You may think you’re pretty savvy online. But every time you open a social media app, you risk getting scammed.
A January report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) revealed that about one-quarter of fraud cases where consumer money was lost last year were initiated on social media. That’s $770 million lost to social media fraud in a single year.
The FTC went so far in its report to declare that social media was more profitable for scammers last year than any other method they used to trick people. And it’s a trend that’s rising at an alarming rate: In 2017, consumers only filed about 5,000 reports of fraud originating on social media. In 2021, they filed 95,000.
Instagram and Facebook were the most commonly reported platforms where contact with a scammer began, with WhatsApp and Telegram users also seeing a fair share of scammers.
And scam victims may not be from the demographic you’d expect. The FTC reported that fraud initiated on social media increased for all age groups, but people aged 18 to 39 were more than twice as likely as older adults to report losing money to such a scam.
You might expect older people to be more susceptible to scams. But many younger people are more comfortable sharing details about themselves online—like their location, occupation, interests and hobbies—which can leave them open to scammers.
“We need to be wary about casting certain groups as the ‘natural’ victims of scams,” Rutherford says. “The idea of the lonely, old woman struggling to use a computer to connect with the world can make others feel it would never happen to them and lower their defenses.”
Being wary of scams doesn’t mean you need to enact an iron-clad “no new friends” policy online or quit social media altogether.
Instead, learning how to spot fraudsters’ tactics can go a long way to avoid getting swindled on social media. We looked at two types of increasingly popular scams—romance scams and investment scams—that have proven to be big money makers for scammers.
What You Need To Know About Romance Scams
More than one-third of people who reported losing money to an online romance scam in 2021 said it started on Facebook or Instagram.
The median amount these victims lost to scammers? A whopping $2,000. And that’s just fraud that’s been reported— the vast majority of scams don’t get reported at all.
Anyone can fall victim to romance scams, but if you’re single and have been feeling disconnected during the pandemic, you may be more vulnerable. These scams typically start with a friend request from an attractive stranger. The scammer strikes up a conversation with you, showers you with flattery, and eventually asks you for money.
The FTC notes that the perpetrators often say they’re outside the U.S., because they’re in the military, working on an oil rig, or a medical professional. They’ll ask for money for a plane ticket, medical care, or for travel documents, but—and here’s a major red flag—ask you to buy gift cards or wire money to them.
Some of these scammers come back again and again to ask for more money. Others take your gift card number or wire transfer and vanish, knowing those payment methods are hard to trace.
How to Avoid a Romance Scam on Social Media
Be Skeptical of New Contacts or Friend Requests
Check out new contacts before accepting a friend request or responding to a message. Does this person have a fairly established profile, with personal details and information you can verify through other methods?
Keep in mind that scammers can easily impersonate just about anyone. Sarah Rutherford, senior director of portfolio marketing, global, fraud and compliance at FICO, recommends doing an image search on your new contact’s profile photo to see if it’s being used elsewhere. If you see the same photo attached to several different names, you’re probably messaging with a scammer.
Don’t Share Financial Details
The FTC says to stop contact immediately if someone you haven’t met asks you for money or gifts.
And while you probably know not to give out your credit card or Social Security number, remember that scammers can get plenty of other information to aid them in defrauding you. Financial information, Rutherford warns, can include whether you rent or own your house, how much money you have in savings, or whether you participate in expensive activities.
Be Skeptical of Excessive Compliments
Be wary of anyone who “love bombs” you—that is, starts proclaiming their love for you soon after you start chatting. Rutherford says resisting this type of attention can be difficult, but you should take a step back to consider whether your online friend’s feelings are legit.
Video: Federal Trade Commission
Investment Scams Target Crypto Curiosities
Investment fraud was even more profitable than romance cons for social media scammers last year, the FTC reported.
More than half of reports that someone lost money to an investment scam last year said the scam started on social media, according to the FTC report. The median amount of money lost to an investment scam from social media last year was $1,800.
