The other day, I was staring at my phone, mindlessly perusing Instagram and messaging my friends while ostensibly doing “research” for my next story, when I received a text message.
Unbeknownst to me, I apparently sent the oddly specific amount of $13.50 to someone I’d never met, let alone knew existed. I, of course, never sent this person money, and was instead being set up for a scam designed to steal my information.
It’s not an uncommon move by criminals looking to exploit personal data, which can include anything from Social Security numbers to credit card numbers. Similar schemes include criminals sending you stolen money and asking for it to be returned, and people posing as your contacts on cash-sharing apps.
Fortunately, you can take steps to protect yourself against these kinds of scams.
What to watch for
The scammer who sent me the text claiming that I sent them $13.50 was hoping I would see the message, immediately panic and think that someone hacked my Venmo (PYPL) account, click the link in the text and enter my personal information into the associated website. Doing that would likely have sent my account information to the criminal group looking to trick me in the first place.
Then there are the criminals who will tell you they’ve “accidentally” sent you money via a cash-sharing app. You’ll even see the same amount of money the con artist mentioned in your account balance, which lends at least a hint of truth to the fraud.
But the problem is, that money is likely stolen in the first place. Criminals will use pilfered credit cards and attach them to phony cash app profiles. They’ll then send the cash to victims and ask for it back. When the credit card companies find out about that stolen cash, though, they’ll return it to the original card owner, leaving you on the hook for the amount you sent to the criminal.
That’s not the only move cybercriminals use with regards to cash-sharing apps. In some instances, they’ll change their profile photos and user names to imitate people you know. They’ll then send you a request for cash hoping you won’t ask your friends why they’re hitting you up for money.
How to fight back
While crooks hope to catch you off guard so you’ll instinctively click a link, or appeal to the good samaritan in you to get you to send fraudulent money, you can do a few things to stay safe online.
If you receive a text saying you sent money to some rando, you should just ignore it. If you’re afraid that your cash-sharing app has been hacked and that someone is using it to send money to themselves, don’t click links in the message. Instead, go directly to the app for the account you think was compromised. If you don’t find any issues, and you haven’t sent any funds, then you’re fine.
If you receive money from someone you don’t know and they’re requesting you to return it, reach out to customer support for the app you’re using. They’ll be able to take care of everything on their end, ensuring you don’t end up holding the bag if it’s a scam.
As for situations when you receive a strange request for funds from an account that looks like your friend’s? Well, your best move is to actually ask them why they’re requesting money from you. If they don’t know what you’re talking about, ignore the request.
Follow these steps and you should be just a bit safer online.
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Got a tip? Email Daniel Howley at email@example.com over via encrypted mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.