NEWS: The FBI on March 22 released its 2021 Internet Crime report, which found that Americans lost more than $6.9 billion ($15 million in New Hampshire) to fraudsters using technology to steal money from people. And those are just the people who reported the crime to the FBI.
WHAT THIS MEANS TO YOU: Most people think they’re too savvy to get taken in by fraud, but scammers’ methods are constantly getting more sophisticated, and if you’ve ever clicked on a link, you are vulnerable.
You may think you’re too smart or savvy to get taken in by a scam. The truth is, though, the majority of people are susceptible to scams and fraud, particularly as we live more of our lives online.
Scammers don’t always advertise themselves with a Nigerian address or outrageous claims that you have millions coming to you. As people have become more dependent on technology to communicate, scammers and fraudsters have gotten way more sophisticated.
The FBI Cyber Crime Center (IC3) tracks more than 30 different types of scams that originate through a computer, device or phone. We’re going to take a look at three that everyday people like us are particularly vulnerable to.
Confidence Fraud/Romance Scams
The FBI got reports from 24,966 victims of romance scams in 2021, with losses of $956 million. The actual amount of victims and money list is likely many times higher. IC3 statistics are based on reports directly from victims to the FBI. The FBI says that it’s likely “most losses” of this crime are never reported.
You know why that is – you’re likely chuckling about how gullible people who get taken in by these scams are. Victims, the huge majority of them women, know they’ll be judged. They’re hesitant to put themselves out there. Fraudsters know this, too, which makes it easier for them.
The truth is, anyone can be taken in by a confidence fraud or romance scam, because fraudsters know how to gain a victim’s confidence and manipulate people into becoming victims.
The FBI reports that 63 percent of the victims who reported being scammed were over 40, with half of those being over 60. But that doesn’t mean younger people aren’t victims as well.
In the typical romance scam, the criminal adopts a fake online identity to gain a victim’s confidence, then steals from them.
“The criminals who carry out romance scams are experts at what they do and will seem genuine, caring, and believable. The scammer’s intention is to quickly establish a relationship, endear himself/herself to the victim, gain trust, and eventually ask for money,” the FBI says. [To hear a victim’s story, as well as an FBI agent talk about romance scams, click here].
The scammers may make plans to meet in person, but something always comes up and it doesn’t happen. They often “work overseas” – in the military, construction, the CIA or some other legitimate-sounding enterprise that keeps them on the move and away from home. At some point they’ll have an emergency that requires money from the victim – a medical situation, an issue that’s caused their bank accounts or credit cards to be frozen. They have money, they just can’t get to it. They rely on the relationship they’ve built with the victim to take her money. Victims sometimes keep sending money, too, convinced that things will turn around.
While victims of romance and confidence scams are often criticized as greedy and “getting what they deserve” because the scammer portrayed himself as wealthy, that’s a misconception. These scams rely on victims being honest, compassionate people who want to help someone they trust.
Another version of this is the “grandparent scam,” where the scammer emails or calls the victim, usually someone middle-aged or older, and convinces them they’re a loved one in trouble who needs money wired to them ASAP.
There are two emerging types of romance scams and confidence fraud the FBI is tracking:
- Sextortion – when someone threatens to distribute sensitive photos or other material unless you give them money (or perform sexual acts). In 2021, the IC3 received more than 18,000 sextortion-related complaints, with losses of more than $13.6 million.
- Investment pressure. In 2021, the IC3 received more than 4,325 complaints, with losses of more than $429 million, from confidence fraud/romance scam victims who reported the use of investment, often involving cryptocurrencies, to defraud them. Sometimes the scammer fattens up a victim’s account before going in for the kill, a practice known as “pig butchering.”
Where romance/confidence scams originate: Email, dating apps, online gaming sites and texts are all fertile ground for first contact. The FBI says that there are con artists on most dating and social media apps.
Red flags: If you see any of this when you’re talking to someone online, it can be a red flag for a romance or confidence scam:
- They “love bomb” you – they come on very strong very early, shower you with compliments and gifts, rush things, are in constant contact.
