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Phishing, Formjacking, and Phony Romance: Watch Out for These Ten Common Online Scams

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As the world becomes more and more digital, our whole lives seem to be lived online. Frustratingly, this can—and does—leave us vulnerable to the criminals lurking in the shadows. Digital scams are everywhere, and they have the potential to be incredibly damaging, both financially and emotionally. But the good news is that falling for scams isn’t inevitable. With a little bit of savvy and plenty of caution and common sense, you’ll be able to spot online criminals a mile away.

To put some tools in your online toolbelt, we’ve brought you this recent article from MSN in which contributing tech writer Caroline Delbert gives you the rundown of the ten most common online scams and how to avoid them. Next time you come face to face with one of these, you’ll know to run—not walk—in the opposite direction!

Social Engineering: Old-Fashioned Tactics for a New Age

Delbert begins her article by putting things into perspective. “The internet can feel packed with scams sometimes,” she writes, “especially for anyone who’s had their credit card or other information stolen. But most scams fall into a small variety of types that are easy to identify and avoid once you know about them.”

The good news—and bad news—about scams is that there’s nothing really new under the sun. Most scams and cons use similar tactics, just with new technology to reach a wider set of marks. The most common category found online is known as social engineering.

Delbert explains, “An old-fashioned method that still works surprisingly well, social engineering is any fraud where a human being communicates with you to obtain information in person, online, or over the phone. Scammers will use manipulative, deceptive, or psychological tactics to get someone to reveal confidential information.”

Here are ten of the biggest types of online social engineering scams, how to recognize them, and how to avoid them.  

Scam 1: Phishing

According to Delbert, phishing is one of the most common online scams. It relies on the scammer convincing the victim to give over personal information willingly, usually because the victim believes the scammer is an authority figure. She explains, “One offline form of phishing is when you receive a scam phone call where someone claims to be calling from the fraud department at your bank and requests your account number as verification.”

The online version is very similar. “With online phishing, scammers do the same kind of thing but use emails and links to fraudulent websites to fool users,” Delbert writes. “In your spam folder, you’ll often see messages claiming to be from Bank of America and others. These links lead to imitation bank sites designed to capture your personal banking information.”

Know this: your bank will not send you emails requiring you to click links. Instead, real bank sites will require you to go to the bank’s website and log in to your secure account. Be suspicious of any messages or emails requiring “urgent action” on your part. 

Scam 2: Advanced Fees

These email-based scams are so notorious that they’ve become a bit of a sad joke, but they’re still very common and still manage to snag the unsuspecting. Delbert explains, “In this scam, a forlorn prince, bank manager, church reverend, or otherwise reputable-sounding stranger has a large amount of money that they need you to hold for them. All you have to do is send them several hundred or thousand dollars to cover some kind of transactional cost upfront.”

This should go without saying, but Delbert puts it bluntly: “Never believe any stranger who wants to send you money, and listen to your gut. If something sounds too good to be true, it is highly likely that it is a scam.”

Scam 3: Romance Scam

Crime is crime, but romance scams are on a whole other level of sinister.

“Romance scammers pretend to be regular people, often older people, who are looking for love and want to meet eligible singles in other countries,” Delbert explains. “They’ll build an emotional connection with their target by exchanging romantic messages and pretending to be in love. The scam comes in when, eventually, a series of misfortunes befall the romantic partner. They might plan a visit to finally meet—but suddenly won’t have money to pay for the plane ticket. Then they’re hospitalized with a mystery illness and need money to pay the bill. This continues until the victim grows suspicious of the mounting costs.”

It’s essential to remain skeptical of online relationships. Never give personal or financial information to a person you’ve never met in real life. And if the person you’re chatting with gets cagey about meeting up, that’s a huge red flag that they might not be who they say they are. Those of you with widowed parents who spend time online need to watch for signs of any new romantic relationships that seem suspicious.

