Self-Protection: Identifying Common Scams and Fraud

Scams and other fraudulent criminal behavior aren’t new. People have engaged in this type of behavior for centuries, with the first known case of fraud dating as far back as 300 B.C.E. In modern society, people are finding it easier than ever to commit these types of crimes courtesy of the very technologies that make life more convenient. To avoid becoming a victim, it helps to recognize and avoid the many methods that savvy criminals use to steal from, impersonate, or otherwise take advantage of their victims.

Phishing Emails

Phishing scams target people through emails that look like they’re sent from trusted sources. Often, scammers will choose sources that are financially important, like one’s bank or credit card company, to help create a sense of urgency. The purpose of these emails is to “fish” for information using emails as bait. When the recipient clicks on a link in the email, they are typically asked to verify their identity by supplying personal information such as their Social Security number, bank account information, or password. With this new information, the scammer can enter an existing account or open new accounts elsewhere. Scammers may also phish for information using text messages, social media, or other common forms of communication.

Caller ID Spoofing

Phone calls are a common method that scam artists and telemarketers use to interact with unsuspecting potential victims, often from long distances. It’s so common that people have become more cautious about which calls they pick up and many decline calls from unfamiliar numbers. With caller ID spoofing, scammers transmit a false number that’s more likely to be familiar to the receivers of the call. A familiar number is more likely to be answered, giving the caller the opportunity to attempt their scam.

Jobs and Employment

Unemployment scammers operate in several ways. Some use already stolen personal information to apply for unemployment in their unsuspecting victim’s name. Others may create fake unemployment websites to trick people into thinking they are applying for benefits. They may contact individuals by email, phone, or text pretending to be from a state unemployment agency and provide a link to the fake website to apply. Scammers use the information from these applications or that they receive over the phone to apply for and collect the benefits. Scammers may also contact individuals about unemployment benefits that they have not applied for and request sensitive information.

There are also people who post fake job opportunities and collect information via résumés or applications from people who believe they are applying for an actual job. Job scammers may also ask their victims to pay fees for training or materials, or they may hire people to perform illegal tasks.

Dating and Romance

Dating and romance scammers take advantage of dating apps and target people who are looking for love and companionship. They create fake profiles and personas and set out to meet someone who they believe will be vulnerable to their lies. They quickly want to contact their victim outside of the platform, but not in person. The scammers claim to be in love, but they say that they live far away, are in the military stationed overseas, or are stuck in a situation that prevents them from meeting in person. Ultimately, they ask for money. Sometimes, they involve their victims in a crime by asking them to set up a bank account for them: Stolen money is transferred into the account, and the unsuspecting victim is asked to wire the money out of the country to help the person they’re in love with.

Moving Companies

People trust moving companies to transfer their belongings safely to their new home. Unfortunately, some companies take advantage of that trust to commit crimes. Some companies threaten to withhold one’s belongings unless the consumer pays a price higher than what they were initially quoted. Other scams involve altering the bill of lading, which details the contents that are being moved, or exaggerating the amount of supplies provided for the move in order to charge more.


Cryptocurrency scams range from phishing to getting people to invest in new cryptocurrency projects that they don’t intend to pursue. Some may also attempt to persuade an individual to invest by promising them low risk and a lot of money. Fake businesses may demand payment in cryptocurrency. Some scammers impersonate well-known businesses and contact consumers with claims of fraudulent activity on their account that requires cryptocurrency to repair. Some scammers will even impersonate government agencies or law enforcement. These scammers will claim that money is owed or that an account has been frozen because of an investigation and say that a cryptocurrency payment is necessary to help resolve the issue. Another scam of this type includes fake crypto wallets; this is a type of malware scam that infects computers.

Lotteries and Sweepstakes

The idea of being a lottery or sweepstakes winner is appealing to many people. Unfortunately, that appeal is attractive to criminals who see an opportunity to scam innocent people. When a person attempts a sweepstakes scam, they contact individuals through email, by phone, or using pop-up advertisements online. They claim that their target has won a prize, such as a new car or cash. But they insist that the winner must pay a fee or tax for their prize, which could cost them hundreds of dollars. To encourage their victims to send the money quickly, they often warn that the prize will be forfeited if payment isn’t received immediately. For lottery scams, the scammer requests information such as bank account details and a credit card number, supposedly to deposit the lottery winnings and to pay a processing fee.

Online Shopping

Online shopping allows people to find and purchase almost anything that they need without ever leaving the comfort of their homes. While this is a positive thing for consumers, it can also be risky. Skilled criminals often pose as legitimate retailers by putting up fake websites and ads, some of which mimic established online retailers. They may offer items that appear to be from popular brands at low prices. Consumers who shop at these fake sites are asked to provide their credit card numbers for payment but may also be asked to pay in ways that are not typical of online stores, like with a pre-loaded money card, a money order, or even a wire transfer. When a consumer pays for their order, they may never receive it, or the items that they get might be knockoffs or different items entirely.

Fake Charities

Natural disasters, disease outbreaks, wars, and other major catastrophes often inspire people to help others who are in need. Even outside of disasters, many charitable organizations need donations to better help certain groups in need, such as veterans or the homeless. Criminals often falsely claim to be part of a well-known or new charity and contact people for donations. They may claim to be part of a fundraiser for children, people with certain diseases, or families. Scammers may ask for cash, wire transfers, cryptocurrency, or gift card donations and will often pressure people to donate immediately.

Threats and Penalties

Threats and penalty scams target both individuals and businesses and attempt to extort money or information from them. They contact their victims online or by phone call or text and may threaten actions such as physical harm, jail time or other legal actions, or financial penalties if they do not get what they are demanding. Other threats include exposing personal information online, deportation, or the suspension of business licenses.

Tips to Protect Yourself

  • Avoid responding to emails that require personal information for identification. Most legitimate companies will not ask for this information via email, over the phone, or via social media.
  • When applying for unemployment benefits, go directly to the state’s unemployment agency website. Never click an unsolicited link, as it may open a fake website.
  • Reverse-search a person’s dating profile images. Some people use stock images to create fake profiles, and an image search may also reveal that they go by a different name or that they’ve committed other crimes.
  • Never pay to win a prize.
  • Only shop from reputable sites.

What to Do if You Were Scammed

People who feel they’ve been scammed should act immediately to reduce any damage. If money is involved, one should immediately stop making any payments. Report payments that were made using credit or debit cards, by wire transfer, or with gift cards to the bank or the appropriate credit card company. Request a credit freeze from all three credit reporting agencies. It’s important to write down everything that one can remember, such as the contact person’s name, any phone number that’s given, and all conversations since the initial contact. Contact the appropriate local authorities and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as quickly as possible. If the scam happened via social media, contact the website to report the scammer, too.

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