As more people spent time online during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not too surprising that online scams became the riskiest type of scam in 2020.
Nearly 40% of scams reported to the BBB last year were online purchase scams, followed by employment scams, which had been the top scam reported in 2019, according to the 2020 BBB Scam Tracker Risk Report, “Online scams rise during COVID-19 pandemic.” Data for the report was provided through the BBB Scam Tracker, an online platform for consumers and businesses to report scams and suspicious activity to the BBB.
The report, presented by the BBB Institute for Marketplace Trust, sheds light on the scams with the greatest impact, who is targeted in those scams and how they’re being perpetrated. The report is part of BBB’s effort to curtail fraud, empower consumers and businesses to protect themselves from scams, and help honest and trustworthy businesses prosper.
The BBB Risk Index measures scams on three levels: that of exposure, or the prevalence of a particular type of scam; susceptibility, or the likelihood of losing money when exposed to a scam; and the actual monetary loss.
Scams on the rise
In 2020, more than 46,000 scams were reported on the BBB Scam Tracker, a nearly 25% increase from 2019. Though scams increased, the actual money lost dropped 28.1%, from a median dollar value of $160 in 2019 to $115 in 2020, the lowest since the BBB began reporting Scam Tracker data in 2016. Unfortunately, susceptibility increased from 35.1% in 2019 to 46.7% in 2020, likely due to the rise of online purchase scams.
Those reporting a scam were spending more time online (43.1%) and making more online purchases because of the pandemic (57.1%). Many were forced to socially distance, and conducted more of their personal and professional lives online, and those who lost jobs sought new ones online. These reasons likely made online purchases and employment scams the riskiest in 2020.
Scams involving pets and personal protective equipment, in particular, rose during the pandemic with the purchase of more pets and pet supplies, plus masks and other PPE products, online. The animals and various products were promised, but not delivered once payment was made.
The monetary loss
Overall, the median dollar loss for online scams increased from $76 in 2019 to $96 in 2020 (for pets and pet supplies, the median loss was $750). Employment scams had a much higher monetary loss, though they decreased from a median loss of $1,500 in 2019 to $967 in 2020. The next three riskiest scams included fake checks and money orders, advance fee loans and home improvement scams.
The main contact methods for online scams were through websites, social media and email, and credit cards were the top payment method for all types of scams, followed by online payment systems like PayPal. Scammers also impersonated well-known companies and government agencies and organizations to perpetrate their scams, with the top being the Social Security Administration, followed by Amazon and Publishers Clearing House.
Scams not only carry a financial cost, an emotional and psychological impact can result. In an annual survey of individuals reporting a scam to the BBB Scam Tracker, the impacts included lost time (63.7%), loss in confidence and peace of mind (52.1%), and loss of personal information (36.5%).
Younger people lost money to scammers at a higher rate than older people, and for the first time, those ages 18-24 had the same median dollar loss as those 65 and older at $150. Women were more susceptible to losing money than men at 48%, compared with 45.7%, but men lost more monetarily, a median of $168 versus $105 for women.
The good news is that individuals and businesses can reduce their risk of becoming a victim of a scam in several ways. They can start by being aware of the methods and behaviors of scammers, which is more important than knowing about specific scam types.
Tips for avoiding a scam
The report outlines 10 tips for avoiding a scam, which include a bunch of don’ts, such as:
Don’t send money to someone you haven’t met in person.
Don’t click on links or open attachments in unsolicited email or text messages.
Don’t believe all the details, since scammers can mimic official seals, fonts and logos on a website or in an email.
Don’t buy online unless the transaction is secure. Make sure the website has “https” in the URL, with the extra s for “secure,” and a small lock icon on the address bar.
Don’t share personally identifiable information when contact is unsolicited.
Don’t be pressured to act immediately.
Other pieces of advice include being cautious with those you meet online and with what you share on social media; using secure, traceable transactions when making a payment; and, when possible, working with businesses that have proper identification, licensing and insurance.
Here at the BBB, we want to stop scammers to keep more dollars in a trustworthy marketplace, since scams undermine that trust and take money from legitimate transactions. Those who end up enduring a scam have less money to spend in the market, but also may hesitate to purchase from new businesses, while businesses that have had their brands impersonated may find a loss of trust in their customer base.
For the marketplace to be a healthy one, consumers need to be aware of what could go wrong so that they can put their faith and trust in honest businesses, keeping money where it belongs, out of the pockets of scammers and in the tills of businesses that deliver what they promise.
Shelley Polansky is president/CEO of BBB Serving Northern Colorado and Wyoming.