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Say “Scram” to Online Scams

Jeffrey M Allen and Ashley Hallene


  • The most reported types of scams are imposter scams, online shopping scams, prize/sweepstake/lottery scams, Internet service scams, and business and job opportunity scams.
  • Lawyers can take steps to protect personal and professional devices and minimize the odds of becoming a target.
  • Scams should be reported to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). *** In the boldface paragraph at the end of the article, place the following words in italics: Voice of Experience, GPSolo, GPSolo eReport.
Say “Scram” to Online Scams
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When it comes to online scams, it seems that only the scammer’s imagination and the depth of the victims’ gullibility limit the scope of available approaches. In 2021, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received 2.8 million fraud reports; consumers reported losing more than $5.8 billion that year, a 70 percent increase over 2020. The most-reported category of scams was imposter scams, with online shopping scams, prize/sweepstake/lottery scams, Internet service scams, and business and job opportunity scams rounding out the top five. Although you might not have been victimized by one of these scams yet, you might know someone who has been.

Imposter Scams

Imposter scams include romance scams, Social Security/Internal Revenue Service scams, and family emergency scams.

Romance scammers pull at your heartstrings as they seek to get into your wallet. The story usually goes something like this: You meet someone special on an online dating website. Soon, that special someone wants to move off the dating site to email or phone calls. You talk about your jobs, family, and friends. This person usually lives somewhere too far away for you to meet and get to know each other in person. Eventually, he or she professes true love, and if the scammer works it right, it feels like the real thing, finally.

Then something happens. The scammer loses a job or needs a medical procedure (or has a child or parent in need of medical attention). Maybe the person wants to meet you in person but needs money for a plane ticket. Some variety of events take place, and the scammer needs money. You think to yourself, I have seen and talked to this person every day, I love this person, I want to help them. There is a difference between seeing someone and knowing someone, but the line gets blurry in the age of video chats.

In early 2022, Netflix came out with a documentary titled The Tinder Swindler that chronicled a group of women in Europe who were swindled out of millions of dollars by the Israeli conman Shimon Hayut, who used the Tinder app to lure his victims. Hayut claimed to be the son of a wealthy diamond magnate. He followed a pattern that proved very profitable for him. He would match with a woman on Tinder, take her on an expensive and impressive first date (sometimes involving private jets), and slowly build the relationship and trust, all the while flying around the world and secretly dating other women. Then, at some point in the relationship, Hayut would confide that he had concerns about “enemies” he felt were after him. Next thing you know, Hayut sends a photograph of his bleeding bodyguard, who allegedly suffered injuries while protecting him from these enemies. He would then tell the victim that he could not use his personal credit cards for security reasons and would urge the girlfriend to open a credit card in her name for him to use. It is estimated that he swindled $10 million before his arrest in 2019. He served five months of a 15-month sentence before his release. Having served his time, he can move about and swindle again.

Male and female scammers will make fake dating profiles, sometimes with real pictures and sometimes using photos of other people they find on the Internet. They gain your trust, build relationships, sometimes even make fake wedding plans before they disappear with your money. How do you avoid them? First, never wire money or send prepaid debit cards to someone you do not know in real life, no matter how enamored you are. The moment this virtual person starts asking you for money, alarms should go off in your head. Second, report the scam to the FTC, especially if you have already sent money. The FTC endeavors to get your money back if there is a way to do so, but don’t count on it; at the very least, they can educate the public.

Online Shopping Scams

Online shopping scams have exploded since the pandemic shut down stores in 2020. With online shopping scams, you purchase something online but then don’t receive it or receive something that differs from the online representation or does not work. Shady online retailers put up websites offering hard-to-find items or items at incredibly discounted prices. You get excited and purchase the item. But soon, you encounter processing delays, then shipping delays, and ultimately you come to realize that your item will never arrive.

Scammers have honed their ability to produce impressively polished and convincing websites and have incorporated social media and online advertising into their portfolio. They obliterate the warnings and negative reviews by simply disappearing and popping back up under a new name.

One online shopping scam that will pull at your heartstrings is the puppy-purchase scam. Since the pandemic hit, pet adoptions have soared. It makes sense, too; pets offer companionship and entertainment, and bonding with pets has proven health benefits. Increased demand for pets created a shortage—and an opportunity for scammers to exploit. According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), which maintains a scam-tracker for bogus pet sites, pet scams more than doubled between 2019 and 2020 and continue to rise at exponential rates. According to the BBB, scammers model their websites after legitimate puppy breeders, sometimes even using the same fonts, pictures, and descriptions. How do you avoid this scam? The BBB says that pet scammers usually don’t allow the buyer to meet the animal in person. They often require the use of some kind of pet delivery service, with a mountain of additional services required when it is time for delivery, such as special crates or transportation.

