Features 13.07.2023

Five Cyber Scams That Could Fool Even the Savviest Victim

There are five categories of cyber scams that can fool even the shrewdest of people. Here’s how not to get caught out.

Think you’re too smart to fall for an online scam? Think again. Eugene Yiga takes a look at five unnervingly clever cyber scams that could catch almost anyone out

Cyber criminals are constantly cooking up scams so convincing they could fool just about anyone…even your tech-savvy neighbour who works in IT. Some of the ingredients they use to perform said scams include deepfakes that look and sound as real as can be, phishing emails tailored to your life so perfectly you’d swear they’re from your best buddy, and sneaky subscription traps disguised as killer deals. Falling victim to a cyber scam can conjure up feelings of embarrassment and humiliation, adding salt to the wound that is financial damage.

1: Travel scams

Many prospective travellers use search engines for navigational queries. Scammers know this. They run ads that look like they’re from a well-known airline or hotel website but aren’t similar enough to run foul of search engine ad restrictions. For example, a scammer might purchase an ad that says: “United Airlines Flight Registrations- Book a flight today!” and wait for the clicks to roll in.

“Many users who type in ‘United Airlines’ will see the ad at the top of the page but won’t read the full details,” explains Thomas Smith, editor-in-chief of Bay Area Telegraph. “Instead, they’ll just click on it because it’s the first thing that comes up, assuming it will take them to the United Airlines website. Instead, it takes them to the scammer’s website.”

The fake website can look so legitimately like its muse and even allows the user to book an actual flight. But it adds an often-large ‘convenience fee’ or ‘travel agency fee’ to the purchase, which the customer overlooks. Because the booking is legitimate, the victim might not realise they’ve been overcharged or booked through a third party. Instead, the scammer collects a fee despite doing no extra work and without providing any service.

How not to get scammed: “When booking a flight or hotel, always enter the website for your airline or hotel directly into your browser,” Smith says. “If you use Google to find an airline or hotel’s website, always check the URL listed on the search engine results page to make sure it matches with the airline or hotel and isn’t a third party you’ve never heard of. Also, check your receipt after booking to ensure you haven’t been charged any extra fees you didn’t agree to or don’t understand.”

2: Deepfake scams

Deepfakes are AI-generated synthetic media which can convincingly impersonate real individuals by manipulating or fabricating audio and video content. The leap in technology that allows for the creation of these almost undetectable fakes has increased the potency of this scam, making it a significant threat.

“The working of a deepfake scam is often quite straightforward but terrifying in its efficacy,” says Diego Cardini, founder of The Drum Ninja. “Scammers use AI technology to clone the voice or create a visual representation of a trusted figure, such as a CEO or a family member. The victims are then approached with seemingly authentic video messages or phone calls, pushing them to undertake actions they believe are legitimate.”

A notorious (and terrifying) example of a deepfake scam occurred in 2019. The CEO of a UK-based energy firm thought he was on the phone with his boss, the chief executive of the firm’s German parent company. The ‘boss’ asked him to transfer €220,000 to a Hungarian supplier, claiming it was urgent. Thanks to the intricately mimicked familiar German accent and voice patterns, the request seemed genuine, so the CEO complied. However, the call was a deepfake, and the money was promptly moved into other accounts and lost.

How not to get scammed: “It’s crucial to have robust security measures,” Cardini says. ”Establishing a multi-step verification process for financial transactions, particularly those requested over the phone or email, can provide a security buffer. Moreover, educating employees and individuals about the existence and tactics of deepfake scams is critical. As technology advances and deepfakes become increasingly sophisticated, our defensive strategies must evolve. That’s why investment in AI-driven detection tools that can identify manipulated media can play a pivotal role in countering deepfake scams.”

3: Romance scams

Anyone who has seen the Tinder Swindler knows how elaborate (and cruel) a romance scam can be. It’s all about scammers pretending to be interested in the victim, showering them with attention, affection, and declarations of love to gain their trust and exploit their emotions.

