15 Sneaky Online Scams That are Easy to Fall for

Protect your identity and bank account from these common, hard-to-spot online scams.

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Updated July 18, 2024
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In the past, online scams were easier to detect. Unfortunately, today’s scams are harder to spot than ever before.

Falling for a single scam can cost you a lot of money, and possibly set you back financially for quite a while. It's important to know how to avoid the most common ones. 

Following are some of the biggest online threats to your identity and your bank account. Learning more about these scams can help you avoid making mistakes that could result in money down the drain.

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Fraudulent student loan forgiveness offers

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Recently, the federal government offered sweeping student loan forgiveness to millions of borrowers. However, you should only trust information from an official source, such as the U.S. government.

Anyone claiming they'll help you get out of debt if you pay a small fee or share your Federal Student Aid account name and password is likely scamming you. 

The U.S. government will never ask for your account information, nor does it require you to pay money for debt forgiveness.

Phony disaster relief requests

Kannapat/Adobe businessman wearing black shirt sitting in front of laptop using smartphone with 3d warning sign

When disaster strikes, fraudsters suddenly materialize to take advantage of the good intentions of others.

Americans are generous, often giving their money when a flood, tornado, fire, or other natural disaster damages a community. However, scammers often take advantage of this by setting up fake websites that accept donations that allegedly are earmarked to help victims.

Instead, the money ends up in the pockets of crooks. If you want to donate, go directly to the websites of the U.S. government or established organizations such as the American Red Cross.

Third-party IRS.gov account setup

ChayTee/Adobe attractive asian woman using laptop for work at night

Scammers have been contacting American taxpayers over the phone or via email with an offer to help set up an account on the IRS website.

This one is especially prevalent during tax season but may come up at other times as well since many people log into the IRS website to check on the status of their taxes or to pay off their tax debt.

If you accept this “help,” the scammer will ask for your Social Security number, address, and other identifying information. Fraudsters who get this data then sell it to the highest online bidder.

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Social media scams

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The advent of social media has allowed us to spend endless hours networking online with others. Unfortunately, fraudsters gravitate to where the people — and the money — are. That makes social media a prime territory for online scams.

Be careful when you see ads for goods or services on social media sites that are especially enticing. They could be scams enticing you to click on a link that will invite malware to infect your computer.

The old tried-and-true rule applies: If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Be suspicious of unbelievably good offers on popular products or guarantees of prizes.

Spear phishing campaigns

bloomicon/Adobe enter your login information on paper grabbed by fishing hook

Spear phishing refers to a phishing attack that specifically targets someone and is tailored to the target’s interests.

This could include emails claiming to be from your bank asking you to follow a link to confirm details about your account. Other attacks use current events to get you to open an email and click a link.

Bogus apps that look like the real thing

SHOTPRIME STUDIO/Adobe woman wearing white t shirt with curly hair angry at her smartphone while raising hand in confusion

Some crooks set up phony apps that look legitimate. You think you're downloading the hottest new app when, in fact, you are falling victim to a phishing app that will install malware onto your phone.

Fortunately, this online scam is easy to avoid. Don’t download anything but reputable apps. If you're interested in an app that you've never heard of before, do a little research online and check reviews from publications and other trusted sources.

Also, only download from sites such as Google Play and the Apple App Store. These sites are not 100% free of malware, but you should be safer downloading apps here than from an email that appears in your inbox.

Emails supposedly sent by the IRS

PheelingsMedia/Adobe woman acting suspicious while using laptop late at night

Make sure to be extra vigilant about emails that claim to be from the IRS.

These phishing schemes might include claims that you’re in danger of being jailed or fined if you don’t send a hefty payment to the email sender immediately.

The IRS generally communicates only via regular, traditional mail. You certainly won’t get an email from the agency demanding immediate payment.

Cryptocurrency romance scams

prima91/Adobe bitcoin placed over white paper with scam alert red color stamp

Romance scams have been around for a long time. But the old scams have taken on a modern twist in 2023: Cryptocurrency fraud.

After initiating a fake romance, a cryptocurrency romance scammer will pressure their victim to invest in cryptocurrency through a fraudulent “investment” site that the scammer controls.

