Online scams can touch anyone’s life. They don’t discriminate based on how tech-savvy you are or how often you use the internet. We’ve all heard stories—maybe from a friend, a family member, or even in the news—of someone getting tricked online, often with distressing consequences. It serves as a stark reminder of the darker side of our digital world.
This is why it’s crucial for every one of us to understand online scams—how they operate, how to identify them, and most importantly, how to avoid becoming a victim.
In this guide, I’ll demystify the most common types of online scams and equip you with practical knowledge to stay safe. Regardless of whether you’re a digital native or just someone who occasionally checks emails or shops online, this guide will offer valuable insights to help protect you and your loved ones.
Let’s begin this important journey to digital safety.
Understanding Online Scams
In the broadest sense, an online scam is a fraudulent scheme performed by a dishonest individual, group, or company in an attempt to obtain money or something else of value from unsuspecting internet users. They can happen virtually anywhere online, from your email inbox to social media platforms, online marketplaces, and even dating sites.
Here are a few common types of online scams that you might encounter:
- Phishing Scams: Perhaps the most common type of online scam, phishing occurs when a scammer attempts to trick you into giving out your personal information. They might send you an email that appears to be from a legitimate company asking you to login to your account, and when you do, they capture your username and password.
- Lottery Scams: These scams operate by telling you that you’ve won a huge amount of money in a lottery or sweepstakes that you never even entered. To receive your “winnings,” however, you’ll be asked to pay a fee or provide your banking information.
- Tech Support Scams: Scammers posing as tech support personnel from a well-known company claim to have detected issues with your computer. They’ll attempt to gain remote access to your machine, potentially stealing data or installing harmful software.
These are just a few examples (for more examples and advice, checkout this piece from Kaspersky). Scams can come in many forms, and scammers are always evolving their tactics. However, understanding these common types of scams is the first step toward protecting yourself.
How to Identify Online Scams
While online scams can take various forms and evolve over time, there are certain red flags you can look out for to help you identify potential scams:
- Unsolicited Contact: Be wary if you receive unexpected emails, messages, or calls from people or organizations you don’t know, especially if they’re asking for personal or financial information.
- Too Good To Be True: If an offer seems too good to be true—like a huge lottery win from a contest you never entered—it probably is. Scammers often lure their victims with promises of large financial gains.
- Pressure Tactics: Many scammers try to create a sense of urgency to pressure you into making quick decisions without giving you time to think or verify the information.
- Requests for Sensitive Information: Legitimate companies will rarely, if ever, ask for your personal or financial information through email or text message.
- Grammar and Spelling Mistakes: While not always the case, many scam messages contain poor grammar and spelling. This can be a telltale sign of a scam, as legitimate companies typically proofread their communications carefully.
Here’s an example: Imagine you receive an email that looks like it’s from your bank. The email states there’s been suspicious activity on your account and you need to confirm your details immediately or your account will be closed.
But there’s something off about the email—the bank’s logo looks a bit blurry, there are a couple of typos, and they’ve addressed you as ‘Valued Customer’ instead of your name. All of these signs point to a potential phishing scam.
By recognizing these signs, you can better protect yourself from falling victim to online scams.
(Learn more about how to recognize an online scammer here from McAfee.)
How to Protect Yourself from Online Scams
Knowing how to identify potential scams is only part of the solution. Here are some practical steps to protect yourself from becoming a victim:
- Secure Your Devices: Ensure that all your devices are protected with the latest security software, web browsers, and operating systems. Regular updates can help protect against the latest threats.
- Be Cautious with Links and Attachments: Do not click on links or download attachments from unknown sources. They could lead to malicious websites or install malware on your device.
- Use Strong, Unique Passwords: Use complex passwords and change them regularly. Consider using a password manager to help keep track of your passwords. (I LOVE, use, and highly recommend 1Password. Check them out!)
- Enable Two-Factor Authentication: Where possible, enable two-factor authentication for your online accounts. This adds an extra layer of security by requiring a second form of identification beyond just your password.
- Verify Before Sharing: Don’t share personal or financial information unless you’ve verified the person or organization requesting it. If you receive an unexpected request, contact the company directly using a phone number or website you know is legitimate.
- Stay Informed: Scams evolve constantly. Staying informed about the latest scam tactics can help you stay one step ahead.
Remember, online safety is a continuous process. By adopting these practices, you can browse the internet more confidently and securely.
(Want more advice on how to protect yourself? Read this piece from Microsoft.)
What to Do if You’re a Victim of an Online Scam
If you suspect you’ve become a victim of an online scam, it’s essential to take action promptly to minimize potential damage. Here’s what you should do:
- Report the Scam: Depending on the nature of the scam, you can report it to your local law enforcement agency, your bank (if money was taken from your account), or an appropriate online platform. In the US, you can also report scams to the Federal Trade Commission through their website.
- Secure Your Accounts: If the scam involved any of your online accounts, change your passwords immediately. If you used the same password on any other accounts, change those as well.
- Monitor Your Accounts: Keep an eye on your bank accounts, credit cards, and other financial accounts for any suspicious activity.
- Contact a Credit Reporting Agency: If the scam involved your personal identity or financial information, contact one of the credit reporting agencies to place a fraud alert on your name.
- Seek Support: It can be distressing to be a victim of an online scam. Reach out to your friends, family, or professional counselors to help manage any stress or anxiety.
Being a victim of an online scam can feel overwhelming, but by taking these steps, you can work to mitigate the effects and prevent future scams.
(The Federal Trade Commission has some good advice about what to do if you were scammed.)
In the digital age, online scams are an unfortunate reality that we must all be prepared to face. Yet, with understanding and vigilance, you can significantly reduce your risk of becoming a victim.
- Remember to stay skeptical of unsolicited contact, especially if it promises vast rewards or pressures you into fast action.
- Take the time to verify information before acting on it.
- Maintain strong, unique passwords and use two-factor authentication wherever possible.
- Protect your devices with updated security software, and be cautious when clicking on links or downloading attachments.
Being scammed can feel violating and disheartening. It’s important to remember that if you are scammed, it’s not your fault. The individuals perpetrating these scams are the ones to blame. If you’ve been scammed, don’t hesitate to report it and take steps to protect yourself from further harm.
By spreading awareness and sharing information about online scams, we can all contribute to making the internet a safer place. Feel free to share this post with anyone who might benefit from it. Stay safe out there!