“Scammers manipulate the victim into sending money or providing sensitive personal information,” says Robert Siciliano, CEO of ProtectNowLLC.com. “They always create elaborate stories or fabricate emergencies to convince the victim to send money. Scammers will continue the deception over an extended period, maintaining the illusion of a relationship while extracting money from the victim to bleed them dry.”

Romance scam victims share common characteristics. They are often emotionally vulnerable people who may be lonely, recently divorced, widowed, or simply seeking companionship. They also tend to trust others, believing in the sincerity of online relationships, making them more susceptible to manipulation and deception. And given that these scams primarily occur through online dating platforms, victims are often new to these services and simply trust that all suitors are legit.

“Most are unfamiliar with the tactics used by scammers and may not be aware of the warning signs or red flags to watch out for in online relationships,” Siciliano says. “But while these characteristics may be common among romance scam victims, anyone can fall victim to such scams. Being lonely trumps common sense.

How not to get scammed: “Becoming informed, cautious, and maintaining a healthy scepticism while engaging in online relationships can help protect against these fraudulent activities.”

4: Pig butchering scams

Pig butchering combines two sectors already filled with fraud: dating apps and cryptocurrency. In pig butchering scams, the victims are referred to as pigs being prepared for slaughter—they’re raised for their meaty profit under the promise of happily ever after and big crypto wins. In reality, the victims are ordinary people who are left financially and emotionally devastated.

“I went undercover as a target of these scammers,” says Jane Lee, trust and safety architect at Sift. “I found that these cyber criminals spend months gaining online daters’ trust, using romance and the lure of fast crypto returns to swindle victims out of their savings and sometimes cause irreparable financial harm, on top of lasting emotional and psychological trauma.”

The scam relies on getting victims to move their conversation with their supposed love interest off the dating apps and onto private messaging platforms like WhatsApp. Once there, the scammer eventually turns the conversation to crypto investing and works to build enough trust with their target so that they ‘invest’ in a counterfeit exchange that mimics legitimate ones and even includes 24/7 customer service.

How not to get scammed: “For consumers on dating apps, be wary if someone you’ve just started messaging insists on continuing the conversation on a different messaging platform,” Lee advises. “The cliché of ‘if it seems too good to be true, it probably is’ remains good advice. Anyone who promises big investment opportunities, free goods or services, or a luxurious lifestyle is probably after your wallet. Finally, don’t send money to people you’ve only met online, and only use reputable financial platforms when you do make these transactions.”

5: Online pet scams

One of the most heart-wrenching scams that have seen an alarming rise in recent years involves pets. These scams exploit people’s love for animals, promising them a furry friend but delivering nothing except disappointment, heartache, and financial loss. So how do these pet scams work?

“Typically, these pet scam artists run multiple websites, churning out appealing ads that promise the sale or adoption of animals that simply don’t exist,” says Nate Ryan, director of growth at Consumer Direct. “They purport to have a variety of pets needing a loving home. Crafted to pull at your heartstrings, these ads make you believe that by responding, you’re doing more than just buying a pet; you’re offering a chance at a better life for a vulnerable creature.”

However, behind these compelling ads lies a complex maze of deception and manipulation. The pet scammer’s modus operandi involves weaving emotionally charged stories. They may concoct tales of pets hailing from a prestigious lineage, being orphaned, or needing to be rehomed due to a personal tragedy. The narratives often highlight issues like animal abandonment, instilling a sense of urgency and responsibility in the potential pet owner.

How not to get scammed: “Once the unsuspecting victim is ensnared, the pet scammer shifts to the transaction phase. The moment money enters the picture, the scammer often vanishes without a trace. Victims are left financially poorer and emotionally shattered, mourning the loss of a pet they had already begun to love. The sophisticated strategies these pet fraudsters employ, and the intense emotions linked with pet ownership render these online scams particularly heartless.”

Forewarned is forearmed

The internet is chock-full of hustlers trying to steal your hard-earned cash. But now that you’ve had a glimpse behind the curtain, you’ll be better equipped to spot these scams. Remember to trust your instincts, double-check before you double-click, and do your part to keep the web a safe and scam-free place for us all.


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