Anyone with a bit of internet know-how is likely to understand just how common online scams actually are. We’re all subject to at least a couple of attempts each day, whether it be via emails or social media, or even due to the sites we visit.
Meanwhile, the methods criminals use to extract money or information are getting more sophisticated. Data suggests that social media proved more profitable for scammers in 2021 than any other method of reaching people.
Nobody thinks that they’ll be the victim of an online scam, and that’s one of the reasons why they work so well.
It’s better to be careful, so we’ve listed some of the most common methods fraudsters use below, as well as tips and tricks that will leave you better protected while you’re online.
The 20 Most Common Online Scams
Online scams can affect anyone. The London School of Economics reports:
“Although many unsolicited phishing emails in circulation worldwide are known to originate from Nigeria, the volume of cybercrime emanating from the country is small compared to the number of cybercriminals from China, United States and Turkey.”
London School of Economics , June 2021
Here are some of the most common online scams, along with tips for how to avoid falling victim to fraudsters located around the world.
1. Scam Emails
Almost every email address is subject to multiple daily scam attempts. Whether they claim you’re a beneficiary of millions of dollars, or that your bank account has been shut down suddenly, expect to receive multiple messages that should be disregarded without a second glance.
One method to avoid an abundance of scam emails would be to sign up for unimportant services with a secondary email address. You’ll also be able to keep tabs on whether anyone is selling your information. Don’t bother to respond to unsolicited messages, and send them to your junk folder. You can also check out a secure email service such as ProtonMail.
2. Fake Account Cancellations
The more popular scam emails are fake account cancellations that aim to get you to log in with your real credentials. Scammers will then have access to your account, which can be used to scam others or be sold on. (If you reuse passwords, they could also log into other services.)
You might receive an SMS message, asking you to log in to a fake site, or you may get an email dotted with minor spelling mistakes. I’ve included an example from my own inbox below, for a bank that I don’t actually use.
In this case, the scammers are hoping I’d click on the Verify Now link, inputting my real account information in the process. If you are contacted by a bank or an online service via email, it’s best to log in directly and contact support to be sure.
Of course, any account can be stolen, from Netflix to dating profiles.
3. Online Dating
On that note, online dating can be an arduous experience without worrying about the many scammers that can be found on all platforms. Try to ensure that you’re not speaking to a bot, and never agree to send payments to somebody you haven’t met. It’s worth sticking with more established sites, apps, and dating formats.
4. Fake Websites
Cloned websites are more common than you might have guessed, even if they’re taken down eventually due to copyright infringement. In most cases, the scammers are hoping to get login information or will take payments for services they don’t offer. For example, they may have created a clone of a banking website, to steal info or get the user to download malware to their device.
5. Working From Home
It’s tempting to think that you can earn “hundreds of dollars per minute” working from home, but it’s unlikely unless you’re Elon Musk.
Be wary of any job offer that is too good to be true, especially if they ask for lots of personal information, or they want to use your bank account or address. Oftentimes, you’ll be sent a check that will eventually bounce, leaving you out of pocket.
It’s another variation of the fake check scam that has been around for decades. By law, “banks have to make deposited funds available quickly, usually within two days. When the funds are made available in your account, the bank may say the check has cleared, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good check.”
“Fake checks can take weeks to be discovered and untangled. By that time, the scammer has any money you sent, and you’re stuck paying the money back to the bank.”
FTC , Fake Check Scams
Another method is to get the applicant to take out a loan, or pay for training for a role that doesn’t exist.
6. Fake Prizes
If the internet is to be believed, I’m the luckiest man alive when it comes to winning prizes. Once again, we’d advise using a secondary email account if you’re planning to enter multiple online competitions, and we’d ignore any unsolicited claims that you’re due to be paid out.
This is a variation of an older scam, claiming you’d won the lottery in a different country or state.
7. Tech Support
Offering tech support that the user doesn’t need is a common scam, to the point that YouTubers like Kitboga can make a living by wasting a fraudster’s time for entertainment purposes. Kitboga will often impersonate an elderly person with a voice-changing app, giving an insight into how they usually operate.
This is a con that tends to focus on the elderly, or users who don’t have a good grasp on how their devices work. Oftentimes, they’ll ask for remote access to your computer, which is never a good idea. If you’re having issues, it’s better to take it into a local store or ask a friend for help.
8. Social Media Scams
According to the FTC, “more than half of people who reported losses to investment scams in 2021 said the scam started on social media.”
The FTC reports that US consumers reported $770 million in social media fraud losses in 2021. People aged 18 to 39 were more than twice as likely as older adults to report these types of losses, and it’s a 19-fold increase compared to 2017.
Social media is clearly a good entry point for fraudsters, and we’ve already discussed how easy it can be to set up a fake profile.
Ransomware is a form of malware that can prevent the user from accessing their files or hardware due to being stolen, deleted, or encrypted. Whatever the method, the aim is to extract money from the user in the form of a ransom. (That’s how it earns the moniker.)
These attacks have become so popular that gangs have started scamming each other, if reports are to be believed. Take REvil (Ransomware Evil), an infamous Russian group that works with affiliates for a cut of the ransom. It transpired that their software “included a secret backdoor in its ransomware code—allegedly enabling the ransomware group to steal illicit ransom proceeds from its affiliates.”
10. Impersonation Scams
It’s easy for a scammer to put together a fake social media account with a couple of stolen images. It’s the premise behind shows like Catfish, and they could even copy your profile to reach out to your friends and family. Generally, the scammer will ask for money or attempt to get the victim to click on a suspicious link.
