As cybercriminals become more sophisticated in their approach to scamming, it is becoming increasingly difficult for innocent people to avoid becoming victims.
Technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace and, along with that, more and more people are using the internet. As of July 2020, nearly 4.57 billion people (59% of the world population) were active internet users. An estimated 3.6 billion of those people were active on one or more social media platforms, where people interact on a personal level and might unknowingly trust the wrong person.
In 2019, the FBI received an average of 1,300 complaints per day of internet scams or fraud with more than $3.5 billion reported in losses to individuals and businesses who were victims of scams.
The internet is a wonderful place, full of abundant opportunities for personal and professional growth, new relationships and wonderful experiences. While there is no need to stay away from the internet to stay safe, it is important to know what threats exist so that you can actively avoid them. We reveal 20 of the most common internet scams, how to detect them and what to do if you fall for an internet scam.
Tips to Avoid Internet Scams
Before we get into the specifics on the most common internet scams to watch out for, we are going to cover some helpful tips to avoid internet scams in general.
Keep Your Personal Information Private
Remember, once you’ve put your personal information out there on the World Wide Web, there is no getting it back. Only give out personal information when it is absolutely necessary and only after you have verified the validity of the company, organization or person. You should also ensure they are using a secured means of information transfer.
Don’t Be Fooled By Clones
Whether on a social media platform or email, it is possible for scammers to clone the identity of a person or business you are familiar with. If you receive a request that seems out of character or odd for a person or business you know, be very careful in responding or do not respond at all and report the profile instead. Watch for unusual requests or typos in the request or email address used. For example, a business’s email address may be email@example.com. A scammer may change that to something similar, like firstname.lastname@example.org to fool you.
Do Your Research
Before shopping, donating or sharing any of your personal information online, be sure to do your research. Type the entity name into Google along with the word “scam” to see if you find anything suspicious. Check the Better Business Bureau if it is a business. Be your own online investigator when your personal information and safety are at stake.
Consider Your Method of Payment
Certain methods of payment are a bit safer than others. A major red flag is when you see that a website URL begins with http instead of https. Sites beginning with http are not considered secure sites.
Since it may not be possible to identify every scammer, avoid using payment methods that link directly to your bank accounts. This could result in a scammer cleaning out your bank account and it could take weeks or more to resolve this issue with your bank. Instead, use a reputable credit card with fraud protection.
Requests for Money are a Red Flag
If you are contacted by a business or a person you are not familiar with who is requesting money, consider it a red flag. If your great nephew who lives across the country would not normally ask you for money, he is probably not asking you now. If your utility company would not typically email you directly to request money, they are probably not the ones doing so this time. Additionally, if someone contacts you and promises you a reward if you send money, this is almost definitely a scam.
Top Internet Scams
There are many different types of scam threats out there. As scammers become more sophisticated or experienced in their approach, new scams will always be on the horizon. We’ve compiled a list of the top 20 internet scams we are aware of today and how to identify each of them.
- Spoofing or phishing scam
A spoofing or phishing scam occurs when a scammer tricks you into providing them with personal information. Usually, spoofing happens first, which often occurs through email or text where the scammer disguises themselves as a person or business you are familiar with. This disguise usually happens by changing something minor in the email address, sender name, or website address. You may see this message and believe it is actually from the person or business you know, not noticing the small difference.
Phishing occurs when a scammer is successful at spoofing and the spoof results in you clicking on a link that takes you to a website requesting personal information like bank account information, credit card numbers, passwords, PINs and more.
Although most people are aware that spoofing and phishing scams exist, there are still many people who are fooled by them. APWG’s Phishing Activity Trends Report for Q1 2020 reports that phishing attacks are at their highest level in three years.
- Debt relief and credit repair scam
The debt help and credit repair scam may be especially prevalent during times when people are more likely to be financially struggling. Scammers will typically contact you with the claim of being a legitimate financial institution and will offer you methods of getting rid of debt quickly and easily. Or, in the case of credit repair, they’ll offer to help you improve your credit.
This scam can be very tempting if you are struggling, but once you’ve agreed to this timely help, you’ll be asked to register for the service and pay a fee. Once you’ve paid the fee, you will discover that no debt-relief or credit repair help will be given.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Research the company and look for other scam reports before even entertaining the idea of joining.
- Fake debt collector scam
The fake debt collector scam occurs when a supposed debt collector contacts you, often through a phone call, email or text to notify you that you will be prosecuted or imprisoned if you do not pay this debt that you supposedly owe. If you have heard of the IRS scam, where a fake agent contacts you to tell you that you owe money to the IRS and threatens you with punishment, that is an example of the fake debt collector scam.
