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How to Recognize an Online Scammer

The great thing about the internet is that there’s room for everyone. The not-so-great part? There’s plenty of room for cybercriminals who are hungry to get their hands on our personal information.  

Fortunately, internet scams don’t have to be a part of your online experience. In this article, we’ll tell you about some of the most common internet schemes and how you can recognize them to keep your identity safe. 

5 tips to help you recognize an online scam

Scams are scary, but you can prevent yourself from falling for one by knowing what to look for. Here are a few tell-tale signs that you’re dealing with a scammer.  

They say you’ve won a huge prize

If you get a message that you’ve won a big sum of cash in a sweepstakes you don’t remember entering, it’s a scam. Scammers may tell you that all you need to do to claim your prize is send them a small fee or give them your banking information.  

When you enter a real sweepstakes or lottery, it’s generally up to you to contact the organizer to claim your prize. Sweepstakes aren’t likely to chase you down to give you money.  

They want you to pay in a certain way

Scammers will often ask you to pay them using gift cards, money orders, cryptocurrency (like Bitcoin), or through a particular money transfer service. Scammers need payments in forms that don’t give consumers protection.  

Gift card payments, for example, are typically not reversible and hard to trace. Legitimate organizations will rarely, if ever, ask you to pay using a specific method, especially gift cards 

When you have to make online payments, it’s a good idea to use a secure service like PayPal. Secure payment systems can have features to keep you safe, like end-to-end encryption.  

They say it’s an emergency

Scammers may try to make you panic by saying you owe money to a government agency and you need to pay them immediately to avoid being arrested. Or the criminal might try to tug at your heartstrings by pretending to be a family member in danger who needs money.  

Criminals want you to pay them or give them your information quickly — before you have a chance to think about it. If someone tries to tell you to pay them immediately in a text message, phone call, or email, they’re likely a scammer 

They say they’re from a government organization or company

Many scammers pretend to be part of government organizations like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). They’ll claim you owe them money. Criminals can even use technology to make their phone numbers appear legitimate on your caller ID.  

If someone claiming to be part of a government organization contacts you, go to that organization’s official site and find an official support number or email. Contact them to verify the information in the initial message.  

Scammers may also pretend to be businesses, like your utility company. They’ll likely say something to scare you, like your gas will be turned off if you don’t pay them right away. 

The email is littered with grammatical errors

Most legitimate organizations will thoroughly proofread any copy or information they send to consumers. Professional emails are well-written, clear, and error-free. On the other hand, scam emails will likely be full of grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors.  

It might surprise you to know that scammers write sloppy emails on purpose. The idea is that if the reader is attentive enough to spot the grammatical mistakes, they likely won’t fall for the scam 

8 most common online scams to watch out for

There are certain scams that criminals try repeatedly because they’ve worked on so many people. Here are a few of the most common scams you should watch out for.  

Phishing scams

A phishing scam can be a phone or email scam. The criminal sends a message in which they pretend to represent an organization you know. It directs you to a fraud website that collects your sensitive information, like your passwords, Social Security number (SSN), and bank account data. Once the scammer has your personal information, they can use it for personal gain.  

Phishing emails may try anything to get you to click on their fake link. They might claim to be your bank and ask you to log into your account to verify some suspicious activity. Or they could pretend to be a sweepstakes and say you need to fill out a form to claim a large reward.  

During the coronavirus pandemic, new phishing scams have emerged, with scammers claiming to be part of various charities and nonprofits. Sites like Charity Navigator can help you discern real groups from fake ones.  

Travel insurance scams

These scams also became much more prominent during the pandemic. Let’s say you’re preparing to fly to Paris with your family. A scammer sends you a message offering you an insurance policy on any travel plans you might be making. They’ll claim the policy will compensate you if your travel plans fall through for any reason without any extra charges.  

You think it might be a good idea to purchase this type of insurance. Right before leaving for your trip, you have to cancel your plans. You go to collect your insurance money only to realize the insurance company doesn’t exist.  

Real travel insurance from a licensed business generally won’t cover foreseeable events (like travel advisories, government turmoil, or pandemics) unless you buy a Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) addendum for your policy.  

Grandparent scams

Grandparent scams prey on your instinct to protect your family. The scammer will call or send an email pretending to be a family member in some sort of emergency who needs you to wire them money. The scammer may beg you to act right away and avoid sharing their situation with any other family members. 

