Bitcoin Scams: How to Identify Them and Protect Yourself

Scammers love money, even the digital kind

Bitcoin is a cryptocoin used globally to conduct business. Its popularity has attracted all kinds of users, including scammers looking to steal your money whether it comes in cold, hard cash or in the form of digital currency.

Many people think of Bitcoin as 'the' digital currency when, in fact, there are dozens of digital currencies available worldwide. Even Facebook is getting into the cryptocoin game with the proposal of Libra, the social media giant's own version of digital currency. None are exempt from scammers.

What Are Bitcoin Scams?

Bitcoin exploded in popularity when it price-per-coin price skyrocketed in 2018. It's legal in some countries and not so legal in others, with the currency used to buy and sell all kinds of items from pizza to airline tickets.

A conceptual illustration of a bitcoin scammer.
Lifewire / Theresa Chiechi

Its rising popularity created opportunity for scammers, who became part of the process in a variety of ways as they devised ways attempt to trick, extort or flat-out steal the currency from others.

Bitcoin scams are not limited to Bitcoin although many scammers prefer it because it's the most well-known digital currency and typically trades well on the open market. However, a bitcoin scam in general can involve any digital currency and the scams come in an ever-growing variety of formats:

  • Fake coin exchange sites that represent themselves as legitimate cryptocurrency exchanges.
  • Fake currencies that appear on the scene, with scammers posting comments about how much money they have made investing in the new currency. These can involve ICO (initial coin offering) scams that attempt to convince people to invest in both fake and real new currencies using faulty wallets.
  • The transfer of monies via digital means to pay for nonexistent items, such as items for sale on Craigslist or other poorly monitored sites.
  • Extortionists who send phishing emails, claiming to have video of you in compromising positions that will be released unless you pay up in bitcoin of some sort.
  • Malware that is secretly inserted into free software you download that accesses your bank accounts and drains them by making cryptocurrency purchases.
  • Online prize giveaways that trick trusting participants into providing personal information, then use that information to access bank accounts and purchase digital currencies.
  • Pump and dump schemes that involve people who entice you to invest in a digital currency by claiming they 'know' what the price will be one day. Instead, they are artificially driving up the price so they can later dump it at high prices (when you will lose your money because their sales will corrupt the price.)
  • Ransomware virus scams that partially or completely block your access to a device until a cryptocurrency payment is made.
  • Ponzi schemes involving digital currencies and sometimes even involving real celebrities.
  • Promises to help bitcoin buyers increase shares of Bitcoin Gold, Bitcoin Diamond, and other digital currencies both real and fake.
  • Sim card swaps, such as the one this lawsuit alleges AT&T employees were involved in.

Any operating system can be targeted by bitcoin scammers, including macOS and mobile operating systems such as Android and iOS.

How Does a Bitcoin Scam Work?

Bitcoin and other digital currency scams work either by luring victims with the promise of easy riches or by extorting them through phishing scams, computer viruses, or other schemes.

How Do Bitcoin Scammers Find Victims?

These scammers most often find victims by relying on two things: Human tendencies to trust first and ask questions later and the human desire to get something for nothing. Whether a victim downloads software from a freeware site, clicks a link that takes them to a fake website offering unbelievable cryptocurrency opportunities, or simply innocently opens a compromised email attachment that releases a computer virus, the action almost always involves one of those very human emotions.

How Do I Avoid Getting Involved in Bitcoin Scams?

Caution, caution, and more caution can help keep you from getting involved in any kind of bitcoin scam. Because these scams can involve both flat-out fraud as well as computer viruses, it's important to stay vigilant anywhere you go online.

Practice safe surfing online, install and use strong antivirus software to block Trojans and other malware, and use 2FA security with as many online accounts as possible.

I'm Already a Victim. What Should I Do?

Once you realize you have been scammed, the first thing to do is stay calm. After that, follow these steps:

  1. Immediately change any and all online passwords and login information even for online accounts that aren't related to your financial accounts in any way. Utilities, streaming services, and other types of accounts that you use online can all house sensitive information about you; your first step is to block scammers from getting any further information about you or gaining access to any of your online accounts.

  2. Contact your bank if you suspect your accounts are or have been drained of actual funds. Provide them with information about suspicious transactions and request help in blocking scammers from obtaining further access to your accounts.

  3. If you aren't already using two-factor authentication where possible, start. It's easy to set up a Google Authenticator account and then turn it on to use many of the accounts you're already accessing (you can even use 2FA on iPhone).

  4. Next, report the scam to proper authorities.

How Do I Avoid Being Targeted For a Bitcoin Scam?

The best approach to avoiding any bitcoin scam is to stick with currency from a bank with funds guaranteed by the government. In the United States, that guarantee comes from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). If you're going to use cryptocurrency for purchases or to sell things, be sure the site you're dealing with is one you know and trust.

Next, be proactive and stay vigilant. Bitcoin scammers will take advantage of any opportunity they can find, including using phishing and other email scams or fake websites designed to lull you into confidence that a site is secure and legitimate. There are a variety of tips to help you avoid becoming a victim of a cryptocurrency scam.

Pharming scams, too, are a type of scam that direct users to fake websites specifically to steal personal and financial information. The bottom line? Caution is the name of the game when surfing the internet.

You can spot scam websites if you're paying close attention. Be thoughtful about how you landed on the site, too: Did you click a link from someone you don't really know to get to the site? Did clicking an unfamiliar or sudden pop up ad redirect you to an unfamiliar site or did you purposely seek the site out?