The majority of Americans have been targeted by online scammers

Emma McGowan 18 Aug 2022

To help ensure that you don’t become the victim of an online scammer, here are six common types of internet scams and how to avoid them.

When you hear the word “con man,” you probably picture someone like Leonardo DiCaprio playing famed scammer Frank Abganale Jr. in the movie Catch Me If You Can. He’s smart. He’s debonair. He’s charming. He might be a sociopath, but for some reason you forgive him for it. 

And his targets are big, like the government or major corporations or banks. You know: symbols of “the man;” organizations that not only can afford the loss, but might actually deserve it.

But as romantic as the image of DiCaprio in those aviator glasses is, the con man of the 21st century looks very different. Instead of being armed with a closetful of disguises and a charming smile, today’s scammers rely on an internet connection and social engineering to make their living.  

And their target? You. And your mom, your sister, your friends, your boss — anyone they can reach and convince to turn over some of their hard-earned cash. 

These modern day “con men” (although, of course, they can be people of any gender — scamming is not a gender-specific career) are also much, much more prolific than Mr. Abagnale could have ever dreamed. In fact, a recent Avast survey found that 75% of Americans have been targeted by scammers at least once.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that 75% of Americans have actually been scammed, just that they’ve been targeted. But that high of a number is a good indication of how prevalent the modern day con really is. It’s a numbers game: There are hundreds of thousands of “Abagnales” out there today and they’re each targeting as many potential victims as possible. 

To help ensure that you (and your mom, sister, friends, and boss) don’t become the victim of an online scammer, here are six common types of internet scams and how to avoid them.

1. Donation scams

Donation scams are a particularly gross type of scam as they prey on people’s natural, human instinct to help others. Avast researchers recently identified a donation scam that includes a video of a little girl talking about how she’s dying from cancer and imploring the viewer to donate to her family. It’s exploitative not only of the viewer, but also of this little girl who may or may not be sick and could not consent to this either way.

Other donations scams include crowdfunding campaigns that don’t actually go to the stated recipients and scam phone calls claiming to be from a legitimate charity.

2. Tech support scams

If you’ve ever received a phone call, email, or DM about a problem with your computer, then you’ve been targeted for a tech support scam. In these scams, a fake IT guy — oftentimes posing as a representative from a legitimate company, like Avast — reaches out and convinces the victim that something terrible will happen to their device if they don’t give the scammer access to their device right now. They especially target older people, who they assume will have less technical knowledge and more assets than younger people. 

But here’s the thing: No legitimate tech support personal will reach out to you if you haven’t reached out first. So if you or someone you love gets this kind of call or message out of the blue, hang up. We promise your computer will be fine.

3. Cryptocurrency scams 

The combination of cryptocurrency dominating the news, the fact that very few people actually get it yet, and that crypto is designed to be untraceable means that it’s an area that’s ripe for scammers. 

And we’re seeing crypto scams everywhere: Instagram, Twitter, people pretending to be victims of war in Ukraine — even crypto romance scams. Scammers pose as crypto tutors, IT support, or even as romantic interests. Cryptocurrency, it would seem, is the new “gift card” of payment methods for scammers. 

Your best bet for not falling for a crypto scam is to not take any advice from anyone you only know online about cryptocurrency. Sure, there are legitimate coaches out there, but they’re buried under a massive pile of fakers who will absolutely steal your money. Don’t let anyone else manage your wallet; don’t invest in sites that anyone sends you; and stick to the legitimate trading markets.

You wouldn’t just hop into the regular stock market and start sending your money to random people, right? Then don’t do it with cryptocurrency, either.

4. Romance scams 

One of the most common and oldest scams out there, romance scams target people who are looking for love and connection. The scammer reaches out to the victim — through dating sites, social media, even text messages — and establishes a relationship with them. Then, once the victim thinks that they’re in love, the scammer creates a situation that requires the victim to send money or goods. Think of the situations that come up on the long-running show, Catfish, or the recent Netflix documentary, The Tinder Swindler. 

Romance scams are tricky, because doesn’t everyone want to be in love? But your best bet for avoiding becoming a victim of this type of scam is to never, ever give money to someone you only know online. It’s tempting, because of course you want to help someone you care about! But exchange of money should be a hard line for everyone.

5. Rental scams

Online rental scams have been around for ages — I almost fell for one way back in 2011. They take advantage of people who are truly desperate for an affordable place to live by offering fake apartments for way under market price. Then they insist that the victim send over a deposit without ever seeing the apartment. The victim, not wanting to miss out on an incredible deal, sends over the money — and the scammer disappears. 

The best way to avoid falling for a rental scam is to use the smell test: If it smells fishy, it’s probably fishy. Clues like weird grammar, refusing to talk on the phone, and a great price that’s set just high enough to possibly be believable are other signs.

6. Sextortion scams

Sextortion emails threaten to release compromising intimate photos of the potential victim unless they pay a requested ransom. The scammers know that a lot of people have nude photos these days and they’re hoping that their targets will be embarrassed enough to pay up rather than talk to anyone about it. 

Another egregious example of a sextortion scam is the story of Hunter Moore that was featured in the recent Netflix documentary, The Most Hated Man On The Internet. Moore not only solicited intimate images from vengeful exes, but he also hacked into victims’ devices, stole their photos, posted them online, and then demanded a ransom to take them back down again. 

These two examples are very different forms of sextortion. For the emails, just ignore them —the scammer doesn’t have your photos and you’re at no risk. For revenge porn, there are now laws in most states protecting your rights if you’ve been targeted by someone like Moore or by a vengeful ex. 

Despite the romantic vision we collectively have of con men, scammers suck. And if current trends continue as they have, it’s very likely you have been targeted or will be targeted soon. So stay aware, spread the word to your family and friends, and remember: It’s much better to risk being rude than it is to risk getting victimized.

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