When in doubt, it is better to err on the side of caution. Ask the potential scammer for their name, a call-back number and a physical address. This will allow you to do a bit of research. Require written information about the alleged debt and then contact the creditor listed. For example, if the person tells you this is an IRS debt, look up the IRS phone number directly on their website and call that number to confirm the debt.
- Romance scam
Everyone wants to be loved and loneliness can be powerful. Scammers know this and often prey on people they think will be easy targets. In a romance scam, a scammer will befriend you online and then work to gain your trust and affection. Whether quickly or gradually, the scammer will begin to create the idea of a romantic relationship. Eventually, they will ask for money or personal information using the relationship as leverage.
If you meet someone online who is truly interested in you, they will not ask you to send them money and they will definitely not ask for bank account or credit card information. Utilize Google Image to search the person’s photos. This will help you determine if the photos belong to someone else.
- Shopping scam
If you’ve ever ordered and paid for products that never arrived, you may have been victim of a shopping scam. With this type of scam, you will usually be solicited by direct contact or an ad on email or social media. If you take the bait, you’ll end up on a store site that offers seemingly expensive items for low prices. You’ll fill your cart with items, check out and pay, but never receive the product.
Always research shopping sites before purchasing anything from them. Look for customer reviews.
- Free-stuff scam
If someone online offers you an expensive item for free but then requires you to “sign-up” using some sort of personal information, this is likely a free-stuff scam. In this case, the scammer is trying to get personal information to either take your money or steal your identity.
Now and then a reputable organization will offer some sort of give-a-way or raffle and in order to participate you may have to provide some personal information. Always check the validity of the organization before participating.
- Advance-fee scam
The advance-fee scam occurs when a scammer requests money with the promise of delivering something of higher value, but then does not. There is a wide variety of approaches to this scam. It could involve a product or service, an investment, lottery winnings, financing or even “found money.”
Again, with this scam, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Research and learn about any company or organization you are dealing with before you engage in any sort of business with them.
- Account failure/technology problem scam
These are usually sophisticated scams specific to some sort of service or technology you actually use. You will be contacted by a scammer claiming to be the representative of a company you do business with and they will notify you of a problem with your account, service, or product. In order to resolve this problem, you will be asked to provide personal information or payment.
An example of this is a scammer who claims to be a Microsoft rep who tells you your computer will no longer work after a certain date if you do not do these certain tasks, one of which will involve providing personal information.
A reputable company will not contact you in this manner and request payment or personal information.
- Charity and disaster scam
Unfortunately, there are scammers who take advantage of people who want to be generous to help others. Charity or disaster scams occur when scammers pose as a charitable or disaster relief organization and prey upon the good intentions of others by requesting donations. These donations go to the scammer, not to the intended organization.
Use the same approach you would use in any other situation when dealing with these requests. Verfiy the validity of the organization and secured payment methods before donating.
- Nigerian letter or 419 scam
This scam often seeks to steal your money, but also impersonates you by stealing your identity. With the Nigerian letter or 419 scam, you will receive a letter, often via email, from Nigeria and claiming to be from a government official who offers you the opportunity to share in a large sum of money. Usually, the letter will explain that this money must be transferred out of Nigeria and that if you will help them do this, you will be entitled to millions.
The letter requests a response, including personal information like bank account numbers. Then, the scammer will pretend to coordinate the transfer of this money, but will need various financial help in doing so. Eventually, you will realize there is no big sum of money and that you have lost all the money you’ve spent, as well as the protection of your personal information. Now, the scammer can use your information in identity fraud.
- Online vehicle sale scam
Like many internet scams, this one can be very tricky. These scammers advertise vehicles for sale that do not actually exist in their possession. The advertisements can appear very legitimate, as scammers may claim partnership with reputable companies that will facilitate the transaction.
Once you’ve fallen for this scam, the scammer will usually claim some sort of urgent and unusual situation and request prepaid gift cards for payment. But unfortunately, you will not get the vehicle or your money back.
Always ask for the vehicle's VIN, license plate number and name of the registered owner. Never agree to buy a vehicle without being able to meet in person and inspect the vehicle first.
- Ransomware scam
This scam takes a much less personal approach than some of the others. The scammers send out emails that include attachments, ads or links that when followed, infect your computer with ransomware. Sometimes, spoofing and phishing scams are also involved with ransomware scams.
Ransomware is a type of malware that holds your files, systems or networks hostage until you pay a ransom for their return. Once this is embedded in your system, you may literally be locked out of the system. This can be a costly and stressful mistake.
Make sure you have up-to-date anti-virus and anti-malware software on your devices and always keep important data backed up.
