Am I Being Scammed? Learn How to Avoid Online Scams

As our society moves more of our lives online, the potential for scams only grows. Unfortunately, scam artists are everywhere. They have many ways of trying to get your contact information, take your money, steal your identity, or access your online accounts. Though millions of users fall victim to fraud each year, you don't have to be one of them. Educate yourself on these common kinds of online scams so that you can learn how to avoid scams when you encounter one online.

Types of online scams and how to avoid them

If you know the ways a scammer might try to reach out to you, you’ll know how to avoid scams and how to protect yourself. Though it’s not an exhaustive list, the following are the most common kinds of Internet scams.

Phone scams

Phone scams, or vishing scams, are the telephone version of phishing scams. These types of scams involve a scam artist calling your number pretending to be a legitimate business or organization.

They might claim to be from your bank, calling to get your banking account information to double-check a transaction. They might be from a car company claiming that your car’s warranty has expired. There are numerous fronts that phishing scammers take to convince you that the call is nothing out of the ordinary.

Furthermore, vishing scammers often sound professional and perform extensive research before placing the call, which can make them sound as if they know what they’re talking about. Victims must be especially vigilant to avoid getting caught up.

If you get a phone call that you think is a scam: Don’t verify any numbers, credit card information, email addresses, or other personal or financial information over the phone. Use caller ID features to screen calls. If they’re claiming that there’s an issue with a business you associate with – like your bank – ask for more details, then hang up and check with your bank yourself. However, if the caller is from a business you don’t know, like an insurance company, simply end the call and block the number.

Social media scams

With the rise of social media accounts, scammers have found that direct messages are a great platform to trick users into giving up important information. Facebook is the most common social media site for scams, since Facebook Messenger and Marketplace create more venues to trick users. But users should be aware of the possibility of a scam on all social media sites.

Most social media scams come in the form of a direct message. A user receives a message inviting them to click a link or view an image. It could appear to be from a family member, or it could be from a stranger.

They’re often sent out in mass amounts. Because of this, many times, the messages are worded strangely or from a contact you wouldn’t expect to hear from. Use caution with these messages.

Prize giveaways are also an online scam threat on social media. Accounts post giveaways that aren’t real, encouraging users to enter their information to win a great prize. Instead, their information is stolen.

A woman holding a sign reading "Scams"

If you get a social media message that you think is a scam: Don’t interact with the message. Delete it or leave it unopened. If you think it’s from a friend whose account has been hacked, to avoid scams by interacting with the message itself, contact them on another platform to let them know what you received.

Digital marketplace scams

Whether it’s a resale site like OfferUp or a popular digital retailer like Amazon, digital marketplace scams are a problem for online shoppers. A common scam, regardless of the site, involves a scammer asking a buyer to pay outside of the shopping app through a CashApp account or PayPal or a similar service. This potentially allows the seller to get access to the buyer’s other accounts. Even if you only give someone your phone number or email, it’s not safe to go off-site for transactions.

With digital marketplaces, you also run the risk of attempting to buy a product that doesn’t exist. Some scammers will create a sale for a product that they don’t have in order to get buyers to pay, but they never send out the product.

Try to ensure that you only buy from sellers who have reviews and a good rating. This indicates that they are legitimate. Many OfferUp scams or Amazon scams stem from users not validating a seller before making a purchase.

If you think you’re experiencing a digital marketplace scam: If possible, cancel the transaction. Don't provide personal information or credit card numbers. Make sure you record all information about the seller or buyer to report to the authorities if necessary. If someone tries to convince you to pay through a digital wallet app or to leave the site to finish the transaction, back out of the sale.

Digital wallet scams

Digital wallet apps, like PayPal, CashApp, and Venmo, have become more commonplace. However, users need to be aware of the potential for scams on the platforms and focus on their digital wallet app safety. According to Pew Research, about one in ten digital wallet users have sent money and later realized it was a scam.

One of the most common PayPal or CashApp scams involves a scammer sending a user a set amount of money and subsequently asking for it back. When you return the money, the scammer contacts customer service to report that their account was compromised. Ultimately, then, the original transaction is canceled, and the money you send comes directly from your account. These overpayment scams seriously harm users.

Sometimes scammers impersonate customer support agents on these platforms as well. Be wary if you receive calls or emails from people claiming to be customer support for Venmo or PayPal.

If you think you’re experiencing a digital wallet online scam: Refrain from making any payments right away. Contact the real customer support number for the company you’re dealing with to sort it out through a third party.

