While the world was too affixed in navigating the pandemic and its concomitants, cyberattacks and online scams grew in volume and severity. The impact is such that it can be deemed a silent epidemic in itself. The elaborate scams are either designed to steal all your money right away or drain you over the long haul, often catching you unawares. Lately, however, the modus operandi has become more refined and primed to attack people psychologically, further complicating the formulation of countermeasures.
By one estimate, attempts to con people increased by 70%(1) in the last three months of 2021. The attacks were particularly high in the financial industry, with service providers in the US facing a 109% increase in attacks. Alarmingly, the corresponding global average was 149%. Service providers in the UAE, too, have expressed concerns over increasing cyber security threats, phishing attacks, etc., prompting authorities to issue fresh guidelines. The governing body has also created avenues to report scams and raise awareness of lurking online threats. In line with the government’s approach, we, at the Continental Group, have listed pertinent details regarding online scams and tips to avoid falling prey to them.
Firstly, one must comprehend why the attacks are increasing following the pandemic outbreak. As businesses pivoted to digital ways and customers followed suit, the attack surfaces increased, giving scamsters an unprecedented opportunity. Greater exposure to digitalization makes users naturally susceptible to attacks, but the scams materialize when there is a lack of digital dexterity. If the most “tech-savvy” is not immune to attacks, one can only imagine how vulnerable the new users are. Then there is a flipside — with pandemic-related economic setbacks, many are in greater need to earn more money, even at the cost of exposing themselves to risks. This desperation makes the scamster’s job easier.
The psychological underpinnings of online scams
When we herald technological innovations, we seldom think that they can be misused too. Needless to say, increased digitalization and breakneck innovations have also enhanced scamsters’ proficiency. In addition, they have implemented psychological tactics to woo victims. Barclay’s Chief Behavioural Scientist Dr Pete Brooks believes scamsters are creating illusions of product scarcity and striking emotional connections to prey on people’s insecurities, biases, impulsiveness, and helplessness brought on by the pandemic.
For instance, they are inducing a sense of obligation on part of the victim by doing something of value. In line with the Principle of Reciprocity, the victim feels obligated to do something back. Some end up giving away sensitive information that leads to the scam. The victim could be offered a voucher that is actually redeemable. However, this will come with a catch of signing up for something, clicking a link, or divulging some finance details, etc. Then there is the Principle of Similarity, Dr Brooks says, where a scamster creates a sense of likeness with the victim using deceit. For instance, the scamster could ask what your favourite vacation destination is. If you answer, say, Dubai, the scamster will immediately retort saying that it is their favourite destination too. Subconsciously, the victim begins to take a liking for the scamster, leading to more disclosure of information and subsequently the scam.
Also, increased internet usage has given people access to more information. Scamsters are getting on dating sites to woo victims who are in need of companionship. Such situations often leave the victim with losses that go beyond finances. Unfortunately, such scams are the least reported due to their sensitive nature. Also, if there is something new creating a buzz, many are inclined to jump on the bandwagon. Such a herd mentality makes them prone to fall victim. They often believe that if many people are doing it, then it must be credible. So, in essence, there is a fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) situation, which plays right into the devious designs of scamsters. The worst part is that, despite being scammed online, many people go on the internet again to check if there are ways to salvage the situation. While it is not impossible to mitigate the damage, online scams are, by design, hard to salvage. It is therefore advisable to be aware of potential scams because prevention is always better than the cure.
Typical scams to be aware of
Considering the internet is the most dynamic realm where new happenings abound, the nature of scams evolves accordingly. Phishing, for example, continues to be the most common form of online scam. However, it has now become more sophisticated than ever. On the other hand, some new forms of online scams have come to the fore.
Advance-fee scams: Victims often receive alerts/messages/notifications that they have won a sizable jackpot pending payment of tax and processing fees. Although the chances of falling prey are less, it cannot be written off. The modern advance-fee scams can be so believable that it makes the most shrewd people go “what if”. The rule of thumb to remember here is that when someone asks for upfront payment, it must be taken with a bag of salt. We are currently navigating inflationary times when the chances of you winning a no-strings-attached reward are slim to none.
Grandparents scam: One of the oldest tricks in the book, the grandparent's scam capitalizes on people’s empathy for others’ suffering. Oftentimes, the messaging starts with the story of someone battling for life in a hospital, in need of financial assistance. The story is often supported with images, scan copies, tax benefit claims, etc. — enough to tap into the victim’s compassion. Upon more enquiries, you will find that no such persons exist, leave alone the ailments. Such scams have grown substantially since the pandemic outbreak, with perpetrators leveraging the global public health crisis to enhance their credibility.
Amazon scam: This scam is on a rise at the moment due to meteoric growth in e-commerce. As often as not, those who transact online on e-commerce websites receive messages alerting them of fraudulent activity in their account. Because of existing transactional activity, the receivers tend to impulsively follow the next set of instructions they receive, without checking if their account is in fact compromised. The “tech support” instructions often include sharing passwords, OTPs, etc., which can lead to devastating outcomes. Even fraudulent financial offers work along the same lines, except the perpetrators masquerade as bank representatives, financial advisors, brokerage firms, etc.
Travel scams: These scams, too, are on a steep rise following the post-pandemic reopening of the service sectors, including travel, tourism, and hospitality. Scammers often post eye-catching pictures and videos of popular tourist destinations along with CTAs. Upon clicking the accompanying links or images, the victim is lured into landing pages that are designed to extract sensitive information. Victims tend to divulge them in pursuit of a lead magnet such as free stays in luxurious hotels, plane tickets, experiences, etc. Soon, victims will have divulged so much information, and will soon be deprived of the promised “gift” too. But that is often the beginning of more regrets.
Crypto scam: The most rampant at the moment, crypto scams are the hotspot for victims and scamsters alike. The sensational traction of blockchain and associated technologies has created a perfect playing field for scamsters, who also face the least risk of getting caught here. Because of the decentralized nature of the blockchain, many scamsters will remain anonymous, leave alone be made accountable for their actions. Because of several real-life instances of the “crypto-rich” — those whose fortunes turned overnight — many get easily lulled into scams and often end up losing a sizable amount of money.
Tips to avoid online scams
Interestingly, many phishing emails are said to contain grammatical errors and spelling mistakes because scamsters want to filter out people who are less likely to fall for it. So, even a cursory glance before clicking a link will avert a scam. And if you read between the lines, you are mostly in the clear. Likewise, following the below tips will help you develop a comprehensive shield against most online scams.
- Enable multi-factor authentication (MFA) wherever possible. It is often available in banking. Two or more authentication factors will give you greater agency over your finances and make you less dependent on external services.
- Review the privacy settings on your devices, accounts, apps, etc. Oftentimes, a simple disabling of an option will safeguard you from receiving unsolicited emails and communications, including phishing attempts.
- Develop a degree of scepticism in approaching messages and communications that lack familiarity. Before you make impulsive clicks on images, attachments and links, develop a habit of perusing closely because the devil is always in the details. Always verify authenticity before engaging further.
- Develop a habit of creating complex passwords and memorizing them at every opportunity. Ensure you log in and log out every time, although it may come off as a hassle. Avoid public networks, and increase VPN usage.
- Most importantly, if you ever happen to be a victim of an attack — regardless of whether you lost money or not — inform concerned authorities. It will help the larger cause of safeguarding the public interest and help widen the understanding of how scams work.
The UAE has dedicated helplines(2) to report online scams. Stay safe, be informed, and remain vigilant, always.