Many scams target older victims, but this is one instance where younger people are more likely to be scammed. In 2020, 51 percent of victims of pet scams were under the age of 44, and the average financial loss reported was $722. Some 82 percent of the pet scams reported involved dogs; the remainder included cats, birds, and iguanas. One 18-year-old online shopper responded to an advertisement for an Australian shepherd puppy, which she purchased for $700 via Apple Pay. Then she had to send $1,000 to ship the animal to an airport near her home. Then the scammers informed her that she would have to pay another $1,000 or they would leave the puppy at the airport, and she would be criminally charged with puppy abandonment. They then demanded another $1,000 because the puppy had supposedly been sent to the wrong place. After spending $3,700, the young woman finally came to the realization that there would be no puppy. She finally filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office of Arkansas, as that is the location from which she believed the dog was being shipped. To date, she has not gotten any money back.

In 2021, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge filed a civil lawsuit against two alleged pet scammers, Helda Berinyuy and Thierry Ekwelle, both Arkansas residents, for creating deceptive websites on which puppies were advertised for sale. The pair have allegedly taken more than $160,000 from consumers. They were also indicted on fraud charges for allegedly scamming more than $110,000 from unsuspecting pet adopters.

Overall, Montana has had the most pet scams reported per capita, followed by Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, and the District of Columbia. How do you spot an online pet scam? The biggest tip-off will be when they ask for payment via some online platform, such as Zelle, Venmo, or Cash App, or by MoneyGram or Western Union. The second telltale sign is that you are not able to see the puppy in person first. The third is when they ask for money in addition to the adoption fee and any agreed-upon purchase price.

Prize/Sweepstakes/Lottery Scams

Up next on our list is the ever-popular lottery/prize scam. This type of scam is disguised as a winning entry for a sweepstakes or lottery. These bright and loud advertisements may pop up on your screen proclaiming that you have won a certain amount of money or product for helping the website hit a milestone or because you were a random lucky winner. This scheme seeks to get you to share personal information such as your bank account or credit card numbers to enable the scammer to “wire” you the money. The scammer may also say you’ll get mailed a check or package, and “all you have to do” is put in your credit card information to take care of a small shipping and handling fee. Pro tip: As in life, nothing on the Internet is ever free.

Internet Service Scams

In the Internet service scam, you are typically contacted by someone claiming to be from a company you use and are offered a huge discount on your service cost in exchange for a large up-front payment. You may get a call from someone claiming to be a representative from the company’s “loyalty rewards” program. The caller offers you an appealing discount on your monthly service, claiming that for a small monthly fee, you can get loads of benefits such as an expanded calling area, significantly higher Internet speeds, or premium cable channels.

Then comes the ask. To take advantage of this deal, you have to pay a sizable fee up front, whether it is a service fee or a prepayment of the first six months of service. These callers are tricky; they may have some of your information already. How do they get this information? A great deal of personal information about innocent consumers has accumulated on the “dark web,” where bad guys can purchase it. Scammers can acquire phone numbers from third-party data providers. You can look up the phone number on a website such as or These websites give out information for free. The latter website ( will match the phone number to the owner and give out addresses, phone numbers, and even emails affiliated with that person, along with their approximate age. It can even give out people associated with that person, which tells scammers a name that may be a close relative. So, with a phone number, scammers can find out your name, and with your current address, they can make an educated guess regarding your current service provider. Now this random caller can say he or she is with such and such company (that you most likely use) and is offering you an opportunity as a reward for your years of service.

What is the best way to avoid this scam? Tell the caller you can’t continue the phone conversation and that you will reach out to the company directly for the details another time. The fastest way to avoid the scam is to just hang up.

Employment Scams

This scam involves fake job listings. Scammers send out a solicitation requiring that you submit an application with your Social Security number and other personal information. Sometimes they can sound quite convincing, offering a job that promises insurance and the opportunity to earn commissions, but you can get hired and work for months before learning the entire thing is a scam. These jobs often appear as sales and telecommunications jobs. Some common ways to spot a job scam include:

  • You need to pay to get the job: One red flag to look for is any offer that guarantees to place you in a job once you pay a fee—supposedly for certification, training materials, expenses for placing you with a company, or something along those lines.
  • You need to provide your credit card or bank information: Never give out your credit card or bank account information over the phone or online to a company unless you are familiar with them and have agreed to pay for something. Remember, anyone who has your account information can use it.

