The 10 Top Online Scams of 2020

Watch out for these common online grifts

Online scams are constantly evolving as technology—and the way we interact with technology—changes. Here are the top online scams you need to be aware of right now.

If you think you've fallen victim to an online scam, check out our guide on what to do next.

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Phishing Scams

Person in a hoodie and a mask at a laptop

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Phishing is when a scammer uses email or text messages to trick you into giving them your personal information. Usually, they convince you to visit a fraudulent website disguised as a valid e-commerce or banking site. You believe you're logging into their real account, but the information you enter is sent to the scammers. Armed with this information, the crooks can wipe out your accounts, run up your credit cards, or steal your identity.

Some of the tactics phishing scams use involve notices of suspicious activity on your accounts, making you believe you won a lottery, fake invoices, phony government refund offers, and bogus coupons for free stuff.

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Nigerian 419 Scams

A hand holding envelope through computer screen

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Nigerian 419 scams, which include romance scams and advanced fee fraud, date back to the days when fax machines and snail mail were the primary business communication tools. Today, email, social media sites, and dating apps are the preferred methods of these scammers.

In an advanced fee scheme, the grifter convinces you to pay them money with the promise of a greater reward in the future. They've just won the lottery, for example, and they'll split the winnings with you if you help them get the funds out of the country by paying a fee. Romance scammers, meanwhile, build an online relationship with their victims. They prey on your affections to gain money and personal information.

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Mystery Shopping Scams

The word "virus" marked with yellow marker and a memory stick

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While some mystery shopping jobs are legitimate, many are scams looking to rob you. The scammer sends you, the new hire, a check for a few hundred dollars. They instruct you to cash it, take your portion, then forward the remaining funds to the employer. The check is bogus, and will eventually bounce, leaving you liable for the funds you spent, plus any service fees or fines that result.

Companies must pay you for work, not the other way around. Other red flags include being asked to wire money or buy gift cards and being coerced into paying for certifications, fees, and courses.

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Reshipping and Payment Processing Fraud

Businessman pressing e-mail security button on virtual screens

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The ad should read, "Help wanted to illegally launder money on behalf of criminals." But it doesn't. Instead, it couches the crime in soft terms such as payment processing or reshipping transactions. Don't be fooled. Victims not only find themselves engaged in illegal activity, but they're also legally liable for the amount transferred and any fees that result.

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Pump and Dump Stock Scams

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Pump and dump scams send large volumes of email that pretend to disclose confidential information about a particular stock in an attempt to inflate the price. The scammers then sell the stocks and reap a bigger return.

Some red flags to watch out for are unsolicited emails about penny stocks, promises of guaranteed returns, and unregistered stocks or brokerage firms.

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Hitman Scams

Spam emails listed on computer

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Imagine opening your email inbox and reading a message from an alleged assassin claiming you're their target. It sounds like something out of a movie, but it's been happening in real life to hundreds of people. The gist of the email is either pay the hitman thousands of dollars or die.

The so-called hitman scam is one of the most frequent ones you'll encounter online. The scammers use details from your life, harvested from your social media, accounts, and other online websites, to create a sense of real danger.

Avoid scams like this by safeguarding your personal information, especially on social media.

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Scareware (or Ransomware) Scams

Stethoscope over a laptop computer keyboard

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Scareware erroneously claims your system is infected with a virus and instructs you to buy bogus anti-virus software to clean it. It preys on your fear or lack of computer knowledge to trick you into handing over your credit card or banking information. The scammers might also install keylogging software on your PC remotely, so they can gain more personal information and steal your identity.

To avoid becoming a victim, never open strange attachments, don't run strange executable files, and only download anti-virus software from companies you trust.

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Crowdfunding Scams

Backer News: track crowdfunding projects


Crowdfunding is a popular way for creators to get paid for the work they produce, but it's also a good target for dishonest people who want to take your money and give nothing in return.

If you're thinking about contributing to someone's Kickstarter, GoFundMe, or Indiegogo, do a little research first. Has the creator launched other crowdfunding campaigns? Did backers receive what was promised? A quick Google search might also reveal other issues you should know about before committing any cash.

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Tech Support Scams

Woman with headset watching computer

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If you receive an unsolicited call from someone claiming to be tech support, and they tell you your PC has a virus that needs to be fixed right away, you've been introduced to the tech support scam.

The perpetrators of this scam get you to spend money on unnecessary repairs and bogus anti-virus software. They also trick you into giving them remote access to your computer, so they can swipe personal information or install malicious malware. If your computer experiences issues, contact a company you trust.

Tech companies like Microsoft and Apple will never ask for your password.

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Greeting Card Scams

Christmas tree on red background

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Greeting card scams arrive in your inbox pretending to be from a friend or family member. The email tells you an e-card is waiting and asks you to click a link to view it. That link typically leads to a booby-trapped web page that downloads Trojans and other malicious software onto your computer. Scammers then use the malware to harvest your personal data.

If you get one of these emails, don't click any link or attachment that ends with .exe. This is an executable file that could download and install a virus on your system. Also, check who sent you the email. If you don't recognize the sender, or it says something like friend or secret admirer, delete the message without opening it.