The pandemic has changed nearly everything about the way we go about our daily lives. And while we were already dependent on technology, that reliance has become even more pronounced over the last year. That can, of course, have some good effects. While more than 20,000 workplace slip-and-fall injuries were reported in California alone during 2015, allowing employees to work from home has likely had positive effects on their health and well-being while preventing liabilities for the employer. With fewer cars on the roads, our air is reportedly much cleaner. And with more options to us available online, most people can get everything they need without ever getting up from the couch.
That said, it’s not all good news. Considering the current state of the economy, criminal activities — especially those perpetrated online — are at an all-time high. In fact, a new report found that 80.5% of consumers who reported online purchase scams lost money in 2020, a major increase from just 24.3% in 2019. And with more people using the internet now, there are even more opportunities for criminals to strike (and get away with it). In order to keep your money and personal information protected, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with some of the most common internet scams and learn how to avoid them at all costs.
What Are the Most Popular Pandemic Online Scams?
Here’s a break down of the popular scams so you can realize when you see them and avoid them…
Remote Work Scams
Given the ongoing pandemic, remote work opportunities were extremely appealing to many Americans — particularly during the early part of this health crisis, when millions of employees were laid off or highly concerned about catching the virus. Unfortunately, con artists took advantage of this increased interest in remote work arrangements by posting fake job listings.
In many cases, you might receive an unsolicited offer to become a secret shopper or other remote work e-commerce opportunity. With these kinds of scams, the “employer” will send you a check or money order for more money than you were offered (or they might note that it’s for some kind of tech equipment) and request that you send back the difference. Sadly, you’ll find out too late that the original check you were sent was fraudulent and that you’ve sent your own money to a complete stranger.
Other remote work scams might actually be listed on job boards or promoted through other trusted networks like Indeed or LinkedIn. These might entice job seekers with phrases like “immediate hires” or “unlimited earning potential,” but some might then ask you to work for free, pay for equipment you need, or provide them with sensitive information for a supposed background check. In the end, the offer never materializes — and they might run off with your money or your personal data.
Lockdown has been lonely for many people, so adopting a pet became common during quarantine. While this has been great for many local shelters, it’s also given scammers a chance to take advantage. Shockingly, there are thousands of fraudulent websites, as well as ads on forums like Craigslist, that intend to defraud would-be pet owners (and break their hearts in the process). Many people will choose to adopt dogs from other states or even from outside the U.S., which gives scammers even more opportunities to get money from unsuspecting animal lovers without ever delivering on their promises. Although legitimate shelters will often charge a nominal adoption fee, scammers will often demand extra payments for transportation-related costs and will promise to send documentation only at the very end of the process. Video chat requests can often illuminate whether the foster or shelter is legitimate, as can limiting your pet search to options within your immediate area.
The concept of the “catfish” certainly isn’t new, but its prevalence has certainly grown throughout the pandemic. That makes sense because online dating is one of the only safe ways to meet new people. Unfortunately, even reputable platforms like Tinder and Bumble have been known to allow scammers through, as they can’t catch everyone who intends to do harm, but these scams are also commonly found on social media sites like Facebook.
Romance scams typically involve fast connections, fake photos, and tragic events that require payment from a loved one. These scammers often use social engineering tactics and prey on the lonely (especially older folks) who might not be as tech-savvy. They might ask for a loan or some kind of payment for travel; many of them claim to be models or in the military. If it sounds too good to be true — and your new love interest uses odd turns of phrases that aren’t common in the English language — you should probably steer clear.
With so many people afraid of catching COVID-19 or looking for vaccination appointments, it makes sense that scammers would seize the opportunity to cash in. And with 293.6 billion emails sent every day in 2019, your inbox might be full of examples. Phishing scams are common, with some emails pretending to come from trusted government agencies or well-known charities. You might receive messages or see ads for fake COVID cures, expedited stimulus checks, online coronavirus tests, business offers relating to vaccine development, or important information from the CDC. In virtually every case, you will end up swindled and without the protection promised to you.
How Can You Avoid Becoming Scammed?
While these are far from the only scams growing in popularity, they’re among the most common. So now that you know the risks, how can you avoid becoming a victim?
Overall, you should always be skeptical of anything you receive in your inbox or see advertised online. Do not click links in emails from sources you don’t trust — and even if you recognize the recipient, mouse over the sender address and link before you get to clicking. Never enter your credit card information, Social Security number, PIN, passwords, or any other private information unless you can verify that the website is legitimate. Rather than clicking a link in an email, manually type in the known URL into your browser first.
You should never send money to someone you don’t know, particularly through wire transfer, and make sure that any online payments you make are through a secure payment portal (like PayPal) that provides you with additional protection. Change your passwords often (and use two-factor authentication, if it’s available), conduct reverse image searches, and don’t simply take someone at their word. Before making any kind of purchase online or panicking about an email you receive, always do your research and ask yourself, “could this be a scam?”
It also doesn’t hurt to bolster your spam filters, use a virtual private network (VPN), and update your anti-virus software while you’re at it. Although only 25% of organizations never test their disaster recovery system, keeping up with these habits at home can protect your information from being stolen through other means.
In this day and age, internet scams are tough to avoid. But if you keep a cool head, know what to look for, and think before you act, these tips can keep your money and information safe.