Top 9 Most Common Online Scams and How to Avoid Them

Christopher Demarest |

Thanks to technology, our world has never been more connected than it is today. Email, smartphones, and online chat enable us to reach out to people all over the world with little more than a click. Those connections can open the door to countless opportunities for personal development, networking, and growth.

Unfortunately, some people see technology as an opportunity of a different sort. Scammers — individuals hoping to steal your money and personal information — have greater access than ever before. Knowing how to recognize online scams and potential fraud is critical to protecting yourself, your personal information, and your hard-earned money.

Take a moment to review the following list of scams, along with tips for avoiding them:

Charity Scams

Charity scams are a type of imposter scam, a hoax that involves someone trying to pass themself off as someone they aren’t to gain your trust. In this case, the scammer poses as a representative of a charitable organization. They reach out, often by phone, and ask you to donate.

How to protect yourself: Tell the caller you’ll get back to them once you check your budget. Ask for their name and a callback number before you hang up. Check online to see if the charity is legitimate and if the phone numbers match.

Debt Collection Scams

Debt collection scams can induce anxiety, as scammers claim to be collecting on overdue debts. They may threaten legal action if you don’t immediately provide payment or your bank account information. In reality, no legitimate debt collection agency would ever demand you make hasty payments online or over the phone. They would submit documentation in writing.

How to protect yourself: Don’t panic. Check your records to see if you have an outstanding debt with the company or financial institution that the collector is supposedly representing and reach out to confirm any late or missed payments directly with the organization(s) involved.

Money Transfer or Mobile Payment Services Fraud

Sending and receiving money through a mobile payment app may be convenient, but it’s important to exercise caution: Scammers may try to trick you into sending them money by posing as someone you know or as a reliable party selling merchandise. You may think you’re purchasing an item, but that item never arrives. Or you think you’re sending money to a friend, but you’re actually sending it to a scammer who posed as a friend by creating a phony profile. Once you transfer funds to them, your money is gone.

How to protect yourself: Don’t buy or sell goods from companies or people you don’t know and trust using a mobile payment app. When sending money to a friend or family member, verify the person or business on the receiving end is who you think it is by confirming their username, email or phone number.

Romance Scams

If you engage in online dating, be wary of romance scams, or “catfishing.” A scammer may use an online dating service to start a relationship, build trust, and then ask for money to allegedly help them pay off bills or make large purchases. These scams can be tricky to spot, but a good rule of thumb is that if something feels fishy to you, it probably is!

How to protect yourself: Never share your card number, bank account information, Social Security number or other personal information with other people — no matter what kind of spark you may feel.

Cryptocurrency Scams

If you lost money investing in cryptocurrency, be wary of any website promising a refund. Illegitimate sites may claim they can recover a certain portion of your lost investment — for a price. They’ll ask for your account numbers and login information under the guise of recouping your losses. In reality, they’re simply hoping to take control of your accounts or identity.

How to protect yourself: Don’t engage with any entity making such a promise.

One-time Password (OTP) Bot Scam

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) should always be used when you set up an online account. By requiring a two-step process for account access — entering your password and then a one-time password or passcode (OTP) sent to your smartphone, for example — you add an extra layer of protection.

Unfortunately, cybercriminals have found ways to intercept OTPs. In short, they call or text you during your login process and, posing as a financial institution or other legitimate organization, ask you to enter the OTP you just received. If you provide the code, the scammer can access your account.

How to protect yourself: Use OTPs for login only. Never share them, or any other authentication information, with anyone via call or text.

Student Loan Forgiveness Scam  

Sometimes, instead of reaching out to you, scam websites wait for you to come to them. With student loan forgiveness at the forefront of many Americans’ minds, there has been a rise in the number of websites set up to steal Social Security numbers and other personal information from students applying for aid.

How to protect yourself: Never apply for aid or provide personal information through an unverified site. Refer to the Department of Education’s website for information on student loan forgiveness, including a list of legitimate governmental resources.

Free Gift QR Code Scam

With the use of QR codes on the rise, scammers have a new way of stealing personal information: In print materials, they tamper with the codes, usually by pasting a fake code over a real one. Electronically, they text or email you a QR code and say you’ve won a free gift (usually money or merchandise). All you have to do to claim that gift is scan the code! Spoiler alert: There is no gift. The QR code will take you to a malicious site that accesses your personal information through the financial apps on your phone.

How to protect yourself: Never scan QR codes or click on links from people or businesses you don’t know.

Bank Impersonation Scam


This type of text would appear to come from your bank and convey a sense of urgency for you to verify a large transaction. If you reply yes or no to the charge, you get a phony call from a scammer posing as a representative of the bank’s fraud department. They try to convince you to provide account information, your Social Security number, etc. to resolve the issue. Similar hoaxes can be initiated by phone or email.

How to protect yourself: If you receive a suspicious message or call, don’t engage. Contact your bank using a verified, published number and ask whether the message legitimately came from them.

How to Report a Scam

If you accidentally fall prey to a scam, you can take action, for yourself as well as to protect others.

If you suspect any of your card numbers have been compromised, immediately reach out to the bank or financial institution that issued the card to (1) report the fraud, (2) review recent purchases and inform them of any that are fraudulent, and (3) freeze the card so no further purchases can be made.

If you fear that any of your personal information, particularly your Social Security number, has been compromised, report the situation to the Federal Trade Commission at After providing the necessary details, they will reach out to you with a personalized plan to protect your identity and reduce any potential damage that may result from the fraud in question.

Also, notify the three credit reporting bureaus (ExperianEquifax, and TransUnion) that they should place a fraud alert on your credit report. A fraud alert lets lenders know that you may be a fraud victim and that they should take extra steps to verify your identity before granting new credit.