What was the No. 1 type of fraud Americans reported in 2020? If you guessed imposter scams, you’re correct.
The Federal Trade Commission filed nearly 500,000 complaints about imposter scams last year — marking imposter scams the most common form of fraud reported to the FTC in 2020.
Imposter scammers lie about their identity — they pose as someone you know or are inclined to trust. They claim to be someone from a well-known organization, a business you’re familiar with, or a government agency.
What are imposter scams?
Imposter scams usually begin with an unexpected phone call, email, text message or social media message. The scammer pretends to be someone you are likely to trust. They may claim they are affiliated with:
- An entity you do business with — for instance, your bank or utility provider.
- A business you shop at, like Amazon or Apple
- A government agency, like the IRS or Social Security Administration.
- A law firm or debt collection agency
- A charitable organization
Whatever the guise, their message is dire: You owe money. An account is frozen or suspended. Your device has been compromised or an account has been hacked. Someone or some charity needs your help. To fix the issue, all you have to do is make a payment or provide your personal information.
Imposter scammers use fear and pressure to evoke a response. They want you to act quickly without thinking. Oftentimes, the scammer implies there will be consequences — like losing money or legal action — if you don’t act fast.
How to protect yourself: Know the red flags
Knowing the telltale signs of imposter scams can help you avoid falling victim to this type of fraud. Look out for the following signs, as they may indicate an imposter scammer.
- You get an unexpected call or email that alleges you owe money to a business or government agency and will face grave legal or financial consequences if you do not act or pay immediately.
- You receive an unexpected call or email from someone requesting you to provide or confirm your personal or financial information.
- The person contacting you uses a high sense of urgency to try to get you to provide personal or financial information, or send a payment.
- Someone requests payment via a gift card, prepaid debit card, cryptocurrency or through money transfer apps such as Zelle or Venmo. Scammers often suggest these payment methods because once you send money in one of these ways, it’s very difficult to trace.
- A scammer claims you’ve won a prize but you must pay a fee before you can collect it.
- A scammer claims to be with a tech company and says there is an issue with your device and it needs to be fixed.
Best practices to protect yourself from imposter scams:
- Protect your personal and financial information. Do not give out your sensitive information over the phone or via email unless you’re certain with whom you are corresponding. Remember — your bank will never ask you to share your PIN number,
- Do not send a payment to someone you don’t know or someone you think you may know but are not certain.
- Do not rely on Caller ID. Scammers often spoof Caller ID details to trick you into thinking they are legitimate.
- Do not permit remote access to your device to someone who calls unexpectedly offering tech support.
- If you have any doubt about the legitimacy of a call, hang up right away. Contact the organization directly at a number you know is correct.
- Do not send money to businesses or government agencies in the form of gift cards, prepaid debit cards, cryptocurrency or money transfer apps.
Verify independently whether a business or government agency is actually trying to contact you. Use the customer service phone numbers or email addresses listed on official corporate and government websites.