Common Online Scams
Unfortunately, not everyone on the internet is very nice. There are many large organized groups of scammers attempting to steal your money or personal information. You may encounter them during any online interaction. They're everywhere from dating apps and social media to Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist.
In this guide, you will learn about common types of scams, how to spot them, and what to do if you get caught up in one.
Types of Scams
There are hundreds of different scams. Some are more common than others. Let's begin by discussing scams at a general level.
ScenarioYou receive a message saying you need to verify your identity, so you click the link and it looks like your bank's website. You enter your info. Later, you find out the form was fake and someone got into your account!
Phishing scams involve tricking users into disclosing sensitive personal data through the use of fake links, emails, and websites. They are "phishing" for information from you. These are probably the most common type of scam you will encounter. Always be careful when reviewing your Email!
Usually this involves an email, but it can be a link sent on any platform. They try to get you to open the link and fill out a form. The form is made to look like it comes from an official website you might use. After filling out the form, they now have whatever information you accidentally provided them. In most cases, they're trying to get your passwords. In some cases, it might be credit card information or even your SSN.
These types of attacks have become more sophisticated and targeted over the years. They can look like emails from your employer asking you to reset a password, for example. In few cases, they can even disguise the URL in your web browser's address bar to look like the actual website.
Warning Signs of Phishing
- An unexpected password reset or login link appears
- The URL does not link to a page on the proper website - it may appear scrambled or have typos
- The page is not secure (this should trigger a warning message in your browser)
- The form has an unusual sense of urgency ("eg. fill this form out NOW")
- Any otherwise strange messages/emails you receive
If you suspect a form might be phishing
- Close the browser window and ignore it
- Check the official website by going to it manually (not from the link you got) and see if there's anything you need to do
- If possible, for especially sensitive information or banking, call the company that owns the website to see if you need to do anything
- Report the email/message to your company's IT or computer security team, if applicable.
Phishing Example Email
Here is an example of a phishing email I received recently. I have a Coinbase account to buy crypto currency, so I looked at it.
It almost looks like an official email, but there are some identifiable issues with it.
Online Person to Person Sales
Whenever you attempt to buy or sell something online, be it Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, eBay, etc. there's a chance the buyer or the seller might try to scam you. It's more common on some platforms than others.
Seller Scamming Buyer
ScenarioYou find some pretty-looking custom pieces of art on Craigslist. You contact the seller and send them money via the Zelle app. Then, you never hear back from them or get your items.
The simplest way to be scammed by sellers is to pay them in advance for products that you don't end up receiving. Do not pay for anything online with Venmo, PayPal, Gift Cards, Zelle, etc. unless you physically have the product in hand, you can meet up and see the product in person, or you trust the seller.
Only purchase from reputable marketplaces with buyer protections, like eBay or Etsy, where individual sellers have ratings and are held accountable for their products.
As a general rule, I'd say avoid Facebook Marketplace unless you're just trying to give old stuff away for free. Facebook Marketplace is absolutely overwhelmed with scam artists.
Buyer Scamming Seller
ScenarioYou list a gently used iPhone on Facebook Marketplace for $300. Someone contacts you via messages and asks to buy it, but they want you to ship it to them. They don't want to pay via Facebook, so they ask if they can use a different app to pay you. They send you money and you ship the item. A few days later, you find out that the payment never cleared and your bank reverses the transaction.
It's not uncommon for people to try scamming you if you're selling things. Simple scams could involve someone giving you a bad check, or getting you to send an item before receiving payment. Sometimes people will meet you in person and try to low-ball you, intimidate you, or even rob you.
Other times, they may try to steal your personal information. If they ask to chat outside the marketplace app and they ask you to verify your phone number with a code, it's almost always a scam. Sometimes they're not after your item or money. Instead, they may want to steal your personal information, accounts, or phone number.
The best way to avoid being scammed as a seller is to use a marketplace like eBay, where you can safely ship the items out yourself after you've received notice that the buyer has paid for them. If you meet up in person to sell something, do so at a public location where you feel safe in daylight. Suitable locations include police station parking lots, well crowded store fronts, etc.
Remember, if something seems odd, back out of the transaction and find another buyer. Never put yourself in danger and don't send out items unless you're 100% positive the funds have cleared or are in escrow.
Social Scams, Dating Sites, etc.
Scenario - Romance ScamYou're single and meet someone online. They seem very interested in you. Their profile picture looks attractive, they're fun to talk to, and they seem to care about you. They live in a distant country, so most of your communication is via chat apps. Occasionally they call you, but it's usually a brief voice call. After a short time, they say they love you and want to move in, but they need you to send some cash to buy a ticket to come visit.
There are many scams revolving around exploring emotional vulnerabilities. If you're chatting with people on dating sites, make sure you can verify their identity. Meet up at public places. Avoid having long-distance online relationships with people you don't know. They might not be who they say they are. At the very least, have a video call with them to see that they are who they say they are.
