Scammers are like viruses: They continually evolve in response to the latest news and trends, using them for new ways to separate us from our cash.
These criminals “are so adaptable, they’re going to just follow the headlines,” says Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support for AARP.
As she and other anti-fraud experts note, scammers have proved ingenious when it comes to updating traditional criminal operations such as the romance scam or the Ponzi scheme with new twists to make them more convincing and effective. And like the rest of society, scammers are increasingly going online.
“Most con artists have taken a digital-first approach to scamming,” says Josh Planos, vice president of communications and public relations for the Better Business Bureau (BBB). He notes that the vast majority of today’s scams originate through a digital on-ramp, such as social media or email.
Here are seven emerging scams that anti-fraud experts are tracking in 2023, along with tips on how to thwart the crooks.
1. Cryptocurrency-romance scam
Crooks combine crypto scams with old-fashioned romance scams, posing as internet love interests so they can cajole their targets into downloading an app and investing in fake crypto accounts. “They claim that they’re even putting some of their own money into your fund,” explains former Federal Trade Commission official Steve Baker, who publishes the Baker Fraud Report. While the app displays data that seems to show your wealth growing, criminals are just taking your money.
How to stay safe: Carefully scrutinize any investment opportunity, even if you think you’re a sophisticated investor. “People think it’s not going to happen to them, but it is happening to many, which is why you have to keep your guard up,” Nofziger says.
2. Payday loan scam
Criminals exploit the inflation squeezing workers by offering fake payday loans that they claim will help people settle their bills, according to Nofziger. Loan applicants are told they’ll need to prepay a fee. The money goes into the crooks’ pockets, and the applicant gets nothing.
How to stay safe: Be wary of anyone who asks you to pay any sort of loan fee with a gift card or some other nontraceable form of payment.
3. One-time password (OTP) bot scam
Credit reporting company Experian warns that scammers utilize bots — automated programs — to deceive people into sharing the two-factor authentication codes sent to them via text or email from financial institutions (or from companies such as Amazon). The bot will make a robocall or send a text that appears to come from a bank, asking you to authorize a charge, then it asks you to enter the authentication code you’ve just been sent if the transaction isn’t yours. It’s actually the bot that’s trying to log into your bank account, and it wants the code that the bank sent to you as a precaution, so it can get in.
How to stay safe: Never share authentication codes, or provide other information, in response to an unsolicited phone call or text.
4. Student loan forgiveness scam
The Biden administration’s plan to forgive student loans faces an uncertain future after being tied up in the courts, but that hasn’t stopped scammers from trying to take advantage of people who may not have heard it’s on hold. They’ve built phony application sites aimed at stealing applicants’ Social Security numbers and bank information, and sometimes they contact targets by phone, pressuring them into applying and charging a fee for their help. The scam still has legs, “because there’s so much debt that people are carrying and they’re looking for a way to get rid of it,” explains Michael Bruemmer, vice president of the data breach group and consumer protection at Experian.
How to stay safe: Go to the Department of Education’s student aid website to keep track of the proposed forgiveness program’s status.
5. Puppy purchase scam
Scammers try to exploit dog lovers by offering cute puppies for sale on the web. In one instance documented by the BBB, a woman paid $850 for a Dalmatian puppy, only to receive additional requests for money — first $725 for travel insurance for the dog, then $615 for a special crate. In the end, the buyer lost $2,200 and never got the puppy — which didn’t actually exist.
How to stay safe: Go to an animal shelter and check out the dogs available there, before you search online. If you spot a puppy you like on a website, do a reverse image search to make sure it’s not a photo stolen from some other site. Insist on seeing the pet in person before paying any money.
6. Check washing scam
Though other payment modes are replacing them, checks are still used often enough for scammers to exploit. One trick is “check washing,” in which crooks steal checks from mailboxes and bathe them in household chemicals to erase the original name and dollar amount, leaving blank spaces they can fill in. It’s possible to convert a $25 check to one for thousands of dollars.
How to stay safe: The U.S. Postal Inspection Service recommends depositing your outgoing mail in blue collection boxes before the day’s last pickup, so it doesn’t sit for as long. At home, avoid leaving mail in your own mailbox overnight, and have your mail held by the post office or picked up by a friend or neighbor if you’re going to be away.
7. Free-gift QR code scam
This is a variation on a basic QR code scam that the FBI warned about: Scammers put fake codes over real ones to exploit the convenience of the barcodes people scan into their phones to see restaurant menus or make payments. Experian’s Bruemmer says scammers may call and say they’re going to send a QR code to your phone, so you can receive a free $100 gift card. In reality, the QR code may take you to a malicious website.
How to stay safe: If you receive a QR code out of the blue, contact the person or company that supposedly sent it, to make sure it is for real. Use a phone number you know is authentic.