You probably don’t think that a scammer posing as a family member will trick you, but many people already have. By the time the money has changed hands, it’s too late to do anything about it, so make sure you and your family members keep an eye out for this deceitful scheme.
How the scam works
This scam may not be new, but it is definitely on the rise, particularly using the WhatsApp instant messaging platform. Like other scams, this is a trust scam that takes advantage of the victim’s desire to implicitly trust the person they are talking to. Unfortunately, many have been caught this way.
The most commonly reported iteration of this scam has the scammer posing as a family member, claiming that they have lost their phone and have a new number. There may be a sad story to go with it, like they lost all their photos or they can’t access their online banking or other accounts right now.
I really want to warn you about a scam my lovely and kind mother almost fell for. It was incredibly believable. Someone pretends to be you but on a different number, she contacts someone close to you and asks them to quickly pay a bill for you before she returns it to you. Mom in green 👇🏼 pic.twitter.com/SroiuftrpN
-Jacqui Oatley (@JacquiOatley) July 13, 2022
The scammer may know the names of other family members or acquaintances, further increasing the victim’s confidence. The scam reaches a climax when the victim is asked to pay a bill or send money to an account for some reason. Payment can be made through a legitimate-looking banking website or payment gateway, or it can be to a PayPal, Venmo, Cash App or similar account.
Some scammers even submit bank account information, which will be in someone else’s name. They may try to explain this away by saying it’s a friend’s account or someone they owe money to. They will promise to pay you back once the “lost phone” debacle is resolved.
It is often too late to do anything once the victim realizes something is wrong and the money has been transferred. Financial institutions may not cover such an incident under online fraud since the money was sent voluntarily. PayPal and other carriers cannot reverse the transaction as there is no “buyer protection” on a personal payment.
The same scam can take other forms
At the time of writing, in mid-2022, this scam is exploding and seems to take on the guise of a “family member” on WhatsApp. But scam is nothing new and it can take other forms.
It’s not unlike spear phishing, where scammers target a single target (often a “whale”) with a large payout. This primarily affects businesses and involves convincing someone higher up the chain of command to authorize a payment or release of information. These scams are particularly lucrative in the business world, where payouts can be much higher.
But scammers can also try to impersonate your friends or members of organizations near you. They could pose as your child’s school, your local church group, or even a charity or fundraising organization.
Suspect something? Attain
Rule number one is to be immediately suspicious of a close family member who claims to be contacting you through a new number. You should seek confirmation in person or over the phone that this is the person you think she is, even if they don’t ask for money right away.
Use the last known phone number of the alleged contact to quickly call and validate. Assuming they answer, you’ll blow the scam wide open. Scammers will try to pressure you not to do this in an attempt to rush you into fulfilling their requests before you’ve had time to think about it.
If the person uses a VoIP service like FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, or Skype, you can try to contact them on those platforms. Since these services are usually tied to an account rather than just a number, getting a new SIM card and phone number won’t affect them.
Again, don’t give in to pressure. Even if the person approaching you seems desperate to resolve a financial issue, if he’s an honest person, he’ll likely understand once you explain why he was being so careful in the first place.
How scammers attack you
Scammers may target a large number of people in the hope that someone will take the bait, or they may be more careful when choosing. This scam is more likely to work if the scammer can gain the trust of the victim, and that means knowing more about their target.
Social networking websites like Facebook or Instagram can provide the scammer with everything they need to launch a convincing attack. Your profile can include friends and family, especially since Facebook allows you to make these family links right on your profile.
Even if you haven’t bothered to list this information, having access to your profile may be enough. A scammer can look at your friends and link to people using their last names, or just look at who is interacting and commenting on posts. The same goes for your closest acquaintances in the real world, who may appear in photos or records.
For scams targeting businesses, your company’s website may provide a full list of employees. Some of these even list email addresses for anyone to contact. This hierarchy can help a scammer identify ideal targets, people to impersonate, or people they can name to send correspondence to build trust.
Actions you can take
One of the best things you can do is lock your Facebook profile. The less personal information that is freely available online, the better. Hide your friends list, make previous posts private, and remove your profile from search engines. This applies to all kinds of scams, from identity fraud to social engineering attacks like this one.
Keep in mind that even if you adopt strict Facebook privacy settings, the information you provide there could still be targeted. If a friend’s account is compromised, a potential scammer can use it to gather information for a scam like this one. You should also consider making your Instagram account private if you use it.
Always be vigilant and be wary of “new number” text messages and instant messages. Seek verification, either in person or over the phone, that the person you are speaking with is who they say they are. If you can’t get a straight answer, don’t honor any requests.
You can try to report scams and scammers to the authorities. The US government has a resource for reporting all types of scams, as does Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.
Other scams to watch out for
The internet is a minefield when it comes to scams and fraud. Be on the lookout for “smishing” text message scams, one-ring scams, and scammers using numbers suspiciously similar to yours.
Facebook is also riddled with scams, including many scams targeting Facebook Marketplace.
RELATED: 10 Facebook Marketplace Scams to Watch Out For