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Online scam

The main ingredients of an online scam and how to recognise them

A guide to staying safe on the internet. Protect your personal details and finances online. Recognise online scams and prevent yourself from falling for them.

Keeping ourselves safe online is becoming more and more important. The more we do online, the harder it can hit us when something goes wrong. We’ve all heard the horror stories. Online scams where entire life savings are stolen. We might believe it can’t happen to us, but we’d be wrong.

But that is no reason to despair. There are ways that we can protect ourselves. How? By understanding the basics of how scammers work. With that knowledge, you can keep your personal information and your finances safe online.

To help you, we’ve collected the main ingredients of an online scam below.

Ingredient 1: Scammers try to make it look real

It’s been a while since online scams were just Nigerian princes looking to give you their money. Scam messages are no longer riddled with spelling mistakes and bad grammar. These days scammers have learned to try and make their messages look as real as possible. There are two ways they do this: by copying real-life situations and by creating their own verification systems.

Scammers copy real-life situations

Phishing emails are looking more and more like the real deal. It’s not just better visuals and grammar. The kind of messages scammers send has changed as well. The too-good to be true messages of the past no longer work. Now, scammers try to use situations that are possible in real life. Think paying for speeding tickets or paying to get your package through customs. A good thing to keep in mind is that the government and companies very rarely ask you to pay via email. If you are ever in doubt please contact the organisation or company themselves.

Scammers have their own verification systems

Scammers know that we’re wary on the internet. They have even found ways to use our own carefulness against us. For instance: scammers can spoof a caller-ID and make it look like another number is calling you. If you check the phone number it looks correct and you feel safe. A good way to prevent yourself from falling into this trap is contacting the company the scammers are spoofing directly. When someone is messaging you, don’t reply to the message, but look up the real company’s customer service and message them. If the message is legit, they can confirm it for you. If it’s not, you’ve just saved yourself from a scam.

Ingredient 2: Scammers try to gain your trust

Making it look real is one way to gain your trust. But it’s not the only way. Online scammers will be the most polite and patient people you’ve ever interacted with online. They know that the more you trust them, the more you’ll be willing to give away. And they are patient enough to slowly build up that trust.

Scammers start to build up trust by assuming the identity of an authority figure, like a fraud detection manager or a police officer. Then they’ll create a false power balance by using apologetic language. They’ll tell you how sorry they are for taking up your time and how they understand your concerns. All so you’ll feel sympathetic towards them. If you have concerns, they’ll patiently explain and send you to a fake verification system they’ve set up. Only when you fully trust them will they ask for personal information or money.

Ingredient 3: Scammers create a sense of urgency

Another way scammers try to lure you in is by creating a false sense of urgency. You have to decide now. Whether it’s through a countdown timer on a ‘too good to be true discount’, or by telling you your finances are at risk and you need to act now or lose everything.

When we need to make a decision now, we often don’t think critically enough. Be wary whenever someone contacts you with extreme urgency. Especially when it’s combined with an extremely good or bad outcome. Remember, missing a discount is better than falling for a scam. And find ways outside of the scammer’s control to check their story.

Ingredient 4: Scammers appeal to your emotions

Humans are not simple logic machines. We use our emotions to make decisions. Sometimes this can be used against us. One way scammers do that is by making us feel sympathy towards them as stated above.

They also do it by using the things we most want and fear. We are less likely to think critically when something can happen that scares us. For instance: you’ll get an email alert from an app you use for work saying your account will be shut down in 24 hours if you don’t act now. The links to fix it can contain malware. By using a sense of urgency in combination with emotional appeals, scammers try to make us act without thinking.

Online scam

The key take-aways

So now you know the main ingredients of an online scam. But what are the best ways to protect yourself?

  • If someone asks you to do something (whether it’s to send something or to click a link) with extreme urgency. See that as a red flag.

  • Don’t assume an email, text or phone call is authentic. Always check in a way outside of the control of the scammers.

  • Double-check the sender’s email address and any links in the email before clicking on anything or responding to any requests.

  • Be wary of all cold calls or messages out of the blue.

  • Don’t rely on caller ID – numbers can be spoofed by fraudsters to make it look like they’re calling from a trusted number.

  • Don’t be rushed and stay in control. When in doubt, find another way to contact the company/organisation you think you’re talking to.