What is an Online Scam? The 10 Worst Examples
Imagine browsing through a bustling market, vendors calling out, promising the deal of a lifetime. However, some of these “deals” are too good to be true. The digital world operates similarly, with online scams masquerading as legitimate offers.
In this article, we’ll reveal the ten worst examples of online scams, arming you with knowledge to stay safe online.
What is an online scam?
An online scam is a dishonest scheme carried out over the internet. The goal is to defraud potential victims and generate financial gain for the perpetrator. Most scammers are after your bank account details, though some might also install malware on your computer.
Don’t become a victim of an online scam. Protect your devices with the best antivirus software and your privacy with the best VPN service.
Below are the worst online scam examples of all time.
- Nigerian 419 Scams (1990s – Present): Also known as advance-fee fraud, these scams typically involve a sender claiming to have a large sum of money that they need help transferring, in exchange for a percentage of the funds.
- eBay Motors Scams (2000 – Present): Scammers post fake listings of cars at bargain prices, often asking for payment through unconventional methods. The car, of course, does not exist.
- Phishing Scams (2000s – Present): Scammers send emails or messages that appear to be from reputable companies to trick individuals into revealing personal information, like passwords and credit card numbers.
- Romance Scams (2000s – Present): Scammers create fake profiles on dating websites, build emotional relationships with victims, then use various stories to solicit money.
- Tech Support Scams (2010 – Present): Scammers pretend to be tech support from well-known companies, tricking victims into believing their computers are infected and charging them for unnecessary services.
- The “Microsoft Lottery” Scam (2009): Scammers emailed victims claiming they had won the “Microsoft Lottery”, a non-existent lottery, with the goal of obtaining personal information.
- Cryptocurrency Scams (2010s – Present): With the rise of cryptocurrencies, scammers have tricked victims into investing in or trading fake cryptocurrencies, or stealing their digital wallets.
- Online Ticket Scams (2010s – Present): Scammers sell counterfeit or non-existent tickets to concerts, sports events, and other high-demand events.
- COVID-19 Scams (2020): Scammers exploited the global pandemic by selling fake products, spreading misinformation, and soliciting donations for non-existent charities.
- Job Offer Scams (2000s – Present): Scammers pose as employers or recruiters offering attractive job opportunities, which require the job seeker to pay upfront fees or share sensitive information.
Read on for more details on each online scam example.
1. The Tale of the Nigerian 419 Scams
As far back as the 1990s, email users worldwide began receiving messages from supposed Nigerian princes, diplomats, and high-ranking officials. These messages spun tales of significant wealth trapped in banks, awaiting liberation. All the sender needed was a little financial assistance to release the funds, promising their benefactor a substantial cut. This scam, dubbed the “Nigerian 419 Scam” after the relevant section of Nigeria’s penal code, is an enduring trick that has ensnared countless individuals over the years.
The perpetrators, largely anonymous, are believed to range from individual fraudsters to organized crime syndicates operating from various countries, not just Nigeria. They preyed primarily on individuals, exploiting their goodwill and desire for easy fortune. While the scams originated in Nigeria, they quickly spread, affecting people globally and causing devastating financial damage. Precise figures are hard to pin down, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimated losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
These scams have compromised personal and financial data, leaving many victims to deal with the fallout of identity theft and financial ruin. Over the years, awareness campaigns and improved email spam filters have been the primary countermeasures, along with victims growing savvy to these ploys. While many scammers remain at large, some have faced legal consequences. In one notable instance, a Nigerian man was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2019 for his role in various online scams, including 419 scams.
2. The eBay Motors Trap
In the early 2000s, eBay Motors, an online marketplace for buying and selling vehicles, became a hotbed for scammers. These fraudsters posted listings for non-existent cars at too-good-to-be-true prices, luring in unsuspecting buyers.
These scams, often perpetrated by individuals or small groups, primarily targeted individual buyers. As eBay is a global platform, victims spanned from the US to Europe, Asia, and beyond. The fraudulent listings were usually well crafted and convincing, leading to large-scale financial losses. In 2014 alone, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received nearly 30,000 reports related to this scam, with victims losing over $54 million in total.
This scam resulted in financial loss and personal data compromise. Victims often paid for these imaginary vehicles via bank transfers or unconventional payment methods, putting their financial information at risk. To combat these scams, eBay implemented stronger safety measures, including warning banners on listings and advising against unsecured payment methods.
While these measures have reduced the incidence of scams, they haven’t entirely eliminated them. Various legal actions have been taken against these scammers, but due to the anonymous nature of the internet, many remain unpunished. Still, each successful prosecution serves as a reminder that the law is always working to catch up with these online marauders.
