By Ron Lieber
June 25, 2021
If you’re a digital native and consider yourself immune to all scams, the thieves have you right where they want you.
For years now, the Better Business Bureau’s survey research has shown that younger adults lose money to swindlers much more often than the older people you may think of as the stereotypical victims. The Federal Trade Commission reports similar figures, with 44% of people ages 20 to 29 losing money to fraud, more than double the 20% of people ages 70 to 79.
The Better Business Bureau’s latest report revealed a new twist: When criminals redoubled their efforts as homebound people spent more time online last year, they succeeded in bringing the median loss per scam for adults ages 18 to 24 to the same level — $150 — it was for the much more flush 65-plus crowd.
When we look at the kinds of scams that work on young people, there’s nary a Nigerian prince in sight. The targeted activities vary widely, from the online shopping that these victims may do nearly every day to their once-in-a-blue-moon handling of paper checks. Illegal schemes also target the student debt payments they must make and the jobs they seek to afford them.
So let’s lay out what these scams look like — and remind ourselves how we might best reach young people who think they are invincible.
Online Retail Scams
The false promise of a rare or surprisingly cheap product isn’t a new form of flimflam, but the internet sure makes it easier — especially if you’re accustomed to frequently buying online.
Online purchase scams accounted for 64% of the reports of lost money to the Better Business Bureau last year, up from just 13% in 2015. And according to the bureau’s data, 83% of young adults who were exposed to such scams fell for them, more than any other age group.
There are two trends to be aware of here.
First, don’t be blinded by puppy love. Pet and pet-supply scams have historically made up 25% of the online purchase scams reported to the Better Business Bureau — and that ramped up to one-third this past year as pandemic pet purchases boomed. The American Kennel Club and the Humane Society of the United States offer tip sheets online to try to keep you from being both dogless and out the median dollar loss of $660 that the bureau reports.
Second, Amazon is everywhere — including as a vector for fraud. Given its size, con artists try to impersonate Amazon more often than any other company’s brand.
The company offers some geeked-out advice for spotting trouble in an unsolicited “Amazon” offer:
- Real Amazon sites have a dot before amazon.com in the URL.
- If you get a message saying you need to update your payment method, always go directly to the Amazon site on your own to see if it’s true — not through a link in the message.
- The company doesn’t send links that have strings of jumbled numbers in them.
Also of note: Scammers sometimes thumb their nose at the Better Business Bureau itself by pretending to be the organization when initiating Amazon scams.
Millions of people were left jobless through no fault of their own during the pandemic, so it’s no surprise that these scams proliferated. And grifters took to offering bogus jobs that are particularly attractive to young adults.
Postings for foot-in-the-door, exposure-to-creative-industries gigs like assistants and receptionists are common ploys for people with bad intentions. The same goes for postings for warehouse and shipping work, an area that boomed during the pandemic and offers jobs for which many people are qualified.
The scams frequently request dates of birth and Social Security numbers, which can be used to commit the worst forms of identity theft. Another form of fraud asks for a few hundred dollars to cover supplies or training for positions that turn out not to exist.
Of survey respondents who encountered employment scams, 32% said theirs had originated on the job listing site Indeed, far surpassing other popular platforms, the Better Business Bureau noted in a report from last year.
Indeed seems well aware of this and posts tips to avoid this form of fraud. (The company probably ought to force you to read the warnings before letting you look at a single listing.) Among them is a kind of self-own: “Never agree to a job that involves opening multiple accounts and/or posting ads on Indeed or on other sites.”
In short, Indeed wants you to watch out for Indeed scammers getting you to use Indeed to run Indeed scams.
These often involve a very real piece of paper, which appears to be drawing on a business or personal bank account, or rendered as a money order or a cashier’s check. It looks so authentic that the recipient doesn’t catch on and the bank doesn’t immediately reject it.
Then comes the con, which is a follow-up message asking for some of the money back: “Sorry, this is an accidental overpayment” or “Please use some of the money to perform mystery shopping of online money transfer services.”
These checks can arrive in the mail, appearing to be a prize or a rebate — just the kind of payment that your banking app can quickly digest through your phone’s camera. Often, they’re a twist on an employment scam: A hustler overpays the applicant the hustler just hired, supposedly by accident — and then wants some of the money back.
People in their 20s are more than twice as likely as older adults to fall prey to this sort of thing, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Many of them haven’t used checks much, and they may not be aware that while federal rules require banks to make funds from checks available quickly, those same banks may take many more days to root out a fake one. Once they do, they usually want the money back from the victim for having introduced the bad check into the system.
Student Loan Scams
This is already a problem, but it could get a lot worse very soon.
Tens of millions of borrowers have their federal student loan payments on pause right now, thanks to governmental efforts to keep them out of financial trouble during the pandemic. But as soon as Oct. 1, a switch will flip and most of those people will need to start the repayment process.
Even in the best of times, it’s hard for student loan borrowers to get good help from their servicers. And meltdowns seem inevitable this fall.
“It just makes the situation totally ripe for scammers,” said Seth Frotman, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center.
You can expect a flood of thieves offering “free extended forbearance” or “Biden forgiveness plans” that do not exist. Then they’d try to redirect victims’ payments or use their personal information for identity theft. Or both.
The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Education offer tips for scam avoidance. And when the Pennsylvania attorney general shut down an entity called Unified Holding Group, it revealed some eye-opening details about just how elaborate these cons can be.
Among other things, the company told borrowers to ignore outreach from their legitimate loan servicers and had just-stilted-enough-to-be-legit language on its website saying things like “We find integrity fosters a positive reputation and a sense of security in all our business interactions.”
So What Can We Do?
It is deeply unsatisfactory to default to “more awareness” as a partial solution to scams that prey on systemic complexity and inequity that shouldn’t exist in the first place. But here we are. Again.
Young adults out on their own could stand to slow down a bit. Perhaps Instagram instabuying isn’t necessary, for instance. And remember that scammers succeed more often with the stressed and the lonely. If you are either, stay wary.
Early education is crucial. If there’s a personal finance class in your kid’s school, ask the teacher whether there’s a section devoted to fraud and thievery. Studying the techniques of the crooked with wonder, awe and begrudging respect as opposed to scolding didacticism might improve things.
Even better would be your own educational campaign — a kind of true-crime drama. Chances are you’ve seen a scam in action, even if you weren’t taken in. So unspool tales of your own near-victimization — or worse. Sure, you might become the subject of temporary mockery. But the story is likely to stick.
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