The victim invests money, stopping them from keeping more cash in their wallet, and goes into the fraudster’s pocket instead.

Credit card offer scams

pathdoc/Adobe suspicious man in suit doing okay gesture while holding card

Many of us receive a steady stream of pre-approval notices in the mail inviting us to sign up for a new credit card account. These notices can also show up in our email inbox, but in many cases, the offers are scams.

Click the link in the email and you might be asked to make an immediate payment to earn approval for the credit card, which allegedly offers great terms such as a high credit limit.

In reality, there is no card and you're now out some valuable cash. If you need a credit card, apply for one directly with a legitimate bank, credit union, or another lender.

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Payday loan scams

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If you have an expensive bill due, payday loans can seem like a tempting way to pay it. But these loans typically have sky-high costs and are not in your best interest.

As if payday loans weren’t scams enough on their own, some fraudsters will pretend to offer payday loans that require the victim to pay an upfront fee just to apply.

Don’t trust anyone who tells you they need money before they can approve your application.

Job offer scams

Feodora/Adobe pushy salesman wearing suit sitting at table talking on red telephone

This is a scam that can really hurt, especially if you're desperate for a job and need to earn extra income fast.

Clever scammers craft fake job ads in a way that makes them especially appealing. Perhaps the job promises to let you work full-time remotely or offers outstanding pay.

The appeal of this scam for fraudsters is obvious: As you apply, you will be asked to provide your Social Security number, bank information, and other valuable details. Crooks then take that information and run with it to steal your identity.

Requests for help from loved ones

Celia/Adobe man using smartphone to type text for asking money and help

Criminals love to prey on those who are especially vulnerable to their nefarious intentions. As we grow older, we all become more susceptible to falling for scams we might have detected in our younger years.

One particularly cruel scam involves phone emails or text messages allegedly sent by children or grandchildren requesting emergency help in the form of financial assistance.

If you're older and get a request like this, call your loved one directly and ask if he or she really needs help. And if you're the child or grandchild of an older adult, assure them that you'll always call directly if you ever require assistance.

False reduced payment claims

pressmaster/Adobe male consultant acting suspiciously with couple signing papers in background

If you can't afford to pay all the taxes you owe, the IRS might make you an “offer in compromise” that reduces the amount of money you have to pay or extends your tax payment deadline.

Some scam artists claim they can drastically reduce your debt payment for a fee. This is often misleading and can cost people thousands of dollars if they don't truly qualify for an offer in compromise.

Be wary of third parties claiming they can get you a better repayment deal with the IRS. The agency notes that it has plenty of resources that you can use on your own to help resolve tax debt.

Charity scams

Krakenimages.com/Adobe Charity volunteer

It's not uncommon to receive requests for donations, however, be careful when any charity reaches out to ask for donations, especially if they say they're following up on a donation pledge you don’t remember making.

These kinds of scams are even more recurrent during the holiday season or when there is a natural disaster such as hurricanes, wildfires, or earthquakes.

If you get a call or email, the best thing to do is ask for all the detailed information, including the address and phone number of the charity. Find the charity's website and a trusted third-party source to confirm that the charity is real.

Mortgage loan modification scams

LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS/Adobe woman holding document with foreclosure

There are scams out there aiming at taking your money or even your house. Foreclosure relief or mortgage loan modification scammers often make a false promise of saving you from foreclosure.

Scammers may ask you to pay upfront fees for their service, guarantee a loan modification, or ask you to sign over the title of your property and sign paperwork you don’t understand.

If you are struggling to find ways to pay your mortgage, a HUD-approved housing counseling agency can help you assess your options and avoid scams.

Bottom line

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If you’ve fallen for a scam in the past, you don’t have to feel ashamed. Scammers are frighteningly good at their jobs.

Luckily, you can lower the chances of falling prey to a cruel scam by getting familiar with the warning signs of the most current scams.

Use this list to spot suspicious activity online. It can help you protect your identity and stop throwing away money by placing it in the hands of would-be attackers. 

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Author Details

Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has spent a decade writing for and about small businesses. She specializes in all things finance and has written for publications like G2 and SmallBizDaily. When she's not writing for work at her desk, you can usually find her writing for pleasure near large bodies of water.