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    Clickbait or Catfish? How to Spot Online Scams Before They Get You

    Ah, the internet. A vast digital ocean brimming with knowledge, connection… and lurking sharks, just waiting to take a financial bite out of you. Yes, online scams are as prevalent as cat videos these days, and just as tempting to click on (because, let’s face it, who can resist a good cat compilation?). But fear not, fellow netizen! Before you find yourself swimming with the fishes (read: financially floundering), let’s equip ourselves with the tools to navigate this digital sea with the grace of a dolphin (or maybe a particularly clever goldfish). So, grab your virtual life preserver and dive in – we’re about to learn how to identify those online phishing attempts before they reel you in!

    TL;DR

    • Slow Down & Verify: Don’t rush into transactions or friendships online. Verify information and ask questions.
    • Beware the Checkmark Mirage: Blue checkmarks aren’t foolproof. Deepfakes can mimic voices and appearances.
    • Question Everything: Use secure payment methods, be skeptical of money requests, and avoid sharing personal information.
    • Tech Tools to the Rescue: Utilize features like scam alerts and message filters offered by social media platforms.
    • Think Before You Click: Cross-check information and be cautious of suspicious links.

    You’re scrolling through Facebook, LinkedIn, or X when a message pops up. Maybe it’s from a stranger in your industry, or perhaps someone from your hometown claiming to know you from way back when. They want to reconnect or get your advice. Sounds delightful, right? Or maybe it’s the start of a scam.

    In today’s digital age, where our social interactions have largely shifted online, it’s increasingly difficult to discern friend from foe. Security experts warn that personalized schemes to dupe internet users are on the rise. In fact, it’s more likely that the person messaging you is trying to scam you rather than reconnect. Let’s dive into why that is and what you can do to protect yourself.

    The Check Mark Mirage

    Once upon a time, a check mark next to a name on social media signaled a verified identity. Those were the days! Unfortunately, that’s no longer a foolproof sign. Artificial intelligence (AI) has empowered bad actors to replicate voices and appearances with alarming accuracy. Imagine receiving a video call from someone who looks and sounds just like your old friend, only to discover it’s a scammer using deepfake technology.

    Moreover, online transactions, such as selling furniture on Facebook Marketplace, have become prime targets for fraud. And let’s not forget about romance scams, euphemistically called “pig butchering,” where scammers pretend to kindle romance online to gain access to victims’ money.

    Slow Down

    So, what’s the single best step to determine someone’s identity online and protect yourself? Simple: slow down. Don’t rush to respond to an intriguing message. Instead, do some vetting before taking things further. Tech companies are stepping up their game too. Google, LinkedIn, and Bumble are introducing features to detect suspicious messages and users.

    Staggering Stats

    Consider this: U.S. consumers lost $1.1 billion to romance scams last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Business scams cost a staggering $752 million. Clearly, the stakes are high. The sophistication of these scams means the guidelines for operating online are changing. Some old rules still apply: cross-check people and their credentials on legitimate sites, like their employer’s homepage. And don’t click on suspicious links or move the conversation to a different platform.

    A Cautionary Tale

    Take Callie Smith, a 27-year-old who failed to get presale tickets to an Olivia Rodrigo concert. Desperate, she turned to resale tickets. She found an Instagram account offering 2-for-1 tickets. They exchanged phone numbers, video-chatted, and Smith sent $700 via Apple Cash. Surprise, surprise—the seller blocked her and never transferred the tickets. Smith couldn’t get her money back because instant peer-payment services have few fraud protections.

    Had she searched the person’s name and phone number before sending money, the lack of results might have been a red flag. Security analysts suggest using payment methods with more fraud protections, such as designating the transaction as payment for a good or service on PayPal. Apps for paying family and friends, including Apple Cash, should be treated like handing over actual cash.

    “You just can’t trust everyone,” says Smith, who still hasn’t gotten tickets for the late-July show.

    The Hot Seat

    Trusting the sound of a familiar voice on the phone? That’s so last century. AI can mimic voices and faces with uncanny accuracy. In Hong Kong, an employee handed over $25.5 million to an attacker posing as the company’s CFO using AI. With generative AI, you may absolutely recognize the voice or the face, but that doesn’t make it real.

