How to tell if you're helping or being scammed online

Emma McGowan 11 Jan 2022

Scammers love to take advantage of our altruistic tendencies — here's how to stay safe

The human impulse to help another human in need is one of our best instincts. But it’s also one that attracts the worst of humanity. Unfortunately, scammers love to take advantage of our altruistic tendencies — and I recently received two messages online that highlighted just that.

The first message popped up in my Instagram DMs: “I need your help.” Curious, I opened the app to find that a sustainable fashion brand I follow — not someone I know personally and not someone I’d ever spoken with before — had reached out.

Now, I had a feeling I knew where this was going — and I expect you do, too. But I decided to play along in order to see where they’d take it. And almost as soon as I responded “Hi, stranger on the internet!”, the account replied with this:

“I was trying to login in to my new Instagram page on my new phone and they ask me to find someone to receive a help link for me, will you”

Still playing along, I asked, “Okay, so why would you need a stranger to do this for you?” 

They responded with “Please,” followed by the crying emoji and the praying hands emoji and this image: 

...Which is not even a very good attempt at scamming? So I stopped playing along, reported the account, and posted to my own Stories about it.

Just a day later, someone I actually do know in real life messaged me on Facebook Messenger. This is a person I knew as a child, but who I haven’t seen in 20 years. They asked, “Hey I really hate asking but can I barrow a few bucks until Wednesday?” To which I replied, “Hey friend! You get hacked?”

We kept talking and I could tell that, in this case, it really was my childhood friend. They were having a hard time financially and, I can only assume, were reaching out to whomever they thought might be able to spare some cash. 

I chose not to lend them money, but wanted to share this story in order to illustrate how scammers use social engineering to trick well-meaning people out of money and/or personal information. Let’s take a look at these two messages to highlight the obvious (and less obvious) red flags of scammin’.

Obvious scamming

The Instagram message I received is a good example of what I’d call “obvious scamming.” As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about this stuff, I knew it was a scam pretty much immediately. But I’m not trying to gas myself up here. I honestly think most people would be able to spot this as a scam. 

Here are the signs that anyone receiving a similar message should be aware of:

  1. It’s a person I’ve never actually spoken with.
  2. They opened with a request: “I need your help.”
  3. There was an attempt at time pressure: “Please [crying emoji]”
  4. The “screenshot from Instagram” that they sent me is rife with weird grammar and spacing. 
  5. There’s no real situation where a person would need a total stranger to receive a link for them. 
  6. I took a look at their profile and they — a sustainable fashion company — were suddenly constantly posting about cryptocurrency. 

So what were these (bad) scammers trying to achieve? I didn’t continue with the ploy, so I can’t say for sure. But I can make an educated guess, based on the fact that they wanted me to receive and click on a link for them.

Clicking on a malicious link can result in a couple of different outcomes: it could download a virus to your device; it could direct to you a site that asks you to enter personal or financial information; or it could be a link asking you to send money directly. In the case of my would-be scammer, I’d guess they wanted me to download malware, either to take my device by ransom or to gain access to my Instagram account. 

Are they scamming?

The second message I received was a little bit trickier. Here are the red flags that it might have been a scam.

  1. It’s a person I haven’t seen in 20 years, although they did randomly message me over Thanksgiving.
  2. They asked me (inappropriately, in my opinion) for money.
  3. There was an attempt at time pressure: They told me they only had five dollars for the next four days. 
  4. Their grammar and spelling weren’t great. 

After just a couple questions, I was able to establish pretty quickly that they were who they said they were. One of the biggest signs was that they didn’t keep pushing when I said I don’t loan people money. A scammer is going to keep pushing and keep trying to find a way to convince you to do what they want. A real person might do that, too — but not pushing is a pretty good sign that you’re dealing with the person you think you’re dealing with.

This was also a pretty low-stakes situation. The relationship I have with this person is tenuous, at best: We’ve exchanged maybe 10 messages in the past 20 years, all of them in the past month or so. But a good scammer will use a much closer relationship to try to get money from their victims. 

For example, “grandchild scams” are increasingly common. These scams target older people, with scammers posing as a grandchild who has gotten themselves into an urgent and dangerous situation. Sometimes they say they’re stuck overseas after being robbed or maybe they claim to have been arrested. The “grandchild” begs the grandparent not to tell their parents, saying they’ll get in trouble or they’re embarrassed. Instead, they request that money be sent immediately. 

In those situations, it’s always important not to get swept up in the feeling of emergency. Grandparents need to call their kids to find out where their grandkids are, even if the “grandkid” they’re talking to tells them not to. And never, ever send money — or gift cards or anything else that can be used like money — to someone who has reached out online. 

Further reading:
How to protect your older loved ones from getting scammed online

While I chose not to lend this childhood friend money, other people might want to help out someone they know in a similar situation. If that’s the case, then make sure to send money in a way that is trackable and only to the person who is asking for it. Be wary of any “alternative” payment systems that your “friend” tries to direct you to.

For example, don’t send to a Venmo link that the person reaching out sends you. Instead, find an alternative way to contact that person — maybe it’s email, phone number, or through a mutual friend — to confirm that they are who they say they are. You can also send a wire transfer with the stipulation that only the person named can receive it.

Helping our fellow humans is always good — but sometimes, really not good people ask for “help.” I would never want to discourage you from being altruistic, but it’s wise to use a critical eye whenever someone reaches out online. By taking your time and carrying out due diligence, you should be able to safely help out your loved ones.

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