Cyber Currency Scams

We have seen an increase in cyber currency scams since the start of the pandemic. In this structure, the bad guys try to befriend you and then start talking about how they buy and sell Bitcoin or some other cyber currency. They try to convince you that they are your friend and want to share with you the knowledge they have about buying and selling cyber currencies. They want to give you the opportunity to share the wealth, so they offer to help you by investing your money in cyber currencies. Good luck with that. Best response: Just say no! Cyber currency investment comes largely under the heading of speculative. If you really have a desire to do that, do some research and investigation and find a responsible agent to assist you. That would not be someone who randomly contacts you over the Internet and tries to act as your new best friend.

Bad Check Scams

This one does not often use the most modern technology. Although sometimes it comes in the form of email or text messages, it most often occurs over the phone. Scammers will contact you and tell you that your last payment to the utility company, phone company, cable company, etc. (pick a vendor, any vendor) did not clear. They will try to get you to log on to a phony website and make a payment or give them credit card information over the telephone. You should not do either. Odds favor that such a call comes from a scammer. If you have any doubt, you should contact the vendor directly and check on the status of your account or payment. Do not use the URL provided to you by the suspected scammer. It undoubtedly leads to a phony site built to look like the real deal. Sometimes, you don’t even have to follow up, as this scam requires very little information for the scammers, and they often get it wrong. For example, they got your phone number and pick a cell phone provider with which you have no account. Or they tell you your check to the utility company did not clear the bank when you do not write checks but make electronic payments that go through as electronic payments (note that some electronic payments through banks do go out as checks).

Staying Safe

Above we offered recommendations for responding to particular types of scams when you have already been targeted. Below are a few steps you can take to minimize the odds of becoming a target for scams and scammers in general. When it comes to scams, you can make yourself a big target or a small target; most people prefer making themselves into smaller targets. You should think of what follows as preliminary steps to take as quickly as possible. Undoubtedly, you will have heard some or all of these suggestions before. Unfortunately, hearing them does not mean you have done them. Doing them will help protect you.

  1. Protect your devices physically (don’t leave them unattended). If you have accessed a device and leave it unattended before it goes back to requiring a password for access, anyone can pick it up and have the same access you do from passwords and identification stored in the device’s memory, as well as access to all the information contained in that device.
  2. Set your devices to require a password after only a short time of inactivity. The longer the time, the more dangerous the setting.
  3. Protect your devices with strong passwords and/or biometric access. A strong password consists of a minimum of eight characters, including alphabetic (upper- and lowercase), numeric, and symbolic. Longer passwords provide greater protection.
  4. Do not use the same passwords or access codes for all your devices.
  5. Do not use the same passwords or access codes for multiple accounts (particularly for access to banking or other confidential information).
  6. Stay off public WiFi whenever possible (carry your own cellular hot spot).
  7. Use a virtual private network (VPN) whenever you use public WiFi. (You can also use it as further protection for your own hot spot.)
  8. Use a secure password for access to your cellular hot spot.
  9. Don’t respond to questionable emails.
  10. Don’t click links in a questionable email.
  11. Don’t download any attachments from an unknown source.

One final word to the wise: Email scams may come after you professionally or personally. Those coming after you personally that collect information or that get access to your computer, mobile data, or email accounts might also impact you professionally. Accordingly, you need to protect both your personal and your professional situation. As a practical matter, to paraphrase and combine Julius Caesar and William Shakespeare: All of the world of lawyers (and others) divides into three parts: (1) those who have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous cybersecurity pirates and/or scammers; (2) those who will suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous cybersecurity pirates and/or scammers; and (3) that relatively lucky group that will somehow escape this fate.

The damage done by the bad guys can prove minor or catastrophic or anywhere in between. Bottom line: You cannot completely avoid exposure to scams, scammers, and invasive efforts by the bad guys to get into your systems, information, and accounts. You can only limit the risk of that exposure. Accordingly, we don’t really talk about risk avoidance, except in abstract terms. In the real world, we talk about risk mitigation. If you do everything recommended in this article, you may still get stung. The odds of it diminish with each protective measure you properly employ. Sometimes, you can get lucky, do nothing, and still not get stung; but you have strong odds against that happening.

A shorter version of this article appears in the May 2022 issue of Voice of Experience, the e-newsletter of the ABA Senior Lawyers Division. Portions of this article previously appeared in GPSolo magazine and GPSolo eReport.