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The Top Scams of 2021 and How to Protect Yourself This Year

Melissa Trumpower of the BBB talks about the top scams of 2021.

The top scams of 2021 range across all kinds of tricks and tools. The Better Business Bureau is collecting information about these scams – and Melissa Trumpower has tips to help you stay safe from scams this year.


See The Top 5 Scams of Last Year with Melissa Trumpower for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Melissa Trumpower is the executive director of the BBB Institute for Marketplace Trust, which is the education foundation for the Better Business Bureau. They offer a range of programs, including the BBB Scam Tracker, an online platform that lets consumers submit scams that targeted them. That data is used for consumer education and to help combat scams.

Consumer education is the best protection against scams.

Melissa Trumpower

The BBB has worked on consumer complaints for legitimate businesses for a century. But in 2015, they decided to get more serious about collecting information on bad actors. They use the data collected from the BBB Scam Tracker for two purposes. One purpose is to provide that education to consumers. They also use it for research. The BBB releases two to three reports a year with information on scams and scam trends. This information helps other organizations who fight scams and also provides more information to consumers.

How the BBB Evaluates Scam Risk

In their 2021 Scam Tracker Risk Report, the BBB ranked the top scams of 2021 using a Risk Index. They evaluate riskiness with three factors: Prevalence, susceptibility, and median dollar loss.

Prevalence is how many scams of that type happen. The more people who report being targeted by a particular type of scam, the higher that scam’s prevalence.

Susceptibility is determined by the percentage of people targeted by that scam who lose money. If ten people are targeted by a particular scam and eight of them lose money, that scam has an 80% susceptibility rate.

Median dollar loss is how much money the average person who falls for that scam loses. Some scams have significantly higher median dollar loss than others.

Using this ranking system and the data reported by the BBB Scam Tracker, they can calculate which scams are the riskiest overall. That’s how they determined the top scams of 2021.

The #1 Top Scam of 2021: Online Purchase Scams

Online purchase scams were the top scam in 2020 and they are still the top scam in 2021. They were the most prevalent scam – about a third of scams reported in 2021 were online purchase scams – and they have a high susceptibility. About 75% of people targeted by an online purchase scam lost money.

The top scam of 2021 was online purchase scams - you may think you're buying a product, but the scammer will take your money and send you nothing in return!

The most common type of online purchase scams are when you purchase something and never get it. This happens if you end up on a fake website. You’re at risk of this scam even if you’re not shopping. Ads pop up on social media that can take you to fake websites. Searching online for products can also take you to fake websites.

Be aware when you’re online, even if you’re not shopping. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Melissa Trumpower

How to Avoid Falling for an Online Purchase Scam

Some ads will target you with a very low price on something you’ve been searching for. Often the excuse will be a going out of business sale. There’s pressure to buy now while it’s available. Take your time and don’t let yourself be pressured into making a rash decision. Do more research. If you haven’t used the site before, check if it’s secure and how old the site is. If it’s a new domain, be careful – new sites can pop up, steal money, and then disappear.

Don’t pay with anything you can’t trace, like a gift card, money order, or wire transfer. A new trend is scammers trying to get you to use an online purchase system like Zelle. Most of these systems are very clear that you should only use them with people you know personally. Credit card charges can be reversed, but online payment systems like Zelle often can’t.

Finally, don’t let reviews be your only research. People often look at reviews to see if a company is legitimate. But it’s almost impossible to tell which reviews are real and which are fake. When the BBB had people take a test to identify fake reviews, everyone failed. They can be part of your research and they can be helpful, but you can’t know how many are real.

Top Scam #2: Cryptocurrency Scams

Cryptocurrency scams were #7 on the list of top scams in 2020, but they jumped to #2 on the top scams of 2021. In fact, they doubled in that time period. They don’t make up the same percentage of total scams as the other top scams of 2021, but they have a very high median dollar loss. The average person who loses money to a cryptocurrency scam loses $1,200. Compare that to $169 for all scams overall, and you see why the BBB says it’s so risky!

Melissa has seen an increase in romance-style scams tied to cryptocurrency. Scammers will spend the time to build a relationship with you – whether that’s a romantic relationship or a friendship. Once they gain your trust, they’ll encourage you to use cryptocurrency to invest money into a business. The business is either a company that they never plan to launch or one that doesn’t even exist. It’s an investment scam, basically, but using cryptocurrency.