- Pre-approval scam
This scam targets people who may be in financial distress and offers pre-approved credit cards. They often have low interest rates and unusually high credit limits. Remember, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is! When the scammer gets you to take this bait, they will then request all the credit card fees, like the annual fee, be paid upfront. Once you pay the fees, you don’t ever get your credit card.
Reputable credit cards do not request upfront payment of fees.
- Digital greeting card scam
Do you remember when everyone used to send each other digital greeting cards? While these aren’t quite as prevalent, they still exist. Scammers may use digital greeting cards to make you think you’ve gotten a fun card from a friend, only to embed malware on your computer when you open it.
If you receive something like this from what looks like a friend, text or call your friend first to make sure they actually sent it.
- Mystery shopper scam
The scam targets people who are looking for opportunities to earn some additional income from home. The scammer will either contact you or post an ad that offers you pay you very generously for doing minor tasks like shopping online or writing reviews. To join this community of work-from-home money makers, you’ll need to pay a fee for training materials or account access. But once you pay, you’ll discover this was never a legitimate opportunity.
Use caution when applying for work-from-home jobs that appear too good to be true and never pay a fee to participate.
- Survey scam
If you ever receive a “today is your lucky day” message notifying you that you’ve been selected to take part in a survey with a nice reward, it might be a survey scam. These scams typically intend to either steal your personal information or install malware on your device.
If a survey request asks for personal information or payment, consider it a red flag. Watch for incorrect dates, spelling or grammar errors and other things that just don’t add up.
- Fake lottery scam
The fake lottery scam occurs when a scammer contacts you to notify you of a large lottery winning. This may be an email, a social media message, a text message or even a pop-up. But to claim your lottery winnings, you’ll need to provide some personal information, perhaps even bank account information to transfer the winnings.
First, ask yourself if you even entered a lottery. If you can’t recall it, you probably didn’t. Then, consider the “too good to be true” saying may be fitting in this case. What are the odds you’re doing to suddenly win a large lottery you didn’t even know you entered? Steer clear of these fake lottery scams.
- Download scam
The download scam occurs when scammers push out pop-ups that tell you your computer has been infected with a virus. Next, you’ll see the instruction to download an anti-virus software. This fake anti-virus software is really malware and once you hit the download button, you’re installing it on your computer. This may result in loss of use of your device or stolen personal information.
Keep your anti-virus up to date with a reputable software. Then, if you receive these virus pop-ups, you’ll know they’re fake.
- Fake ticket scam
This scam is exactly what it sounds like. Scammers sell fake tickets to steal your money. This is common with tickets for concerts and sporting events that frequently sell out. In some cases, the tickets don’t exist at all and in other cases, the scammer will send counterfeit tickets with forged barcodes that will not work at the event. Often, the scammer has done this to steal you money and your credit card information.
Only buy tickets through reputable ticket agencies or box offices.
- Celebrity or loved one clone scam
Have you ever gotten a message on social media from a loved one that seemed a bit unusual? Scammers use the approach of cloning social media profiles of loved ones and celebrities to scam unsuspecting people. Did George Clooney really just send you a private message? Probably not. It was more than likely a scammer.
When pretending to be a loved one or celebrity, scammers will make a plea for some sort of financial help or will ask you to click on a link as if they’re sharing a video with you. When in doubt, verify with the person that it is really them by contacting them through another medium like phone or text.
What to Do if You Fall for a Scam
No matter how careful you are, it still might be possible for you to fall victim to an internet scam. Don’t beat yourself up for making a mistake, but be proactive in correcting it. Depending on the type of scam, there are some things you should do to protect yourself.
- Bank/credit card information: If you’ve been scammed and have given out this information you should immediately contact your bank and/or credit card company to report the scam. They will immediately flag the accounts or close them and protect your funds. If funds have already been stolen, they will work within their policies to help refund some or all of your money.
- Personal information: If you have given your personal information to a scammer, you may be at risk for identity theft. Utilize a credit monitoring service to alert you if any changes are attempted on your credit. You might also want to do a credit freeze so that no new accounts can be opened in your name for a period of time. If your identity has already been stolen, report the identity theft to the FTC as well as the police.
- Bad download: If you downloaded malware or ransomware, the best thing to do is to immediately take the device to a professional for help to remove it. Then, keep an eye on your credit report, change all your passwords and watch for any red flags that indicate your personal information might have been stolen.
Internet scams are prevalent in today’s world of technology. We’ve only touched the surface on the types of scams out there but the same general rules apply to all of them. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Strangers aren’t likely to give you money for nothing and real people who aren’t scammers are not likely to ask for your personal information. Watch for red flags and use a common sense approach to any relationship and transaction you engage in online.
It is possible to be an active internet user, taking advantage of all the great information and resources available on the web, while also keeping your finances and identity safe.