- There are lots of coincidences, like you share a favorite movie or restaurant or dog breed, they went to your college or go to your church, though you never saw them there, or other things in common that they convince you means you are “soul mates.” You could be. But double-check. They could’ve found all that out from your social media.
- Avoids meeting in person – They always have a reason you can’t meet in person. If they also won’t meet by video, be doubly concerned.
- Request money — They need money for an emergency or investment, and won’t take no for an answer.
- They want you to send them nude or compromising photos.
How to protect yourself. Scam victims, particularly women, are made to feel that if they ask questions or stand up for themselves, there’s something wrong with them. This is gaslighting and a major tool in the romance scammer’s toolbox. Women are also conditioned to think that controlling and other red flag behavior is “romantic.” Don’t be fooled. (Many of these tips can also protect you from a toxic or abusive relationship).
- Do a Google image search of photos your potential love interest sends you if you haven’t met in person to make sure they are not just borrowed from the internet.
- Google him as well, and don’t let anyone convince you that this shows a lack of trust on your part (remember, that’s gaslighting).
- Overly complimentary or effusive emails or texts designed to flatter you can be pasted into a search engine to see if they are red flags, including popping up on websites that expose romance scams.
- Ask questions about your potential partner’s life, listen to the answers and question inconsistencies. A true potential partner will be happy to discuss this with you.
- Don’t let him move the relationship along faster than what you are comfortable with.
- Be sure family and friends know you’ve met someone and listen rationally to any concerns. Run things by them if you get uncomfortable with your new friend.
- Do not send money to someone you’ve met online or through a dating app.
- If you are uncomfortable don’t keep in contact just to be polite or because you don’t want to hurt their feelings. Cut off contact.
- Report anyone who scams, assaults or harasses you to the dating site you met on as well as to law enforcement (even if law enforcement tries to dismiss it).
Phishing, vishing, smishing and pharming are all variations on the same theme – ways for scammers to get access to private information, including email accounts, bank accounts, credit card information and more.
Phishing is an email from what may look like a credible source that asks for information. Vishing is when it’s done by phone or voice over internet protocol (VoiP) systems. Smishing is when it’s by text (officially, SMS systems). Pharming is through a website.
These scams can either lead to another scam, like getting you to make a fraudulent investment or purchase, or they use the information they get to steal from your accounts or steal your identity.
Where phishing/vishing/smishing/pharming originate: Email, text messages, messaging apps, cellphones, VoiP systems, websites.
Red flags: While these scams arrive in different ways, they have things in common:
- Urgency, rushing, short time limit to act or threatening language.
- Unfamiliar or unusual senders or recipients, names or web addresses spelled oddly, government or business messages from a gmail or other general mail address.
- Spelling or grammar errors.
- It asks for money or personal information.
- You’re asked to click a download, link or attachment.
- It says it’s from the IRS or a law enforcement agency and is telling you to pay for something with a credit card.
- It asks you to buy gift cards.
How to protect yourself: These scams are everywhere and most people are bombarded with them through text and email.
- Never click on a link from an unfamiliar source. Hover your cursor over email links to see the actual URL.
- If a phone number isn’t from someone you know, let it go to voicemail. Scammers use “spoof” numbers that can look like they’re from anywhere.
- Never send money to someone you don’t know; set up Venmo accounts with any family members or friends you exchange money with.
- Ignore emails and texts that say your “unsubscribe” click didn’t work, click here because your order wasn’t completed, or anything else that wants you to click on something. If it’s from a familiar source, check it independently, not through the suspicious message.
- Never buy gift cards at the request of an email, text or phone message. Never send photos of the gift card numbers or read the numbers over the phone. Ever.
- Don’t respond if an email tells you your settlement money, refund, gift or anything else is waiting for you.
- If a call, email or text purports to be from a government agency, like the IRS or sheriff’s department, look up their number and call them. The IRS does not call or text people about their tax returns, stimulus checks or anything else.