    If you’re messaging with someone online, pepper them with questions to discern whether they’re human or a bot. Patrick Long, a security analyst at research firm Gartner, suggests thinking about how the sender would have gotten specific information about you. For someone claiming to be family or a friend, ask questions only they would know or things that can’t be easily found on social media—like your mid-’90s senior-class prank.

    Interrogate the Impostors

    Having a code word ready can also be a lifesaver. AI can replicate voices, so someone could call claiming to be your son—and even sound like him—asking for money. Before transferring funds, ask for your prearranged secret word.

    When dealing with job recruiters or potential love interests, ask about previous employers, schools, and names of people they know. Cross-check with other sources online. For recruiters, see whether they are listed on their firm’s website. If the answers don’t match, end the conversation and block the sender.

    Cross-Check Everything

    You can cross-check a number by searching for it on Google, but pay close attention to search results. Just because a link appears as the top result doesn’t mean it’s a trusted source.

    What Tech Companies Are Doing

    Tech companies are also on the case. Google is building a tool for Android users that alerts them to potential scams during calls. It detects conversation patterns commonly associated with fraud, such as a “bank representative” asking you to share your password. Users will have to opt into the feature, and Google will share more information about it later this year.

    LinkedIn automatically filters out suspicious messages for U.S. accounts. You can turn it off in data privacy settings. LinkedIn’s feature detects potentially harmful content, such as when someone asks to leave LinkedIn to communicate on another platform.

    Social media services can police some activities of bad actors on their apps. But if you end up texting with someone who initially messaged you on LinkedIn, you lose that backstop. If there are red flags from someone you haven’t communicated with before, LinkedIn automatically sends the message to spam. If a message from someone known to you seems suspicious, it still shows up in your inbox with a warning. The feature is on by default for U.S. users.

    Dating app Bumble’s Deception Detector tool uses AI to assess the authenticity of profiles on its dating app. Two months after launch, member reports of scam accounts fell by 45%, a Bumble spokeswoman says.

    Before You Pay

    Always handle digital interactions with skepticism, especially when asked to do something out of the ordinary, such as sending a large sum of money. Security analysts advise weighing the risks of the conversation. A chat with a stranger about Friday’s football game is different from someone asking you to fund a business.

    Never share personal information like your Social Security number. If money is changing hands, pay in a way that is protected. Apps like PayPal and Venmo offer purchase protections if you designate a transaction as payment for goods or services. Apple Cash doesn’t have this option.

    Before sending any money, such as to buy used furniture or concert tickets, let the new contact know the security steps you are taking. Note how the person responds. Are they patient and understanding, or do they seem rushed and defensive?

    My Two Cents

    As someone who’s seen the wild west of the internet evolve, here’s my advice: trust, but verify. The internet is a fantastic tool, but it’s also a playground for the unscrupulous. Approach every new interaction with a healthy dose of skepticism. Your future self will thank you.

    While the digital age offers unprecedented convenience and connectivity, it also comes with significant risks. By staying vigilant, slowing down, and using the tools and tips available, you can protect yourself from falling victim to online scams. Remember, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

    Recent Examples Highlighting Online Scams

    The article talks about how online scams are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and here are a few recent examples that illustrate this point:

    • Romance Scams: According to the Federal Trade Commission https://www.ftc.gov/, U.S. consumers lost a staggering $1.1 billion to romance scams in 2023. These scams often involve fraudsters creating fake online personas to build trust with victims and eventually manipulate them into sending money.
    • Deepfake Scams: In Hong Kong, an employee lost $25.5 million after an attacker impersonated the company’s CFO using AI-generated voice technology [Source needed]. This incident highlights how deepfakes can be used to bypass security protocols and trick people into trusting fake information.

    These are just a few examples, and as the article mentions, online scams can take many forms, so it’s crucial to stay vigilant.

    In the digital jungle, even the most convincing monkeys might be throwing cyber bananas. Stay skeptical, my friends, and cultivate your inner internet Jane Goodall. By following these tips, you’ll be dodging online scams like Neo dodging bullets in the Matrix (though hopefully with less dramatic poses).

    For more intel on outsmarting online tricksters, be sure to check out our other articles in the “Scam Prevention” category. After all, knowledge is power, and in the fight against online scams, we all want to be wielding the ultimate digital weapon!

    The images accompanying this article were created using Leonardo, unless stated otherwise.

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