To top it all off, cryptocurrency payments aren’t reversible. Once you’ve sent cryptocurrency to someone, it’s gone. Melissa recommends being very careful if you want to get involved in cryptocurrency.

Top Scam #3: Employment Scams

Employment scams have been big in the past few years, and they make the top scams of 2021 list at #3. Scammers can put a lot of work into employment scams. They’ll have you fill out an application and spend the time to interview you. Some will even send you work to do to make you think you’ve landed a legitimate job. The effort is worth it for them because it’s a big payoff – the median dollar loss on this type of scam is $900.

Sometimes they will steal your personal information off your job application. But more often, they’ll use a fraudulent check scam. They will send you a fake check in the mail and tell you to deposit that check into your bank account. Then they say to transfer the money to another account for purchasing to get your home office equipment. If someone is already convinced it’s a legitimate job, they often do it. By the time the check comes back as fake, they’ve already transferred the money.

Employment scams are one of the top scams of 2021 because scammers get such a big payoff from it.

Online job sites are doing a really good job weeding out fake job ads. But scammers will often approach you directly. If you’ve posted on a job board or on LinkedIn saying you’re looking for a job, they can reach out and say that you look like a great fit. On Craigslist, they will post work-from-home jobs with great pay and require only general skills. They’re trying to catch as many people as possible. As the saying goes, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

If something feels too good to be true, read your gut, pause, and do a little bit more research.

Melissa Trumpower

Top Scam #4: Home Improvement Scams

With so many people staying home during COVID-19 lockdowns, there was a rise in home improvement projects. Home improvement scams are simple. Someone agrees to do work on your house, and you pay them. Then they either never do the work or they never finish the work. Home improvement scams have a high median dollar loss, with the average victim losing $995. They also have a high susceptibility rate, with 59.1% of people targeted falling for the scam.

Top Scam #5: Investment Scams

This is another scam from the top scams of 2021 with a high median dollar loss. The average person who loses money on an investment scam loses $1,100. And 56.9% of people targeted by this type of scam become victims.

To avoid falling for an investment scam, be suspicious of anything too good to be true. No investment opportunity has zero risk. If someone is offering you a great opportunity with no risk and a high reward, that’s a red flag. Also be wary of anyone trying to rush you to invest immediately. If a person says they’re a broker, you can check with the FINRA broker check tool. If someone offers you an investment opportunity, take the time to find out if it – and they – are genuine.

Honorable Mention: Moving Scams

Moving scams aren’t at the top of the list of top scams of 2021. But they have the highest susceptibility. More people lose money to moving scams than any other scam. There’s two ways a moving scam can happen. One is that you pay a company to help you move and they just don’t show up. The other is when they come, pick up your stuff, and then refuse to give it back until you pay them more money. These aren’t high on the list of top scams of 2021 because they aren’t very common, but 76% of people targeted by them lose money.

Protecting Yourself from Scams

Melissa and the BBB spoke to people who successfully avoided losing money to the top scams of 2021 and asked what helped them. The top thing they said was to trust your gut. If you feel like something is wrong, stop. Take a moment to do that extra research. You can even search the BBB Scam Tracker to see if someone else has reported the scam already.

A lot of people have been able to avoid losing money by doing that – by searching.

Melissa Trumpower

Other tools they used were researching and having an awareness of common scams and tricks scammers use. Learning the tricks and doing the research are the best things you can do to avoid falling for the top scams of 2021.

Watch for red flags, like pressuring you to act fast or seeming too good to be true. Many scammers will pretend to be legitimate organizations like the Social Security Administration, the IRS, or Amazon. It’s easy to create a fake website that looks real, spoof phone calls, or pretend to be someone else online. Scammers are always changing their methods and coming up with new ways to defraud you. Stop, do your research, talk to your friends, and check with the BBB or other organizations to learn more before you send the money.

Scammers change with the wind. They change with the news as it changes. They know how to shift. They change their tactics constantly. … You have to stay on top of it.

Melissa Trumpower

To report a scam or see what else has been reported, or to check and see if something suspicious you’ve encountered has already been reported, visit the BBB Scam Tracker at bbb.org/scamtracker. To read the latest research reports, visit the foundation website at bbbmarketplacetrust.org.

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