Nonpayment for goods that a victim sent to someone, and non-delivery of goods that a victim paid for was the top scam 2021 reported to the FBI by New Hampshire residents. There were 325 reports, with victims losing $551,255. These are only what was reported to the FBI, so the numbers are likely much higher. A lot of this is from people buying online, or selling online as a business or side gig.
Scams like this often come from what looks like a well-known reputable company. The Better Business Bureau in 2021 received reports of scams from fake businesses that posed as Hulu, Netflix, Verizon and others.
Here’s what some of the messages reported to BBB looked like:
“COVID-19 REFUND. VERIZON COMPANY is giving out $950 to all users of our Verizon service, If yes kindly text your Verizon…”
“Due to the pandemic, Hulu is giving everyone a free 1-year subscription to help you stay at home. Get yours here …[link].”
Click on those links and the scammers get your money, or information, but you don’t get the service being offered.
Where nonpayment/non-delivery scams originate: Websites and social media, including sites that look like legitimate businesses, social media marketplaces, sites where people sell their own goods, like eBay, Etsy, Craig’s List and others.
Red flags: You can’t always know in advance if you’re going to be ripped off, but here are some things to look out for:
- Websites, texts and emails that don’t seem right, particularly unsolicited offers – trust your instincts.
- Businesses that won’t answer questions about returns or warranties.
- Businesses that don’t have secure payment options.
- Offers with misspellings, grammar errors, or that are too good to be true.
How to protect yourself:
- If what seems like a reputable business sends a text or email about a deal, don’t click on anything. Go to the actual business’ website (independently, not by clicking on the message) and check it out. Call customer service if you’re still not sure.
- Make sure you are buying something from a real company or person – look for reviews, Google for complaints, check the Better Business Bureau scam tracker.
- Ask about returns and warranties; don’t do business with someone who doesn’t have a policy.
- Use a credit card rather than debit card when buying online so you can dispute the charges, or use a secure payment service.
- If you are selling to an individual get a physical address rather than a P.O. box, ask for a phone number and call the person to make sure it’s a real and working number. If it’s on eBay check their rating.
- If you are selling to an individual, get payment upfront and make sure it clears before sending the item. Don’t let them talk you out of it – this is standard for every business big and small that sells online.
Be your own best protection
The common theme running through all of these scams is that there’s a lot of leaping before looking. Take your time and check things out, whether it’s sending your life savings to your new soulmate whose bank accounts have suddenly been frozen and he’s stuck overseas, or it’s clicking on that great deal from Hulu. Don’t let anyone rush you into a decision that will cost you money, or make you feel like you don’t have a right to question them. Follow your instincts. If it feels wrong, walk away. Don’t worry that you’re being rude or hurting someone’s feelings.
Be smart about what you put online. Potential scammers, particularly for romance scams and confidence fraud, are experts at getting personal details they can use to manipulate victims.
If you do get scammed – and plenty of good, smart people do every day – get over your embarrassment and step up. Report it to local law enforcement, even if you’re afraid they’re going to laugh at you. Insist on making a report even if they do laugh at you. Scammers rely on the fact people are too embarrassed and ashamed to report them. Reports create a public picture of what’s going on and can also help keep others from being victims. Law enforcement statistics are how the FBI and other agencies track scams and other crime. Ask for a copy of the police report to make sure it was done and to have for your records.
Report the scam to all of these agencies:
- Any scam involving a computer, phone, device, wire transfer, credit card or app, even if you don’t think it was technically an internet crime should be reported to the FBI’s IC3 webpage.
- In New Hampshire, report scams to the New Hampshire Department of Justice Criminal Complaint page.
- The Federal Trade Commission also wants to hear about scams at FTC scam page, where you can also find a lot of great resources.
- The Better Business Bureau wants you to report to BBB scam tracker, where you can also check out information on all kinds of scams.
Maureen Milliken is a contract reporter and content producer for consumer financial agencies. She has worked for northern New England publications, including the New Hampshire Union Leader, for 25 years, and most recently at Mainebiz in Portland, Maine. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.
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