For example, the scammer might call and say they’re your grandchild who’s been arrested in Mexico and needs money to pay bail. They’ll say they’re in danger and need you to send funds now to save them.  

If you get a call or an email from an alleged family member requesting money, take the time to make sure they’re actually who they say they are. Never wire transfer money right away or over the phone. Ask them a question that only the family member would know and verify their story with the rest of your family.  

Advance fee scam

You get an email from a prince. They’ve recently inherited a huge fortune from a member of their royal family. Now, the prince needs to keep their money in an American bank account to keep it safe. If you let them store their money in your bank account, you’ll be handsomely rewarded. You just need to send them a small fee to get the money.  

There are several versions of this scam, but the prince iteration is a pretty common one. If you get these types of emails, don’t respond or give out your financial information.  

Tech support scams

Your online experience is rudely interrupted when a pop-up appears telling you there’s a huge virus on your computer. You need to “act fast” and contact the support phone number on the screen. If you don’t, all of your important data will be erased.  

When you call the number, a fake tech support worker asks you for remote access to your device to “fix” the problem. If you give the scammer access to your device, they may steal your personal and financial information or install malware. Worse yet, they’ll probably charge you for it.  

These scams can be pretty elaborate. A scam pop-up may even appear to be from a reputable software company. If you see this type of pop-up, don’t respond to it. Instead, try restarting or turning off your device. If the device doesn’t start back up, search for the support number for the device manufacturer and contact them directly.  

Formjacking and retail scams

Scammers will often pose as popular e-commerce companies by creating fake websites. The fake webpages might offer huge deals on social media. They’ll also likely have a URL close to the real business’s URL but slightly different. 

Sometimes, a criminal is skilled enough to hack the website of a large online retailer. When a scammer infiltrates a retailer’s website, they can redirect where the links on that site lead. This is called formjacking.  

For example, you might go to an e-commerce store to buy a jacket. You find the jacket and put it in your online shopping cart. You click “check out,” and you’re taken to a form that collects your credit card information. What you don’t know is that the checkout form is fake. Your credit card number is going directly to the scammers 

Whenever you’re redirected from a website to make a payment or enter in information, always check the URL. If the form is legitimate, it will have the same URL as the site you were on. A fake form will have a URL that’s close to but not exactly the same as the original site. 

Scareware scams (fake antivirus)

These scams are similar to tech support scams. However, instead of urging you to speak directly with a fake tech support person, their goal is to get you to download a fake antivirus software product (scareware).  

You’ll see a pop-up that says your computer has a virus, malware, or some other problem. The only way to get rid of the problem is to install the security software the pop-up links to. You think you’re downloading antivirus software that will save your computer.  

What you’re actually downloading is malicious software. There are several types of malware. The program might be ransomware that locks up your information until you pay the scammers or spyware that tracks your online activity.  

To avoid this scam, never download antivirus software from a pop-up. You’ll be much better off visiting the website of a reputable company, like McAfee, to download antivirus software 

Credit repair scams

Dealing with credit card debt can be extremely stressful. Scammers know this and try to capitalize off it. They’ll send emails posing as credit experts and tell you they can help you fix your credit or relieve some of your debt. They might even claim they can hide harmful details on your credit report. 

All you have to do is pay a small fee. Of course, after you pay the fee, the “credit expert” disappears without helping you out with your credit at all. Generally, legitimate debt settlement firms won’t charge you upfront. If a credit relief company charges you a fee upfront, that’s a red flag.  

Before you enter into an agreement with any credit service, check out their reputation. Do an online search on the company to see what you can find. If there’s nothing about the credit repair company online, it’s probably fake.  

What can you do if you get scammed online?

Admitting that you’ve fallen for an online scam can be embarrassing. But reporting a scammer can help stop them from taking advantage of anyone else. If you’ve been the victim of an online scam, try contacting your local police department and filing a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  

Several other law enforcement organizations handle different types of fraud. Here are a few examples of institutions that can help you report scams 

Discover how McAfee can keep you and your info safe online

Fraudsters shouldn’t stop you from enjoying your time online. Just by learning to spot an online scam, you can greatly strengthen your immunity to cybercrimes 

For an even greater internet experience, you’ll want the right tools to protect yourself online. McAfee’s Total Protection services can help you confidently surf the web by providing all-in-one protection for your personal info and privacy. This includes identity protection — which comes with 24/7 monitoring of your email addresses and bank accounts — and antivirus software to help safeguard your internet connection.  

Get the peace of mind that comes with McAfee having your back.