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There Be Monsters

Jim Wasserman

I’VE BEEN AWAY FROM the HumbleDollar community for a while. Jiab and I are working on a new book about media literacy, examining the effects of social media influencers on youth consumerism. It will teach kids about responsible web use and how to avoid the traps of the online world.

I’ve learned a lot myself, including lessons that apply both online and IRL, short for “in real life.” As part of our research, one of the seedier, more adult corners of the internet I’ve explored is the scam solicitations that come to just about every user of social media. All platforms have their cyber-pirates hunting for vulnerable prey. Let me recount my encounters on Instagram as representative of the type.

Most scammers begin with an innocuous hello and some questions about my location and job. I usually say I’m in Atlanta—rather than my real Texas home—just to obscure the trail a bit. The profiles almost always seem to show photos of provocative young women. A Google image search shows that the same pictures are used in a variety of accounts.

After the intros comes the flattery. When asked for a pic, I send one of a famous actor about my age. This often elicits, “You’re so hot, I want to party with you.” Then comes the pitch, such as asking for gas money so she can come to my house. Some tell me they’re multi-millionaires who want to share their good fortune by giving me money.

As a teacher, I’m both amused and a bit irked that these scammers don’t do better homework preparation:

  • A woman in Los Angeles told me she could drive to my Atlanta home “in just a couple of hours” if I spotted her gas money.
  • A Phoenix woman confirmed that she saw September’s surprise snowfall there, telling me it was beautiful. The surprise is it hasn’t snowed there in decades.
  • When I told one inquirer that I lived in Atlanta, Georgia, she enthusiastically said she was nearby in Batumi—a city located in the Republic of Georgia.

All this is amusing until you consider that people really are taken in by these scams. The Federal Trade Commission said consumers reported $770 million in social-media-originated fraud losses to the agency in 2021. Bear in mind that’s what was reported. The FTC estimates that only about 5% of fraud victims report the matter to a government agency, often because of embarrassment. Scammers succeed because they know our three vulnerabilities:

We let emotion get ahead of rational thought. Scammers try to catch people in a weak moment. Most people won’t respond to flattery or attention out of the blue. But it’s a numbers game. Somewhere out there are lonely people for whom kind words and compliments make them lower their guard. Some victims have been lured into sending intimate pictures and videos later used to blackmail them.

Desperation and worry over debts can silence our brain’s warnings that the “can’t-lose” money opportunity is a trap. An online “financial advisor” lists tips for when you’re behind on the rent. Several include playing online games that “pay” you—but also encourage you to pay them to increase your odds of winning.

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Many online brokerage firms are nothing more than investment platforms controlled by scammers. A victim’s account seems to show positive earnings at first, but that’s just to get the victim to increase his or her investment before it’s all pulled out. Other times, goods privately sold online go undelivered. It remains a rule that if a deal appears too good to be true, it probably is.

We forget that information is the key that opens the vaults. I have been told that I’m owed money or that a generous person wants to give me some. I just need to share my PayPal, Venmo or other electronic payment information so the deposit can be made.

People who have done so find themselves locked out of their account or with money withdrawn. Sometimes there’s not much gone, so the account holder doesn’t notice, but small sums are subtracted regularly.

A fake lottery winner sent me “her” information sheet to fill out, so she could share some of her newfound wealth with me. The form was clearly copied from the internet, still bearing the Publishers Clearing House watermark. Had I sent it in, my identity and all my account information would have been in the hands of a scammer.

We can be tricked into lowering our guard. Clicking links sent to us by people we don’t know—and even people we do—is like going down a dark alley. A phishing link or SMiShing text can open up your computer to being attacked by malware, your data stolen or your computer held for ransom.

Beware of emails purportedly from major companies such as Amazon, Apple and Facebook. Real companies never directly email you to ask for your account information. Upon examination, you may notice a slight misspelling or other problems with the sending email address that’ll be a clue it’s not from the actual company.

These scams use the same sales techniques employed in real life—by door-to-door salesmen or phone solicitors—just adapted for the internet. Scammers gain false trust, get marks to lower their guard and then take advantage. Online may be a new world to many. But as explorers warned long ago on the maps they created, here there be monsters.

Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. He’s the author of a three-book series on how to teach elementary, middle and high school students about behavioral economics and media literacy. He’s also authored several educational children’s books. Jim lives in Texas with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. They have a book that examines the impact of social media influencers on youth consumerism and identity development coming out in 2023. Check out Jim’s earlier articles.

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Suzie
Suzie
3 days ago

I applaud you. This is such important information. Thank goodness I have not fallen prey to any scammers (so far). However, a young man in our community recently committed suicide because of being a victim to sextortion. This is so sad and yet so prevalent. When you post on the internet, email someone or even text on your phone, once you click send or enter it is out of your control and it is out there forever.

