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How to Tell if Someone is Scamming You Online

How to Tell if Someone is Scamming You Online

Tom Gerencer
Reading time: 7 minutes
Online scams affect 1 in 10 U.S. adults per year. The money lost to cyber scams is also rising drastically as scammers get more inventive, coming up with new and more effective ways to trick you into giving them your money. Arming yourself with knowledge of their current tactics is the best way to make sure you don’t get scammed.
In this article, you’ll learn how to tell if someone is scamming you online, including tips for spotting online shopping scams, overpayment, phishing, ecommerce, online retail, and romance scams. We’ll start with a quick list of the most common internet scams and how to identify them. After the list, you’ll get solid info on how to avoid falling for a scam.
The good news is, if you take a few simple steps to recognize new scams and protect yourself, it’s easy to stay safe. Here’s how to defend yourself against this exponentially increasing internet crime wave.

Common online scam signs

You can learn to recognize an online scam much faster if you can spot its key features. Every scam we looked at has a few standout characteristics in common.

1. Tries to gain trust

An online scam will often try to gain your trust in some way. It may pretend to be from a respected source such as the government, a business you like, your employer, or a family member. When you receive an email from your bank, Amazon, PayPal, a family member, or another trusted source, take some time to verify the identity before you reply.
Often, it’s better to do a Google search for the company or entity’s contact info than it is to click a link or call a number in a text or email. This simple step will protect you from most online phishing or catfish scams.

2. Emotional

Shocked Victim of Cybercrime
Act now or the IRS will place a lien against your home. Or the water company will shut your water off. Or your Amazon account was hacked and you need to log in right away or risk massive problems. These are all common online scam examples, as is an email from your bank saying someone logged in using your credentials.
You log in to fix the problem – but to a fraud site that skims your password. Now you really are hacked. Since strong emotion causes fast action, online scams will often try to create fear, anger, or excitement. “Your PayPal account has been suspended” is a powerful message that can make scam victims look before they leap.
If you receive a text or email saying your account is suspended, you’re wanted in connection with a crime, or your phone is about to be disconnected, close the text or email, find the correct contact info online, and reach out to verify the claim before you act.

3. Asks for action

Online scammers frequently ask you to call a number, click a link, or log in to an account. The trouble is, you’re not logging into a legitimate portal, but instead, you’re sharing your login info with the scammer through a counterfeit web page or form.
Never take action requested through an email or text message. Take your own action instead. Most often, this means exiting the text or email and finding the appropriate website and contact info online.

4. Unexpected contact

When someone contacts you unexpectedly, it’s often a sign you’re being scammed. If you receive an SMS, email, phone call, or even a paper letter that you didn’t expect, proceed with caution, even if the message seems innocent.

5. Asks for personal info

If you receive a request for personal info on the phone, by email, or by text, treat it with caution. One simple rule of thumb is: did you initiate the contact or did they?
Never share personal information like your social security number, password, or PIN with anyone who contacts you (vs you contacting them first). Social security scams are rampant in the U.S., costing taxpayers billions per year.

6. Overpays you

One of the most common scams online involves overpaying for something, then asking for money back. For example, in one overpayment scam, you win a cash prize or get paid in advance for a project for your business.
But whoops – the customer or business made a mistake and paid you too much. They ask for the balance back (maybe they paid you $2,200 and meant to pay only $2,000). Would you please send the extra $200 back? The trouble is, the check they sent was bogus. Now you’ve sent $200 in real money and you’re left holding $2,200 in fake money.

7. Promises something

If someone promises something that sounds too good to be true, and you don’t know them, it’s most likely bogus. For instance, they buy something you’re selling on Facebook Marketplace at twice the asking price, or they offer something you really want.
It’s a dream come true, but of the nightmare variety. Once they get you to take action, like giving away personal information such as an email address or refunding fake money they paid you, you’re out of luck.

8. Wire transfer request

Any time someone asks you to transfer money by wire, watch out. Wire transfers are untraceable, and once they pick up the money on the other end, it’s gone.
With a credit card payment, you have 60 days to dispute a fraudulent charge, and you can still get your money back. (That’s per the Federal Trade Commission’s Fair Credit Billing Act.) Many credit card companies extend this by another month for a total of 90 days.
In short: avoid wire transfers whenever possible.

9. Pretends to be a family member

But cousin Pete is in trouble! Pretending to be a family member in danger is one of the oldest tricks in the online book. You may get a Facebook message from an aunt, saying she’s trapped in Costa Rica because she was robbed and needs you to wire money right away.
But after you wire the money, you learn she’s at home watching The Handmaid’s Tale, and someone swiped her photos, set up a fake Facebook profile, and potentially swindled you.

10. Offers something you want

Cheap silver, stock in Tesla at 50% below book value, or a pontoon boat in great condition selling for thousands less than it should? These all sound like you should act fast, but that “act fast” element should make you pump the brakes.
Con artists online often dangle shiny bait, then get you to send money. But sometimes it’s not money they’re after. They may just want your phone number or other personal info, so they can sell it to interested parties.

11. Pretends to be a business or the government

AT&T free message: your bill is paid. Thank you. Here’s a gift - click this link! Then you click the link, log in, and the online scammers have your login info. If you receive a message about online shopping, account status, investments, failed package delivery, or a prize you won, slow down, verify it independently, and save yourself a lot of trouble and expense.

12. Masquerades as your employer

Some online scams don’t attack you, but your employer. Those scammers may pretend to be your boss, IT department, or other professional authority. The scammer’s goal is to get you to send sensitive info they can use to access business systems or introduce a virus. One method of scamming money online is to post fake job listings by posing as an employer.

13. Romance scams

Romance scams start with a fake social media or dating site account. The victim chats with the scammer and develops strong feelings. Then the scammer asks for money and, once they get it, quickly vanishes.
According to the FTC, more than 25,000 romance scams were reported in 2020 and victims lost a staggering $304 million.
Romance scammers will often say they’re in the military, working on an oil rig, or working internationally. They’ll ask for money for travel, surgery, customs fees, or financial help in times of trouble. To protect yourself, conduct a reverse image search to see if your new love’s photo was skimmed from another account.

How to protect yourself against scams

As tricky and brilliant as online scams are, it’s easy to protect yourself. Take the steps below to thwart most email, text, or phone scams.
  • Look for signs of fakery like misspelled words or poor grammar. Legitimate organizations pay attention to these details.
  • Don’t click links in emails or texts.
  • Don’t log into an account from an email or text.
  • Don’t call a number from an email. Look it up instead.
  • Secure your online accounts using two-factor authentication and a secure connection.
  • Pay by credit or debit card. They have protections built-in to get your money back.


As online scammers get smarter, they cheat innocent internet users out of an ever larger slice of the financial pie. But it’s not hard to defend yourself against online scams. The trick is to be cautious with anyone who approaches you. Don’t ever give out information or pay money – even as a refund – unless you can independently verify the source.

About the Author

Tom Gerencer is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Tom is an ASJA journalist, career expert at Zety.com, and a regular contributor to Boys' Life and Scouting magazines. His work is featured in Costco Connection, FastCompany, and many more.

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