3. Phishing Scams: A Deceptive Click
In the early 2000s, an insidious kind of scam crept into the inboxes of internet users worldwide: phishing. These were carefully crafted emails that appeared to be from reputable companies, urging the recipient to click a link and enter their login details for various reasons, such as verifying their account or updating their information. The link, however, led to a fake website controlled by the scammer, who would then harvest the entered information.
The perpetrators of phishing scams ranged from lone wolves to organized cybercriminal groups, sometimes even state-sponsored entities aiming to collect sensitive information. These scams targeted both individuals and businesses and were not confined to any geographic region; if you had an email account, you were a potential target.
The financial damage caused by phishing scams is staggering, running into billions of dollars globally. Countless people have been affected, their personal and financial data compromised. Organizations have even had sensitive data breached.
Over time, countermeasures have evolved. From advanced spam filters to two-factor authentication and public awareness campaigns, the fight against phishing is ongoing. While many phishers are never caught due to the anonymous nature of the internet, there have been successful prosecutions that serve as a warning to others.
4. Romance Scams: Heartbreak and Empty Wallets
In the mid-2000s, as online dating started gaining popularity, a sinister online threat emerged: romance scams. These fraudsters would create attractive, fake profiles on dating websites, striking up conversations and building emotional relationships with unsuspecting victims. Over time, they would concoct various stories to solicit money, often preying on the victim’s desire for love and companionship.
While there’s no specific profile for the culprits, they’re typically individuals or small groups operating from various parts of the world. They target lonely individuals across the globe, weaving intricate webs of deceit.
It’s challenging to quantify the financial damage, but it’s substantial. In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission reported that people lost $201 million to romance scams in the U.S. alone. Countless individuals have been emotionally and financially affected. In addition to losing money, victims often have their personal and financial information compromised.
Countermeasures have been reactive, focusing primarily on raising awareness about these scams. Dating websites have also implemented safety tips and advice to educate their users. Law enforcement has had successes in tracking down some of these scammers. In 2019, 80 defendants were indicted in the U.S. for their involvement in a large-scale romance scam and money laundering operation. Despite the efforts, the problem persists, reminding us all to guard our hearts and our wallets in the digital age.
5. Tech Support Scams: False Fixes and Real Ruin
Around 2010, a new menace began to plague internet users: tech support scams. Here, fraudsters impersonated representatives from well-known tech companies like Microsoft, Apple, or antivirus software providers. They’d claim the user’s computer was infected with a virus or facing a serious problem that required immediate attention. The solution? Pay for their “expert” assistance to fix the non-existent problem.
The culprits, often part of organized crime syndicates, were widespread and not confined to any specific geographic region. They primarily targeted less tech-savvy individuals and the elderly, capitalizing on their lack of technical knowledge and fear of losing their digital lifelines.
The financial damage from these scams has been considerable, with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center logging losses of over $54 million in 2018 alone. Personal and financial data of countless individuals have also been compromised, as scammers often request remote access to computers.
Countermeasures have included awareness campaigns by tech companies and law enforcement agencies. Improved detection and blocking of scam calls have also helped. Legal consequences have varied, with some scammers facing justice. In 2017, a man who ran a tech support scam was sentenced to prison and ordered to pay restitution of over $8 million.
6. The Microsoft Lottery Scam: A Draw You Never Entered
In 2009, a scam began circulating that alleged recipients had won the “Microsoft Lottery” — a lottery that didn’t exist. The emails appeared official, bearing the Microsoft logo and signed off by supposed executives of the company. The catch? To claim their winnings, recipients were required to share personal details and, in many cases, pay a fee.
These scams were conducted by anonymous individuals or groups, targeting individual email users worldwide. The geographic scope was as broad as the internet itself, reaching anyone with an email address.
While it’s challenging to estimate the exact financial damage, it’s known that many fell victim to this scam, losing money and compromising their personal data. Countermeasures primarily involved awareness campaigns by Microsoft and other tech companies, emphasizing that they do not run lotteries or sweepstakes.
Despite the anonymity of the internet, some perpetrators have faced legal consequences. In one notable case, a Nigerian man was prosecuted in the UK for a Microsoft Lottery scam, serving as a stark reminder that cybercrime does not pay.
7. Cryptocurrency Scams: Fool’s Gold in the Digital Rush
In the 2010s, with the meteoric rise of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, a new breed of scam emerged. Fraudsters tricked victims into investing in or trading bogus cryptocurrencies or exploited security vulnerabilities to steal digital wallets.
The criminals behind these scams varied, from lone wolf hackers to sophisticated cybercrime organizations. They cast a wide net, targeting anyone interested in digital currencies, from individual enthusiasts to businesses. As cryptocurrency is a global phenomenon, these scams had an international scope.
The financial damage from cryptocurrency scams has been immense. According to a report by CipherTrace, these scams resulted in losses exceeding $4.5 billion in 2019 alone. The nature of the data compromised was primarily financial, but the anonymity and untraceability of cryptocurrencies often left victims with little recourse.
