Relatively speaking, social media is still pretty new. In the time that social media has been around we’ve seen different platforms rise and fall.
We’ve also become desensitized to many social media platforms – and their terms and conditions – changing so regularly that we barely even attempt to keep track of what’s changed. For most of us it’s easier to go with the flow and enjoy social media as a way to have fun and connect with others online.
But because of this attitude, many people fall prey to scams and fraud on social media. In the first half of 2020 almost $117 million was reported stolen from scams that started on social media. That was up almost 50% from 2019, and the number is only expected to continue growing.
It’s easy to read about social media scams – and often scams in general – and think you wouldn’t fall for something like that. But the sheer amount of money lost to them each year shows that we all need to be more wary of how we interact with social media platforms and the strangers who use them.
There are some big similarities in the types of social media scams we see and the ways that you can avoid them. Most of them either take advantage of our human emotions or general carelessness on the internet – and sometimes both. Being more aware of this can help you avoid getting scammed on social media.
Common social media scams
Quizzes and third-party apps
Social media quiz scams are a pretty common offender in the world of social scamming. They work by either launching a separate app that you inadvertently give permission to pull personal information from your profile (usually from accepting their terms and conditions), or by asking you questions that are common login security questions to get your information and then hack your accounts.
If a quiz is asking you for the street you grew up on, your high school mascot, or your first pet’s name, chances are they aren’t really trying to tell you which early 2000’s rom com you are. They’re trying to hack into your accounts.
And launching a separate app should always be treated with caution because scammers know that users are rarely checking the terms they’re agreeing to when they accept them.
Is that you in this photo or video?
In this scam a stranger will message you and ask if it’s you in a picture or video they found, with a link at the end of the message. They’ll send you to a mirror site that looks like Facebook, prompt you to login again, and then steal your login credentials. This scam works because it preys on our anxieties and curiosity.
Why is a photo of me being circulated? Do I look bad in the photo? How does this stranger know it’s me in the photo?
It’s easy to give in to this kind of curiosity, but getting a direct message from a stranger can often be a red flag, especially when they’re sending you a link. Try to only engage – whether it’s responding, or following a link – with people that you actually know.
Hidden charge scams and recurring charges
Hidden charge scams will tempt your boredom with a funny quiz and once you’ve finished it will ask for your cell phone number to send you the results. You’ve already wasted your time with the quiz, so you go ahead and enter your number to see the results. And while they will send you your results – you’ve likely unwittingly opted in to an additional charge added to your cell phone bill each month.
It may not even be a quiz. It can be anything that will pique your interest enough to get your cell phone number. These scams are particularly effective because since you’re already used to seeing a charge from your cell phone provider every month, it often takes people a long time to realize they’ve even fallen for a scam.
Romance scams and emotional manipulation
A romance scam is when someone convinces you to enter an online relationship with them in order to get your money. They used to be limited to dating apps but these types of scammers have increasingly started targeting people on popular social media platforms as well.
If a stranger’s profile seems too perfect, be on your guard. Some warning flags could also be that their romantic gestures and feelings are escalating really fast, they just so happen to live far away, they have a job that can't be verified, or they never seem available to video chat. These factors on their own may not indicate someone has less-than-noble intentions. But, if after getting closer to you and establishing an emotional connection they say they need money for things like paying off debts, medical expenses, or for travel (often to come see you) then these are red flags.
To many people this sounds like an obvious scam they would never fall for, but in 2020 reported losses to romance scams reached a record $304 million. We all feel the need for human connection and scammers prey on this fact. You think you wouldn’t fall for it until you do – so be careful if you find an online boo.
See who viewed your profile scams
The scams that have offered to show you who is viewing your profile have been around since nearly the beginning of Facebook, but variations of them are still alive and well on almost every social media platform.
The reason these scams never seem to stop working is because they play on our egoic tendencies and innate curiosity. Of course we’re all dying for that information – even though social media companies have given no indication that they will ever provide it.
Typically these offers will take you to a third-party app that you’ll need to authorize before it can show you who has supposedly been viewing your profile, and during that authorization they can hack your account or steal valuable personal information.
We’re all dying to know if that one ex is still pining over us, but please don’t fall for this type of scam.
Hidden URLs and the pitfalls of shortened links
We’ve grown used to shortened URLs for apps like Twitter, but these can be dangerous too. Since you never see the full URL, at first glance you can’t be sure where it’s going to take you. It could take you to a site that will try to install malware on your device and hack into your personal information.
Because shortened URLs are so ubiquitous online it’s pretty hard to avoid them altogether. The best thing to do here is to try and be cautious. If you think there’s a chance that it might be a scam or you’re not sure if it’s legitimate, try copying the URL into ExpandURL or Google Safe Browsing to check its safety before you click on it.
How to avoid social media scams
Unfortunately, the nature of scams is always evolving, with perpetrators constantly finding new ways to outwit people as the older methods prove less effective. With that in mind, the above list certainly doesn’t cover all of the scams you should watch out for on social media.
But since many different social media scams rely on the same basic concepts or tactics, there are a few things you can keep in mind to stay safe on social media.
Be a little more selective with your terms and conditions
Accidentally giving permissions are a really common theme in social media scams. Because fewer and fewer of us actually read the terms and conditions on anything, many scams revolve around you launching a third-party app and unwittingly giving them permission to pull your personal information, bill you for charges, and more.
If reading terms and conditions is just not something you’re ever going to subject yourself to, try to be a little more selective about what kinds of apps you’re willing to click accept for and why. Is it actually worth the risk?
Keep your information private
It doesn’t matter if it’s your phone number, your credit card information, or your login credentials for your social media accounts. You should be conscious of where you’re entering this information and why.
We’ve become pretty numb to giving out information like this but that’s exactly why some of these scams – the ones we assume we would never be foolish enough to fall for – work. Anytime you need to enter your personal information, ask yourself whether the source seems legitimate and whether or not it’s even worth it to enter your information. If it’s for something as pointless as a quiz result, it’s probably a case of better safe than sorry.
Be conscious of who you interact with online
We’ve also become accustomed to following – and being followed by – people that we don’t actually know in person. While most of the time this is probably not suspicious, if a stranger is trying to directly message you, you should at least be asking yourself why.
It will start innocently enough at first – it always does – but if anything feels off about your interactions with another user then it probably is.
And be especially conscious if that stranger wants some sort of action from you. It doesn’t matter if it’s a link, a wire transfer, or something else. If a stranger is in your messages asking for any sort of direct action from you, it may be a scam.
Of course getting asked for money online feels like a scam, but since many of these scams involve levels of emotional manipulation before they ask for the money, being cautious of interacting with strangers online at all can really help you cut some scammers off before they even begin.
Keep your social media fun and your information safe
There are two common themes throughout this article. The first is around people thinking they aren’t foolish enough to fall for a social media scam. The second is around us becoming so intertwined with online platforms – and the behaviors on them – that we rarely pause to question them.
Hackers and scammers heavily rely on both of these things to successfully get your personal information or money.
Depending on where you live, there are different local agencies to help report and stop scams like this. Check with your local consumer protection agency to see what social media scams have been reported recently and to report a scam if you’ve been taken advantage of.