Liarspoltergeist
Liarspoltergeist
6 days ago

Those with useless skill sets are easy prey for these monsters; in fact, I think the correlation between the horrible decline in the K-12 public school educational outcomes is fueling multiple societal illiteracies.

Donny Hrubes
Donny Hrubes
8 days ago

I know a lady who does work to keep her would be scammers on the hook. She HAS used that image search function to find pictures of military personnel that the scammers use, and has gone so far as to contact the military to report the misuse of such.
She had one scammer on the line for the whole day keep calling her, and buttering her up. She played along, all the while knowing what was up. She’s no fool. She eventually had the fellow call her ‘business partner’ who happened to be the county sheriff and that’s when he knew he had been scammed! His last call to her wasn’t nearly as complementary! 😉
I also get these phishing emails. I don’t ‘klik on nothing’, but forward them to ‘spoof@XXXXXX.com’ as the more we all do that, the better the legitimate companies know what kind of phish scams are happening. Hopefully they can/will take steps to slow/stop those different types of ripoffs.

mjflack
mjflack
9 days ago

You appear to delight in playing with these “solicitors”, but I’m concerned you are setting a bad example for your readers. These callers are criminals, in most cases not capable of physical harm, but in the end, who knows? Also the longer you interface with them, the more likely you might divulge personal information. I think the best course of action for ALL concerned is hanging up and blocking them. Anything else is irresponsible.

David Golden
David Golden
8 days ago
Reply to  mjflack

Did you miss the part about working on an upcoming book? This is subject matter research not done for cheap thrills. Your concerns are misplaced.

Stephen Koenigsberg
Stephen Koenigsberg
9 days ago

Do you realize that if everyone used their rational mind over their emotions, our former president would have lost in 2020, when so many know he won. All seriousness aside, the unsophisticated folks are no match for sophisticated scammers on the internet. I don’t think for many it’s a matter of emotional thinking, just not being savvy.

Chazooo
Chazooo
9 days ago

Not savvy like the cool sophisticates who put their money into FTX?

Stephen Koenigsberg
Stephen Koenigsberg
9 days ago
Reply to  Chazooo

I have very smart relatives who are just not computer or internet savvy. They have to ask me if an email from Amazon is bogus or not.

Last edited 9 days ago by Stephen Koenigsberg
SanLouisKid
SanLouisKid
7 days ago

I encourage my in-laws to vet any emails they are concerned about with me. I’m glad to take a look and keep them out of trouble. Kind of a parent/child role reversal thing. They did get scammed once when they didn’t check with me. They are now “incentivized” to be more careful. In the words of the theme song to the Monk TV show, “It’s a jungle out there…”

steveark
steveark
9 days ago

These scams are recycled from the distant past. Back before the internet was in existence I used to get real snail mail letters from Nigerian Princes. The cool part were the Nigerian stamps on the envelopes, they were exotic. Personally I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the victims, as a wise man once said in 1587, a fool and his money are soon parted. Generally these things appeal to greed or lust, the victims are not innocent parties. The exceptions are people who are suffering from mental illness or mental decline, the rest of the victims have invited disaster into their lives willingly.

Richard Stolz
Richard Stolz
9 days ago

Most scams are easy to detect but some are sophisticated. I recently received one purportedly from PayPal about a bill I needed to pay from a vendor I was said to have recently made a purchase from. The twist to the pitch that could fool some folks was a statement like “If you’re not sure about this charge call our help line” with an 800 number given, presumably staffed by scammers representing themselves as PayPal employees.
Also featured was a link you could follow to get more info about the charge.
This kind of pitch is so common that PayPal (the real one) has an email address to forward the spam to (something like “spoof@paypal.com”.
Caveat emptor!

Jim Wasserman
Jim Wasserman
9 days ago
Reply to  Richard Stolz

Thanks, Richard. We know someone who Googled “Facebook customer support” and the top hit was a phone number (FB has no customer support telephone number). They called and followed the instructions to find themself locked out of his own computer as the scammers hijacked it!

DrLefty
DrLefty
9 days ago
Reply to  Richard Stolz

I just got that one last week, and I agree, it was a cut above the versions. I

DrLefty
DrLefty
9 days ago
Reply to  DrLefty

Sorry. I have to do cybersecurity training for work once a year, so I didn’t click on anything or call a number. But I did check my actual PayPal account, and the purported charge was there as a request. I changed my password and called the number on the website (not on the email), and they said there was no current activity.

IAD
IAD
9 days ago

All great information! Thank you!

I have to continually warn family of the “friend of a friend” scam, where scammers become friends with unexpected people and use that as a springboard as entry to you. So many people accept every friend request on social media.

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