11. DDoS Attacks
A DDoS attack overwhelms a server with traffic – whether that be requests, messages, or other pieces of data from outside sources. The server then reaches a point where it is unresponsive and can no longer function. Gamers will sometimes use this tactic to slow down their competitor’s internet connection, causing them to lag.
To avoid this, consider using a gaming VPN to secure your connection.
12. Crypto Scams
Crypto scams are numerous, whether it be people attempting to get you to send them money anonymously or trying to gain access to your wallet. Be wary of smaller exchanges, or any potential “pump and dump” schemes. One example of the latter would be Squid coin, which abruptly collapsed from a high of just over $2,860 to almost nothing in the space of a day in November 2021.
In fact, we’d steer clear of any investment opportunities that don’t make much sense.
13. Vacation Scams
Anything from run-down hotels to cheap deals are common vacation scams, aiming to extract payment for a service that doesn’t exist, or for a property they don’t actually own or manage.
Be wary of renting from accounts without much background information about the vacation, or booking anything going way under the normal market rate. Another red flag would be if any slot or date is available, which suggests they’ve had no other bookings. Most of us tend to spend a lot of money on holidays, so don’t rush to get the first deal you see.
Research by Auction Fraud in the UK shows almost a third of people (32%) affected by holiday fraud are scammed by an ad on social media, with Facebook being the most common platform where people were targeted.
14. Fake Antivirus Software
Whether it be via popups or third-party ads, we’d avoid any prompts to directly download any suspicious files to your device. Scammers will often attempt to get the user to download malware under the guise that it’s antivirus software.
When it’s downloaded and installed, they could eventually gain access to your device. A recent example would be the SharkBot banking trojan discovered in a Play Store app called Antivirus, Super Cleaner.
The app has since been removed, but up to 1,000 users had downloaded it to their devices before it was taken down.
15. Tax Refunds & Audits
The government isn’t especially quick to hand out tax refunds, and they’re unlikely to text you or send an email asking for more information. Make sure to phone your local tax service directly if you’re unsure, as the scammers are hoping you’ll make a mistake due to how tempting it is to think you’re due a rebate.
The same goes for surprise tax audits, so make sure everything has gone through the appropriate channels. Scammers will often try to pressure you into making an instant payment. Instead, ask for them to contact you in writing, and don’t give out any personal information.
16. Fake Items & Overpayment
Have you ever seen something up for sale online that is just too good to be true? Tickets are just one example of items that are sold under false pretenses. We’ve also mentioned holidays, but we’d be especially careful when buying anything from random websites. The same goes for established trading apps or auction sites like eBay.
On the other hand, a scammer may overpay for an item you’re selling, and ask for a refund for the difference. After you’ve sent the money over, they’ll cancel the original payment. If you’re sending an item, ensure the delivery is recorded or signed for, so they can’t say that it didn’t arrive.
17. Mining Malware
Crypto mining is an expensive business in terms of energy output, but did you know that it’s possible to mine digital currencies via malware or even through a web browser? If you’re seeing slow performance and your device is overheating, it could be a sign that you’ve downloaded mining malware accidentally.
It’s also known as cryptojacking. An example would be Coinhive, which was a service that allowed websites to use their visitor’s computers to mine crypto. (Coinhive eventually shut down in 2019 after a fork in Monero’s underlying software made it unprofitable.)
18. Ticket Scams
Whether it be sporting events or your favorite band, ticket scams are another way in which people can easily lose out to fraudsters. It’s tempting to grab a couple of tickets for a low price, but scammers are banking on the buyer being greedy. It’s a pain, but we’d stick with genuine resellers, even if they scalp tickets in large numbers.
19. Fake Advertising
Something the majority of us have come to accept, fake advertising is especially prevalent online. There’s nothing to stop people from exaggerating about the state of products or services, and that’s without getting into the contentious subject of fake news.
I’ve even seen convincing reviews for products that don’t exist, so our advice is not to believe everything you read on the internet.
An online scam that is becoming increasingly common, don’t send explicit photos or videos to anyone if you’ve never met them before. Some scammers have been known to threaten to forward the files to friends and family unless you make a cryptocurrency payment that can’t be reversed.
It should go without saying, but don’t send any money to the fraudster. Also, block the account if you’ve been scammed by this method. Most criminals will just move on to the next victim.
Using a VPN to Avoid Online Scams
A VPN is helpful in many respects if you’re hoping to avoid online scams. You’ll be able to connect to the internet with an IP address from another country, so many spam ads will change to match the region you’ve selected. They’ll be easily spotted, and safely ignored.
In addition, your data will be secure, and you won’t have to worry about being tracked. However, we’d be careful when using free VPN services, as they can be pretty scammy if you care about your personal info.
Explore our selection of the best VPNs in 2022 to get started today.
Secure your personal data & devices 24/7 with a VPN.
Lessons to Remember
Anyone can fall prey to the many online scams that plague most users. Consider Nigeria, often stereotyped as one of the “top scamming countries in the world”. In truth, they’re also affected by fraudsters, and their output is nothing compared to the likes of China, the United States, and Turkey.
If you’ve been a victim of an internet scam in the past, it’s likely that you’ll be targeted again. It’s not unheard of for fraudsters to sell your information to other cybercriminals, so don’t think you’re safe just because you have an idea of what to expect.
The truth is, a VPN will only get you so far. You should always stay vigilant online. Avoid downloading any suspicious files, and ignore all unsolicited messages, even if they’re offering something you’d like.
If it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably best to listen to your gut.