Scam 4: Formjacking

This is one scam that you don’t exactly have control over, but it’s still important to be aware of it. Delbert explains, “Formjacking is a web scam that works the same way as a credit card skimmer does in real life. You go to a website to place an order and enter your information as usual. The transaction even goes through and seems to be fine, except that some code hacked into the website has copied your financial data to someone else.”

The most important thing you can do as an online shopper is make sure that the websites you frequent are secure. Most browsers will give you a warning if the site you’re visiting is suspicious, but remain vigilant and shop at reputable websites as much as possible.

Scam 5: Phony Tech Support

Another example of social engineering, “This scam may come as an email or a phone call, claiming that your computer has been compromised in some way and that you must call a number or visit a website to fix it,” Delbert writes.

The threat here is that as soon as this person has access to your devices, they can install what’s known as malware – sinister software programs that will capture data from your computer, putting even the most secure information at risk. Delbert warns, “These scammers often claim to be from Microsoft or Apple as a way to establish legitimacy,” so it’s imperative that if your computer actually requires repair, you deal with the helplines and tech support of those companies directly. Don’t contact any number or email you’re sent by an outside source.

Scam 6: Ransomware

“Ransomware is a kind of malicious software that is installed without your knowledge,” Delbert writes. “This is usually from an email or fraudulent site, meaning it also uses phishing to imitate your bank or another institutional website. Someone calls or emails with a link that installs the ransomware on your machine. What makes ransomware different is what comes next.”

Frighteningly, ransomware—true to its name—locks important files on your computer or other devices and requires you to pay to unlock them. Delbert notes that the FBI actually cautions against paying the ransom. To avoid this scam, utilize the same caution as you would with phishing. Never click on email attachments from unknown sources.

Scam 7: Scareware

Fear is a common tactic in scams, and it’s especially effective on people who don’t know much about the computers they use. “Scareware is a form of manipulative scamming that threatens users by making them believe they need new software on their machines,” Delbert explains. “One of the common forms is to tell users they need new antivirus software and to offer that software from a fraudulent source.”

The good news is that these websites and emails can be very easy to expose. Delbert encourages people to “look closely at the URLs or email addresses, which usually have strange spellings or other clues that signal you’re not dealing with legitimate companies.” 

Scam 8: Sextortion

A particularly dark crime, Delbert notes that sextortion usually targets minors, but adults can also become victims. “Now that so many people meet romantic partners online, it’s common to exchange explicit photos,” she writes. “That’s also true of teenagers or even of younger children, who can find themselves in online relationships with people who ask for personal information and photos.”

Sextortion doesn’t always have financial goals. Instead, the scammer can use the photos as blackmail for all kinds of dark requests. Always be cautious sharing private photos with someone you don’t know. In fact—if we can be so bold—it’s probably best never to share such material online.

Scam 9: Charity and Disaster Fraud

“Crowdfunding and mutual aid are becoming more common as a way for people to share resources and help others pay for medical bills and other costs, or to donate following natural disasters,” Delbert explains. “Unfortunately, this well-meaning way to help others in the community has also been targeted by scammers through charity and disaster fraud.”

Fake social media accounts and even bots that pretend to be your friends can make you think you’re contributing to a good cause, when you’re really just putting money in a scammer’s pocket.  “If you aren’t sure about the credibility of a group or crowdfunding page, it is always best to seek more information,” Delbert writes.

Scam 10: Work from Home

The article saves the simplest for last, and it’s one of the oldest scams. “Think of those signs you see on street corners that say, ‘I make $16,000 a month working from home!’”, Delbert writes. “When you call, these people want you to buy training materials to become a real estate agent or something similar.” The same thing happens online, asserting that you can make $500 or more per day working from home, or some other amazing claim.

While there are legitimate home businesses, be very suspicious of outrageous claims from people you don’t know. They seldom tell you what company they supposedly work for or what this “miracle career” even entails. The advice for avoiding this scam is the same for pretty much any scam out there, and a great way to conclude this blog. Delbert says, “The best advice is also the oldest: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

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