Don't let people take advantage of your emotions or loneliness. Don't be blinded by the first attractive person who says something nice to you online. Tempting as it may be, don't buy into their constructed self-serving fantasy.
When in doubt, consider discussing your online relationships with therapists or trusted friends. Never send large amounts of money or gifts to someone you haven't met in real life, even if you've been chatting with them for a long time. Sometimes these scams go on for months or years. They may ask for money to pay for emergencies, or to get a plane ticket to come visit you. Then you pay them, they make up some excuse to not visit, and later down the line come up for a reason to ask for even more money. I've met people who have lost thousands of dollars to scams this way.
Tech Support or Fake Virus Scams
You see an alert like this one. You call the number and install the support software they suggest. They control your computer remotely and run a "diagnostic." You later find out all your saved accounts have been compromised!
These are less prevalent than they used to be. However, this still happens. You may see banners or messages designed to mimic antivirus software. They will say you have a virus, and instruct you to call a phone number or install some software. They may offer free remote support, or claim to be from your tech support company. Do not do this. It is a scam.
First, if the message appears in your web browser, you know it's a scam, because web browsers (MS Edge, Google Chrome, Safari, etc.) do not scan for viruses!
If it's a tech support scam, it's most likely coming from somewhere you didn't sign up for. Unless you explicitly requested tech support from, say, GeekSquad or your computer manufacturer, ignore it. Reputable tech support companies will only reach out to you if you're the one who contacted them first, or you're already paying for their services.
These scams are simple. They'll have you install remote support software and then begin to remotely control your computer. From there, they'll probably make your screen black and attempt to get into all your bank accounts, emails, etc. with your saved passwords. If they do ANYTHING with your banking info, ignore them. If they attempt to install software that makes your monitor black, they're scamming you. Disconnect the PC from the internet or manually turn it off (hold the power button) if you have to. Don't allow them into your bank account under any circumstances.
Family Emergency Scam
ScenarioAn impostor calls you or sends you an email. They're claiming to be your grandson or your child and need $500 sent over immediately to get out of jail or to pay the rent. They need this money NOW. It's very urgent. You send the money, but later find out it wasn't them.
Be wary of anyone asking you for money unexpectedly and immediately. If your kid's in college and they regularly need a little extra cash, that's one thing. If this is an unusual request out of the ordinary, and it doesn't sound like them, don't pay it. It's most likely a scammer trying to rip you off for a few hundred bucks. Before providing any financial help to a friend or family member, first verify that it's actually them. Then, find out what they need the funds for.
If possible, pay the person or company they owe directly, rather than through the person. For example, if your child asks for $100 to pay their phone bill for the month, then log in yourself and pay their phone bill. Don't just send them $100. If they need $500 to post bail, call the office on a verified line or drive down and pay it yourself.
Fast Money / Easy Money
ScenarioYou're scrolling through your favorite social network feed and see a message a friend has posted about making money fast, but you have to get in NOW. You click the link and fill out the form. They promise to turn an investment of $100 into $1000 within a week!
The old saying 'If it's too good to be true, it probably is' certainly applies here. If you see any advertisements or messages promising easy money for nothing, they're fake. The only person getting rich quick is the scammer.
Never send money or invest in online apps/websites other than with trusted stock brokers or through a real investment account. It may be tempting to make a quick buck, but you could be falling for a scam or pyramid scheme.
Check/Money Order Scams
Never accept checks or money orders from people you don't know. Never cash unexpected checks. If someone sends you a $500 for a $100 item, and wants to pay with a check, it's fake. The check will bounce or be reversed, and you will be out $100.
ScenarioYou are contacted by a company saying they owe you a $200 refund. They send you $500 by accident, and ask for $300 back. You check your bank account and see that you have $500 in pending deposits. You send them $300 from your bank account. A few days later, the $500 transaction is reversed and you're out $300.
These scams are incredibly common. A company will say they owe you a refund, "mistakenly" send you more than intended, and then ask for some of it back. You send them the difference, but later realize the initial transfer was fake or gets reversed by the bank.
Never trust these. It's incredibly rare for a company to actually make this kind of mistake. If they do somehow make a mistake like this, you should call their official phone number to verify the mistake.
Most likely, if an issue with a transaction happens, it will occur and be noticed fairly quickly. If you just bought a phone at a store, and an hour later you get a call from the salesperson you worked with saying they made a mistake, please come back to fix the transaction, then yes, it's probably real. However, if you get a call out of the blue from some company saying they owe you an unexpected refund for a product you don't remember buying, it's a scam.
Free Product Scams
Scenario You receive an email claiming to come from Amazon. It says if you complete a survey, you'll get a free product. After completing the survey, they just need a $10 credit card payment for shipping of your free $500 product.
