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Social media scams are running rampant, exploiting our trust and online connections. In 2023 alone, Americans lost a staggering $2.7 billion to these fraudulent schemes — a more than 200% increase from the previous year.

These scams can have devastating consequences, leading to financial losses, identity theft, and emotional distress.

Combating this threat requires a deep understanding of the psychology behind these scams and the tactics employed by cybercriminals. This article discusses some of the common scam methods and shares tips on taking proactive measures to secure your social media accounts. 

The psychology of social media scams

Social media scams exploit various psychological vulnerabilities to deceive and manipulate users. Here are some key psychological factors that make these scams effective:

Trust and connectivity

Social media thrives on connections and relationships. Users interact with friends, family, and even celebrities on these platforms, which eventually creates a network of trust. Scammers can exploit this trust through a technique known as social engineering. 

This is the psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others reflect the correct behavior.

For example, if a scam post about a fake giveaway is liked or shared by friends, it appears more legitimate. This false sense of security makes individuals less likely to question the authenticity of the offer.

Scammers also often impersonate friends, family members, and trusted figures. A message from a “friend” asking for urgent help or sharing a too-good-to-be-true opportunity feels familiar and friendly, lowering defenses. 

This tactic is particularly effective on platforms like Facebook or Instagram, where connections are more personal and direct.

Cognitive biases at play

People tend to seek out information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs. This confirmation bias can make them more likely to fall for scams that align with their desires or fears. For example, individuals already interested in cryptocurrency might be more susceptible to investment scams promising huge returns.

Other cognitive biases include the halo effect, a cognitive bias in which the perception of one positive quality leads to the assumption of other positive qualities. Scammers exploit this by making their scams appear professional and legitimate. A well-designed fake website or a professional-looking social media profile can create an impression of authenticity, making people more likely to trust and engage with the scam.

There’s also the reciprocity principle, which suggests that people feel obligated to return a favor. Scammers might give away a small freebie or valuable piece of information and then request something in return, like personal details (that they might have already acquired) or a favor. This tactic can create a psychological debt, compelling victims to comply.

Common social media scam tactics

Social media scammers employ a variety of deceptive tactics to lure victims and carry out their fraudulent schemes. Here are some of the most common tactics used:

scammer hiding behind a fake social media giveaway

Fake giveaways and contests

One of the most prevalent tactics on social media is the fake giveaway. Scammers promise exciting prizes like electronics, vacations, or cash rewards in exchange for likes, shares, and personal information. 

Good examples are the fake giveaways posted on Instagram that promise users a chance to win the latest iPhone. The post requires participants to follow a series of steps, including sharing the post and submitting personal information through a linked website. Thousands of users participate, only to discover that there was no real giveaway and that their details are potentially compromised.

These scams typically follow a pattern:

  • Attractive offer. The scam starts with a post or ad promising a valuable prize.
  • Engagement requirements. Users are asked to like the post, share it with their friends, or tag others to participate.
  • Data collection. Often, participants must click a link to enter their details, which the scammer then harvests.

Investment frauds and Ponzi schemes

These scams promise high returns on investments with little or no risk. They often target people interested in emerging markets, such as cryptocurrencies. 

For example, a fraudulent Facebook campaign advertised a cryptocurrency investment opportunity with promises of guaranteed returns. Initial investors were paid small amounts to create a false sense of security. As more people joined, the scammers disappeared with the money.

Likewise, many scammers are aware that many businesses are looking to achieve financial sustainability, which is why we’ve seen an influx of fake investment services. Last year alone, 37% of all social media scam losses were due to investment scams, with most involving cryptocurrencies.

The scam typically unfolds as follows:

  • Enticing returns. Advertisements or posts promise lucrative returns on investments.
  • Urgency and pressure. Potential investors are pressured to act quickly to take advantage of the opportunity.
  • Recruitment. In Ponzi schemes, victims are encouraged to recruit others, spreading the scam further.
warning symbol on a potential phishing site

Phishing and account takeovers

Phishing scams trick users into giving away their login credentials or personal information by pretending to be legitimate entities.

An example is a recent Twitter phishing scam involving direct emails from compromised accounts asking users to log in to verify their accounts. The link led to a fake Twitter login page where credentials were stolen.

These scams are common on social media platforms and often involve:

  • Fake login pages. Users are directed to a fraudulent website that mimics the login page of a real service.
  • Malicious links. Links in messages or posts lead to phishing sites designed to capture sensitive information.
  • Account hijacking. Once scammers obtain login details, they take over the account and use it for further scams.

Hosting scams

Scammers create fake hosting services or clone legitimate hosting websites to deceive users into purchasing non-existent hosting plans. Users who sign up never receive the services and have their payment details stolen.

Another type is domain slamming, where a fraudulent registrar impersonates your legitimate one, claiming your domain is expiring. They trick you into providing the EPP transfer code under the guise of renewal, allowing them to hijack your domain.

And don’t even get us started about pop-tech sites and software companies aggressively pushing their solutions, which is why we’re also seeing a rise in GPU server hosting companies, that only seem real, but are really designed to steal sensitive data through shrewd social media outreach to gullible managers and startup founders. 

password protected laptop

How to protect yourself from social media scams

The key to staying safe on social media is to educate yourself and stay informed. Scammers are constantly inventing new tactics to lure people into their traps, and staying informed about the latest scams can help you recognize and avoid them.

If you receive a message from someone you don’t know or a brand you haven’t interacted with, verify their identity before responding. Also, don’t click on any suspicious links.

Scammers also often lure victims with offers that are hard to resist, such as free products, huge discounts, or guaranteed returns on investments. If a deal or giveaway seems too generous, it probably is. Research the offer and the company behind it to ensure its legitimacy.

Additionally, ensure to protect your accounts with strong security measures. For instance, ensure to:

  • Use strong, unique passwords. Create complex passwords for your social media accounts and avoid using the same password across multiple sites.
  • Enable two-factor authentication (2FA). Add an extra layer of security by enabling 2FA. This requires a second form of verification, such as a code sent to your phone, in addition to your password.
  • Regularly update your passwords. Change your passwords periodically and immediately if you suspect any security breach.

Don’t get scammed online

Ultimately, addressing social media scams demands a collective effort from individuals, platforms, and authorities. Users must remain cautious, report suspicious activities promptly, and prioritize their personal account security.

Remember, your digital safety is in your hands. Educate yourself, stay alert, and practice good online habits to enjoy the benefits of social media without falling prey to scams.

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