Online Scams (or “How I (Almost) Met An American Hero”)

I got a Facebook message recently from Major General Jonathan A. Maddux, the US Army’s Program Executive Officer for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (PEO STRI).

This man is a real American Hero with awards and decorations including the Legion of Merit with four oak leaf clusters, the Bronze Star Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters, the Army Commendation Medal with five oak leaf clusters, the Army Achievement Medal with oak leaf cluster, the Global War on Terrorism Medal, the NATO Medal, and more.

And a smart one too … a B.S. in English, Language and Literature, a B.S. in Business Administration in Operations Research Analysis, a master’s degree in Administration, a master’s degree in Telecommunications, a MSST in Strategy from the United States Army War College — and the list goes on! This is one educated dude!!

So, why, I wonder, did he say:

Dear please don’t be offended,you was suggested to me by facebook so i got attracted by your profile,so i contacteded you, so that we can know more about each other if you don’t mind my dear [sic].”

For such a highly educated man, this Jonathan Maddux wasn’t doing a good job of pulling out the Strunk & White’s. And despite how much I would actually like to know MG Maddux, I doubt I top his “100 People I’d Like to Meet” list.

You should know this about me: I don’t trust a lot of people (just ask my therapist). But for that split second, I rationalized that maybe this really was Major General Jonathan A. Maddux. And that’s scary — because if someone like me, who makes my husband show me his license for identification purposes, can have that moment of doubt, then imagine how easily a more trusting soul could be duped.

Was it because I was a “senior” that I almost fell for it? Nope. According to a Federal Trade Commission report, millennials are more likely to fall for an online scam than seniors — 40 percent of adults age 20–29 who have reported fraud ended up losing money in a fraud case. Only 18 percent of consumers 70 and older have lost money in reported fraud cases, but when they DO lose, they lose bigger sums than younger victims.

Online fraud, (scams that aim to obtain your personal information — passwords, account numbers, or Social Security numbers — in order to ultimately get money) probably happens more than you think it does. According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) “2019 Internet Crime Report,” 467,361 complaints were received in 2019 — an average of nearly 1,300 every day in the United States — resulting in more than $3.5 billion in losses to individual and business victims (again, in the US, in 2019).

While email is still a common entry point (phishing), fraud also takes place through text messages (“smishing”) and fake websites (“pharming”).

You might laugh at how ridiculous these scams seem, how easily you can see right through them, but the success of many of these scams is their ability to prey on your fears. The fear of COVID-19, the fear of not being able to take care of your family, or just the fear of being alone can open the door to fraud.

So, having come so close to getting scammed, and as depressing as this is, here’s a list of some of the more typical types of online fraud, with links to (legitimate) sites for more information.

COVID-19 Vaccination Scams — first, disgusting! Talk about preying on the weak! These scammers may contact you about paying a fee to receive early vaccination access, paying to get on a waiting list, or by saying they are a physician or insurance company asking for personal information for a clinical trial. Want credible information about COVID vaccinations? Click here.

Greeting card scams — “Happy Valentine’s Day! Someone you know has sent you an ecard” — so you open the email (which looks completely legit), and you click on the logo (which also looks completely legit), and you’re sent to a website that is booby-trapped with malicious software (malware) or ransomeware which ultimately can result in your personal information getting into the hands of criminals.

Bank loan or credit card scam — You get a letter that you’ve been pre-approved for a big loan — and then you provide your personal information to cover processing fees (credit card scams also often happen on the telephone.)

Lottery scam — Congratulations! You won the lottery. Your worries are over, you’re an instant billionaire! All you have to do is pay a handling fee (lots of variations on this, but you get the idea).

Hitman scam — This is just what you think it is — pay up or risk the alternative. And it seems these scammers have taken this even further … in a newer version of this scam, you could receive a letter from “the FBI” saying there’s been an arrest in the (hitman scammer) case, so contact “the FBI” to provide more information so the case can move forward.

Romance and Online Dating scams — it’s fine for someone to steal your heart. It’s not fine for them to steal your money. More information here on recognizing, avoiding, and reporting romance scams.

Fake antivirus software — “Your computer may be infected with a virus — download this software (or go to this site to purchase antivirus software now).” Close that pop-up window and run legitimate security software you’ve installed on your own device.

