Never provide information or bank accounts until you have investigated the company thoroughly.
2. Instagram influencer scam: Teens and young adults worship their favorite influencers. Scammers will create fake accounts that look just like the actual influencer’s account. They host a fake brand-sponsored contest and ask the “winner” to pay a fee or provide their bank account to win the prize.
How to avoid: Never send money or bank information to anyone you do not know.
3. Romance scams: Also known as catfishing, this is when scammers steal photos of good-looking people and target young, vulnerable people online. They get the victim to fall in love, then begin asking for money.
How to avoid: Never give money to anyone you meet online. If they will not video chat or meet, they are a scammer.
4. Sextortion scams: The advent of smartphones led to sexting, which has now led to sextortion. A scammer poses as an attractive person on OnlyFans or Snapchat, hooks the target and moves the conversation over to text. They send an explicit image and ask for one in return. Once received, they reveal themselves to be scammers and threaten to send the photo to all contacts on the person’s phone and post the picture on the internet.
How to avoid: Avoid sending explicit images online or by phone. If the person you are falling for will not meet or video chat, think twice before sending anything.
5. Online shopping: Scammers create fake websites that look like online stores selling items at a huge discount. If you buy from them, the item never arrives, they pocket the money and steal your credit card and personal information for future online theft.
How to avoid: Make sure the website is not full of typos. If the “customer service” email ends in “gmail.com” or “yahoo.com” that is a red flag. Research the company.
©2021 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.