Charity scams

Charity scams are deceptive operations that look for money by claiming to support a good cause. Instead, all donations go straight to the creators of the false charity. These online scams are most common after big events, like a natural disaster or a mass tragedy.

Charity scams prey on people’s willingness to help others. Many of the groups that run charity scams are charities that you’ve never heard of. They are often vague about where your money goes, and they usually pressure people to donate quickly.

If you think you’ve found a charity scam: Research the organization. Check for reviews or a website where they indicate how their funds are used. If you can’t find a trace of the charity, consider finding another group to donate to instead.

Social security scams

Over 65 million Americans receive Social Security benefits monthly. Unfortunately, that makes it an easy target for scammers. Social Security scams are common, especially among older individuals.

They can come in the form of a call, email, or letter. Regardless, many Social Security scams focus on the same premise: threats that you’ve committed a crime. The scammers claim you need to give information about your Social Security account or other personal information to avoid jail time.

Others may threaten that you owe a debt, or simply say that you need to update your information. However, the Social Security Administration or any other government agency will never threaten customers or make demands like the aforementioned. They are attempts to gain access to users’ information and accounts instead.

If you think you’re experiencing a Social Security scam: Don’t respond. Never give any sensitive information or payments based on one message or call. If you’re concerned, you can call the Social Security customer service line yourself and inquire about your account. 

Online dating scams

As online dating becomes more common, users need to learn how to stay safe as they go through the process. Many times, scammers use online dating apps like Tinder, Hinge, or Bumble to pose as people that they aren't, which is known as catfishing. They then use these apps to lure victims and convince them to give them information or money.

Sometimes, these sites are even used to kidnap or harm people. A scammer sets up an account, lures their victim, and asks to meet in a private location or at their home. Once the two make contact, the scammer may kidnap the victim for ransom or make other threats.

In less nefarious cases, scammers try to learn as much about the victim as they can in order to try and access their private or personal accounts. This can also be dangerous and damaging to the victim. If you aren't in immediate danger, but just want to know if the person you're talking to is real, try a reverse image search in Google. This way, if the pictures they're using are stock photos, they'll turn up in the results.

If you think you're experiencing an online dating scam: End communications with the person immediately. Don't send them any additional messages, personal details, or money. If you feel as if you're being seriously harassed online or stalked, go to the police.

How to spot a scam

It can be hard to know how to tell if someone is scamming you online. However, there are a few red flags that usually indicate something's not right. Regardless of the platform, watch out for these signs of a scam.

  • The offer seems too good to be true. If something seems too good to be true, in reality, it probably is.
  • You receive a message with a strange sender address or header. These can be indicators that something is off with the message. It could be a text message, email message, direct message, or any other kind of message. Proceed with caution to avoid scams.
  • Someone says that you need to “act fast.” Whether it be because your account was allegedly hacked or because they’re sending you a deal that’s about to go away, anyone pushing you to send money or personal information fast should be a reason to think twice.
  • You go to pay for something and are told you can only pay via gift card or wire transfer. These forms of payment, while not unacceptable in every situation, are easy for scammers because they get their money fast and you can’t get it back. If you are purchasing something and are told you must pay with gift cards, that’s a red flag for an online scam.
  • You are told that you have to give highly sensitive information in order to verify an account. Some online scammers will pose as a bank and call customers asking for their Social Security number in order to check their account. A real bank would never ask for this information to verify an account, let alone ask for it over the phone. Think twice when someone asks you for private information, no matter who they claim to be.

What information makes me vulnerable to scams?

Scam artists are clever; they have the ability to manipulate most personal information for their own gain. For this reason, it's important to protect all your personal data, no matter how unimportant it may seem.

However, certain pieces of information are especially valuable to scammers. Take your IP address, for example; you can view your own public IP address on the What Is My IP main page, but if a scammer has access to your IP, they could potentially trace it back to your Internet service provider and launch a phishing scam against you. Your email address and phone number are also valuable, as innocuous as they seem; these are ways for a scammer to contact you and gain your trust.

Do your best to protect all your information, from Social Security numbers to home addresses. This helps improve your online privacy and security, which lowers your chances of becoming a scammer's victim.

How to report a scam

If you believe you’ve been scammed, you can file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. Call 1-888-CALL-FCC or send a letter to the Federal Communications Commission at 45 L Street NE, Washington, DC 20554.

You can also reach out to file complaints with individual platforms. See the help centers for popular sites that users may experience online scams on linked below.

Social media site help centers

Digital marketplace help centers

Payment app help centers