Facebook impersonation scam (hijacked profile scam)/ Facebook messenger scam — Facebook is well aware of the scammers out there who hijack accounts, or simply pose as a friend on Messenger, reach out to tell you about the money they just collected from some grant, and how you can cash in on it too. Then all you have to do is give them your personal information, and perhaps a small fee (but what’s $1200 when you’re “guaranteed” $80,000?). More about how you can report Facebook fraud here.

GoFundMe Fakes — On the one hand, it’s nice to know there are that many kind people out there who want to help out someone they’ve never even met before. The problem is that sometimes these stories are fakes taking advantage of your generosity.

Travel scams — Right now, the thought of getting out of our houses and traveling sounds amazing. but watch out for too-good-to-be-true deals that turn out to be fraudulent rental listings, timeshare resales, and fake travel club memberships.

Event ticket scams — Lured in by great prices or the ability to obtain a ticket to a sold-out event — only to never see the ticket or get to the venue only to find that the barcode doesn’t work, and the ticket is a fake — last year more than 200 reports of ticket scams were received by the Better Business Bureau.

Bitcoin/cryptocurrency scams — This summer, the Twitter accounts of Apple, Elon Musk, Joe Biden, Warren Buffet (a confirmed bitcoin critic!) and other high-profile personalities were hacked giving the address of a (their) bitcoin wallet and promising that any payments made to that address would be doubled and sent back.

Fake shopping websites — They may be incredibly authentic-looking copycat sites or built-from-scratch sites offering amazing deals, but whether you end up actually buying something (and giving scammers your financial information) or clicking around and downloading malware, if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t true. (You might remember how many of these sites sprang up playing on consumers’ fears of the Coronavirus.)

Typosquatting — Lookalike domains/URLs (amozon.com instead of amazon.com), that count on our busy lifestyles to overlook that one little typo, hope to fool you into believing you’re on the site you intended, either to defraud you directly from the site, download malware on your computer, obtain your login credentials for the authentic site, or to extort the real domain owner in an attempt to sell back the misspelled domain in order to protect their reputation.

Free Wi-Fi Scams — You’ve probably heard this a million times, but make sure you’re on a SAFE public network when accessing the Internet outside of your trusted network. Either through man-in-the- middle attacks or typosquatting legit Wi-Fi sites (looks just like the name of the site you intended to visit), your login information, credit card information, and other personal information can end up in the hands of criminals.

Loyalty points phishing scam — Here’s an example: you’re contacted via a very legitimate-looking email (or by text) from a representative from your airline rewards program to update your loyalty points program information. You may not only end up giving out personal information, but you may also be giving your points to these scammers.

Job offer scams — Again preying on the COVID crisis, online job scams have increased over the past year, offering remote working opportunities and high salaries. Just pay the fee upfront and give out your personal information.

Fake Checks, Gift Cards and Overpayment Scams — “Pay your bill by gift card or your utility company will cut off your power.” “Claim your prize (for something you don’t even remember entering) but first, you have to use a gift card to pay fees.” Or someone buys something from you online, sends a check for more than the purchase price, and then asks you to give them the difference on a gift card (oh, and that check they used? It’ll probably turn out to be a fake).

Online Tech Support Scams — These scams seize upon your fear that your computer is not working properly and get you to pay for (unnecessary) tech support.

Tried and true: The Nigerian scam still rakes in about $700,000 a year. You know this one? Someone who claims to be overseas royalty contacts you to share an investment opportunity. Right, because it’s that easy to get rich.

While these are only some examples of online fraud, and tactics and techniques to defraud online show up every day, the GOOD NEWS is that agencies are making arrests, technologies are being developed to prevent fraud, and there’s a LOT you can do to protect yourself.

“Individuals need to be extremely skeptical and double check everything. In the same way your bank and online accounts have started to require two-factor authentication — apply that to your life,” says IC3 Chief Donna Gregory. “Verify requests in person or by phone, double check web and email addresses, and don’t follow the links provided in any messages.”

It shocked me to (almost) be on the receiving end of a scam. And I’d much rather write about kittens and world peace, but this stuff pisses me off. So if one person can avoid being the victim of fraud as a result of this post, then it’s worth it to write a depressing post.

But unless five-star General Douglas MacArthur reaches out to me from his Arlington National Cemetery Facebook Messenger account to become my friend and then places a hard drive-destroying virus on my computer, I promise I’ll write something funnier next week!

To report an Internet scam, click here