Cryptocurrency was the most popular way scammers got victims to part with their money, with payment apps in a distant second place.
Ari Lightman, a professor of digital media and marketing at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University, says fraudsters prey on your fear of missing out when it comes to crypto investing and NFTs. These are relatively new types of investments, and there’s a lot of demand, plenty of dramatic fluctuation to keep your attention and (especially in the case of nonfungible tokens, or NFTs) not a lot of regulation.
Read more: What Is An NFT? How Do NFTs Work?
A lot of people want to get involved, and when they feel like they’re missing out on something exciting (like when they miss an NFT release), malicious users swoop in. “It’s a phenomenal sort of understanding of consumer psychology and behavioral patterns,” Lightman says.
Some crypto scams use social media posts that look like they’re from a legitimate business. Crypto platform Coinbase shares one example on its website: A screenshot of a Twitter post advertising a bitcoin giveaway purportedly from Coinbase’s account. Coinbase points out the post is a scam that tricks people into sending their own cryptocurrency to “verify” their identity to claim a prize.
Lightman has also experienced crypto scams on Discord servers, where he follows NFT projects. Scammers send direct messages to users to offer them NFTs at a far lower price than what they’re selling for.
While legitimate NFT sellers warn users never to click on unsolicited direct messages, Lightman says scammers often strike when a frustrated would-be investor fears they’ve missed a major opportunity for returns. As soon as they connect their crypto wallet, the scammer steals their currency.
How to Avoid an Investment Scammer
Use Common Sense
Common sense is your best defense against investment scammers trawling social media for prey. Anyone with a great investment opportunity to share is unlikely to send out messages to strangers, and NFT creators usually don’t discount their limited-edition creations.
An investment of any kind always involves risk, and the odds of making money on your investment right away are usually pretty slim. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably a bad actor. “Promises of guaranteed huge returns or claims that your cryptocurrency will be multiplied are always scams,” an FTC blog post warned.
Don’t Fall for Flattery
A scammer “may use flattery, appeal to you for help, or create a sense of urgency to initiate a financial transaction,” warns Rebecca Taylor, incident command knowledge lead at cybersecurity firm Secureworks. If anything feels “off” about a potential transaction, she advises taking time to reassess the situation before committing to sending money to anyone.
Double Check the Details
“If you’re not sure someone is legitimate, find another way to reach them to confirm,” says Lewis Huynh, chief security officer of unified IT operations software company NinjaOne. If you get a message from a friend asking for money out of the blue, call them directly or send them a text message using a different app to confirm it’s really them.
The same goes for any company that says you’ve won a prize or giveaway, Huynh says. Search online for a phone number to call that business or retailer directly. If you really did win a prize, they’ll be able to confirm the details with you; if it’s a scam, you’ll have saved valuable time and money.
A reputable cryptocurrency platform will likely offer ways to confirm its legitimacy. Coinbase, for example, specifies on its help page where and how it offers giveaways.
What to Do If You Spot a Scam
If you suspect the new person sliding into your DMs is a scammer, file a report with the FTC. Information about the scammer and their techniques can help the agency investigate fraud methods and distribute information about new varieties of scams.
If you’ve sent money to someone who turns out to be a scammer, file a report with the FTC, but keep in mind the agency doesn’t investigate individual cases. While you may not have very good odds of getting your money back, you should file a police report and contact the bank, credit card company or gift card vendor you used to send money.
Most social media platforms have options for reporting suspected scammers. They may also offer tips for keeping your account safe—for instance, Instagram allows you to see official emails from the platform from the past two weeks so you can verify a message you received that claimed to be from Instagram.
Not everyone is a scammer, but remember that bad actors are slick and any social media user can be fooled. When in doubt, ask someone you trust for a second opinion on suspicious incoming messages. They can help you spot red flags that are easy to miss in the moment.
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