Countermeasures have included more robust security measures by cryptocurrency exchanges and wallets, regulatory scrutiny, and public education efforts. While the anonymous nature of cryptocurrencies makes it challenging to apprehend criminals, there have been significant legal victories. In 2020, U.S. authorities arrested the alleged mastermind behind a cryptocurrency scam that defrauded investors of over $700 million.
8. Online Ticket Scams: The Show You’ll Never See
Also in the 2010s, as online ticket purchasing for concerts, sports events, and other entertainment became the norm, scammers saw an opportunity. They began selling counterfeit or non-existent tickets to high-demand events, often at prices that seemed too good to be true.
The perpetrators of these scams, typically individuals or small groups, targeted excited fans worldwide, making it an international issue. The financial damage has been significant, with Action Fraud reporting over £3.7 million lost to ticket fraud in the UK alone in 2015.
In addition to financial loss, these scams often resulted in massive disappointment for victims who found out too late that their tickets were fake. In response to these scams, ticket selling platforms have implemented stricter seller verification processes and safety tips for buyers.
Legal consequences for these scammers have varied, but there have been successful prosecutions. In one notable case, a UK-based scammer who sold fake tickets to concerts and events was jailed for three years in 2019. Despite these successes, online ticket scams remain a significant issue, reminding us all to purchase only from trusted sources.
9. COVID-19 Scams: Exploiting a Global Crisis
In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, scammers found a new opportunity to exploit. They began selling fake products like non-existent or ineffective protective gear and unproven cures. Some even posed as charities, soliciting donations for pandemic relief.
The culprits of these scams were diverse, from opportunistic individuals to organized crime groups. They targeted individuals, businesses, and even governments desperate to find solutions during an unprecedented crisis. The scams had a global reach, reflecting the pandemic’s international scope.
The financial damage of these scams is difficult to calculate but undeniably extensive. The human toll was also significant, with the false sense of security provided by fake products potentially leading to increased virus spread. The compromised data was primarily financial, with victims paying for products or donations that never materialized.
Countermeasures have included increased vigilance and enforcement by consumer protection agencies and public awareness campaigns. Legal consequences have varied, with many scammers being brought to justice. In one notable case, a British man was jailed for selling fake COVID-19 testing kits.
10. Job Offer Scams: When Opportunity Meets Fraud
From the early 2000s and onwards, as job hunting increasingly moved online, a new type of scam emerged. Fraudsters posed as employers or recruiters, offering attractive job opportunities that required job seekers to pay upfront fees or share sensitive information.
These scams were perpetrated by individuals or organized crime groups, with the victims being job seekers worldwide. The financial damage was substantial, with victims losing not just the upfront fees but also becoming vulnerable to identity theft.
The data compromised in these scams included personal and financial information, with victims often sharing everything from their home address to bank details. Countermeasures have included increased scrutiny and verification processes by job listing sites and public education about the risks.
While legal consequences for these scams have varied, there have been notable successes in apprehending and prosecuting these fraudsters. In 2020, a Nigerian crime ring targeting U.S. job seekers was dismantled, with its members facing multiple charges. Despite this, job offer scams remain a significant issue, a sobering reminder to remain vigilant in the face of too-good-to-be-true opportunities.
Conclusion: Staying Safe in the Digital World
In the face of the diverse range of online scams we’ve explored, it’s natural to feel a touch of trepidation as you navigate the digital world. But don’t despair; there are practical steps you can take to safeguard yourself and your data.
Firstly, always keep your devices up-to-date. Whether it’s your smartphone, tablet, or computer, manufacturers regularly release updates to fix security flaws and improve overall protection. This simple step can make it much harder for scammers to exploit your device.
Secondly, consider investing in reputable antivirus software for Windows 11 like Norton, Bitdefender, McAfee, Panda, or Kaspersky. It provides an extra layer of defense, blocking malicious programs and warning you about unsafe websites.
But even the most advanced software can’t replace good old common sense and caution. Be skeptical of unsolicited communications, especially if they’re asking for personal information or money. If an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Trust your instincts and do your research before parting with your hard-earned cash or personal details.
For more information on staying safe online and learning about the latest scams, here are some trusted resources:
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission Scam Alerts: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/scam-alerts
- FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center: https://www.ic3.gov
- The UK’s Action Fraud: https://www.actionfraud.police.uk
- Australian Competition & Consumer Commission’s Scamwatch: https://www.scamwatch.gov.au
- Canada’s Anti-Fraud Centre: http://www.antifraudcentre-centreantifraude.ca
Remember, knowledge is power. The more informed you are about online scams, the less likely you are to become a victim. Stay safe online, and let’s make the internet a more secure place for everyone.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
Over the years, he has tested most of the best antivirus software for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, as well as many VPN providers.
He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.
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