These scams involve offering a free product either as a random prize or for completing a survey. They may look official, but they'll ask for your credit card and billing info to cover shipping costs. Of course, you never get the product and they steal your credit card number.
Guidelines - Avoid Scammers
To stay safe online, I recommend following these guidelines:
- If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- There's no 'easy' way to make money. Avoid anything that promises to make you rich quick.
- Don't send money, especially large sums, to an online friend or lover you've never met
- Don't act on impulse or a sense of urgency
- Scammers want you to do things without thinking. They usually create a sense of urgency. This makes it difficult to tell what's going on, and more likely you'll fall for their scam.
- Slow down and think before doing things online. Especially if it involves giving out sensitive information.
- Ignore Virus Alerts in Browser
- Unless they come directly from your operating system or antivirus software (Windows Defender, McAfee, Norton, etc.) ignore the message
- Ignore any virus alerts that appear in a web-browser window
- When in doubt, ask a trusted friend or family member who knows about PCs
- Avoid installing remote-control software
- Unless directed to do so by a trusted professional (Staples, Best Buy, Microcenter, a local computer shop, etc.)
- Never on a whim, only if you've experienced problems and are paying someone to fix them
- If your computer is being remotely controlled, you should be able to SEE everything that's happening. There is no need for them to make your screen black or hide what's going on.
- If possible, take your computer in for service at a physical location, local repair shop, etc.
- Question out-of-character interactions or emergencies
- Do not immediately send money to help a family/friend in an emergency unless you are POSITIVE IT'S THEM.
- Call the family member directly if needed
- Use secure, trusted selling platforms
- Avoid buying/selling on unregulated platforms
- Only buy from trusted stores or official company websites like Amazon, Target, Walmart, Etsy, eBay, etc.
- Facebook Marketplace is littered with scammers.
- Stay safe and be cautious when meeting strangers in real life. Meet in populated, public, well-lit areas during the day.
- Think before filling out any online form
- Why do they need this information?
- Is this actually from the company?
- Did I initiate this request, or am I unexpectedly being asked to fill something out?
- Never provide verification codes you didn't request
- If you get an email or text message from somewhere with a verification code, NEVER provide it to anyone unless YOU were the one initiating the interaction.
- For example, if someone calls you, says they're from the bank, and needs you to give them a code, IT'S A SCAM. Hang up. On the other hand, if you call the bank's official number, and the rep asks for a code, it's OK to give it to them, since you started the interaction through a secure line.
- Verify the website you're visiting
- Is this the official company website?
- Does the browser indicate the page is secure? It will usually say "SECURE" or show a locked icon.
- Does the URL (address bar) look like normal? Are there any spelling errors in the name? Does the beginning of the URL contain a lot of gibberish?
- Be wary of unusual words/slang, exceptionally poor grammar, or British accents
- This is a generalization, which I usually avoid. But the bulk of scammers come from Africa and Asia. In these countries, the predominant variant of English is some type of British English.
- Many of these individuals speak English as a second language, so their grammar skills aren't the best.
- This does not mean all people with British accents or people who use poor grammar are scammers. Just be more cautious if they sound British and you live in, say, the United States or Canada, and British accents are rarer. Obviously, if you live in the UK, ignore this advice.
- Scammers commonly use the word "kindly" in their chat and email interactions. This is a common British way of instructing people to do things, not used much in American English. If someone asks you to "kindly install this remote control software", it may very well be a scam.
If You Got Scammed
Again, don't be embarrassed. It happens to the best of us! If you got scammed, or think you got scammed, take the following steps:
- End the interaction
- If you're on the phone with "remote tech support" and they seem sketchy, hang up.
- If applicable, uninstall or end any remote control sessions on your device.
- If you don't know what to do, turn the device off and take it to a local repair center.
- Block or stop chatting with any suspicious person.
- Check your finances
- Review your bank statements, credit cards, etc. for any unexpected activity or transfers.
- Report any discrepancies to your financial institution. They may stop or reverse illegitimate transactions.
- Report the issue
- If involving work, report the scam to your IT or computer security department.
- If you believe account details were compromised for a specific company or service you use, contact them and ask them to look into any suspicious activity.
- Report fraud or scams to the FTC through their official website.
- Inform others who may be affected by the scam. If you believe neighbours, friends, or family members might be targeted with similar scams, warn them next time you see them!
- Reset passwords if compromised
- If you suspect your account(s) have been compromised, reset all your affected passwords.
- If you use the same password for everything, consider making new passwords.
- Learn & move on
- Learn from the scam so you don't fall for it again
- Educate yourself on other types of scams
- Remember, scammers have lots of experience. Their literal full-time job is scamming people. Move on and don't dwell on it. Mistakes happen!
I have created a one-page printable safety bulletin for your reference. You could post it at work, in the computer room, or wherever.