The most common type of scam is fake tech support, but e-commerce scams are the most lucrative. ExpressVPN‘s Threat Manager can help you detect domains associated with scams — try it for free with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Online scams: Everyone is afraid of them, but do we really understand them? In this internet age, information is power. Protecting yourself from online scams is a matter of combining good information with the right technology. That’s why I’ll share 15 scam statistics and facts you can use to arm yourself against internet scammers.
- Best VPN for scam protection
How common is it to get scammed?About one in 10 Americans lose money to a scam every year.
How many people get scammed in the world?It’s hard to tell how many people on the planet get scammed per year, but surveys suggest that cumulative monetary losses total about $32.4 billion.
Quick Scam Statistics & Facts
- Fake e-commerce sites are one of the most consistently successful types of online scam; 84% of people targeted by a fake shopping website engaged with it, and 47% of all targets lost money.
- 87% of people use an unsecured WiFi connection at least once a year, potentially exposing their personal information to scammers.
- Americans aged 65 and over lose $2.9 billion to fraud every year.
- Romance scams grew more common in 2020, with catfishers stealing $304 million in the United States.
- Identity theft is the primary driver of e-commerce fraud, with 71% of merchants reporting that someone had tried to scam them with a stolen identity.
Scam Statistics: Common Online Scams
1. The most successful scams involve online purchases
E-commerce scams are the most lucrative type of online fraud, according to a joint report by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the Better Business Bureau (BBB), and the Stanford Center for Longevity.
A whopping 84% of survey respondents who encountered an online shopping scam reported engaging with it, and 47% reported losing money to one.
The nature of online shopping makes e-commerce scams the most pernicious type of fraud. Whenever we shell out money for an online purchase, we only have the seller’s word that we’ll get anything in return.
That makes people more willing to trust shady third-party sellers on Amazon, Craigslist and eBay, and less vigilant for sites with stolen logos promising high-end goods at discount prices.
The second-most successful type of scam was fake tech support, in which 32% of respondents reported losing money. Employment scams came in third, with 25% of respondents losing money to a fake job offer.1
2. Fake tech support is the most common type of scam
The same study reported that the type of online fraud you’re most likely to encounter is a tech support scam. In one of these scams, you get a call, an email or a pop-up ad warning you that your computer has been infected with some kind of horrible virus.
The scam will direct you to a “help desk” where you’ll either be pressed to hand over money to fix the “problem” or surrender access to your computer — likely so the scammer can install malware while pretending to clean it out.
The runner-up in the “most common scam” category is the “fake IRS” con, where a caller pretends to be a tax collector and demands money. However, this is also one of the least successful scams, with only 15% engaging and 3% losing money.1
3. Scams most often work when the scammer sounds official
Another question the Stanford study asked responders why they engaged with the scam. The top reported reason, whether or not the victim lost money, was that the scammer “seemed official.” That is, they convincingly impersonated someone with power, who could punish them if they failed to comply.
Time pressure was another top reason. Scams involving a sense of urgency were more likely to work, as were those by victims who “thought the person was nice.” The latter is common among senior citizens (see the “targeting the elderly” section).1
Identity Theft Scam Statistics
4. In 2020, 47% of Americans were targeted by identity theft
Identity theft jumped an almost unbelievable amount during the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020, according to a study by Aite Group. In 2019, identity theft cost Americans $502.5 billion. In 2020, that number jumped to $712.4 billion, and it’s expected to increase again in 2021 (though not nearly as much).
What happened (other than the obvious) to drive the numbers so high? According to Aite, the culprit is a massive boom in unemployment application fraud.
This scam involves leveraging personal information stolen in data breaches. The scammers, taking advantage of unemployment benefits expanded due to the pandemic, pretend to be people whose info they’ve stolen and collect their money.2
5. An active social media presence increases your risk of identity fraud
Being a “digitally connected consumer” increases your risk of fraud by about 30%, according to consulting firm Javelin Strategy. Digitally connected consumers are on an average of 4.9 social networks, often shop online, use a lot of peer-to-peer payment services (like Venmo and Cash App) and tend to be early adopters of technology.
Technology makes life easier in many ways, but it comes with risks. The more you’re on the internet, the more points of vulnerability you expose to potential social media scams.3
6. In one year, 87% of people admitted to using unsecured public WiFi
In 2017, Norton conducted a massive survey of the risks of public WiFi, one of the primary ways hackers steal personal information to sell it on the dark web. They found that 87% of consumers had used a public WiFi network without a password or security in the previous year.
Using a virtual private network (VPN) makes public WiFi a lot safer, but Norton found that only 25% of consumers used one to protect themselves. Even worse, a startling 29% claimed to have never even heard of a VPN until the survey.4
Scam Statistics: Targeting the Elderly
7. Americans over 65 lose $2.9 billion a year to scams
The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Aging compiled a report in 2019 that found scams cost older Americans nearly $3 billion every year. The most common scam perpetrated against the elderly is the classic IRS impersonation. The report estimates that fake IRS agents have targeted 2.4 million Americans, with the highest average rate topping out at 200 per week.
Another common scam that targets Americans 65 and older is the “Jamaican Lottery” scam, an updated version of the classic “Spanish Prisoner” con. In this scam, the fraudster offers the victim a chance at a massive payout (e.g., “You won the Jamaican Lottery!”) if they just send in a little money to cover expenses.
Inevitably, the expenses keep mounting until the victim either goes bankrupt or catches on, at which point the scammer ghosts them.5
8. Scammers change their tactics in response to countermeasures
The same report contains some more interesting information about elder-abuse scams, and by “interesting,” I mostly mean “horrifying.” As awareness of the IRS scam spread, the IRS itself issued guidelines to prevent future attacks, including a clear statement that the IRS will never call you about back taxes without mailing a bill first.
That helped save some potential victims, but scammers caught on. Now scammers are likely to say they’re “following up on a mailing,” making the victim fear the bill got lost in the mail. The scammers keep going because this grift works. One man in Florida was so desperate to save himself from legal action that he crashed his car on the way to an ATM.
The only thing that works to cut down scamming rates is the mass arrest of fraudsters: After 20 people were arrested in connection with the IRS scam, claims dropped by 94%.5
9. Elder fraud scams work because seniors are prime targets
The FBI’s resource page on elder fraud lists several reasons older Americans present irresistible targets to scammers. Senior citizens “tend to be trusting and polite” without the built-in suspicion of strangers younger people have developed from growing up online. They also tend to be financially secure, with savings and good credit.
Elders are also less likely to report fraud. They may not know how, be ashamed that they fell victim to a scam, or fear that their families will find out and make them relinquish control of their finances.6
Catfishing Scam Statistics
10. Catfishers aren’t always after money
In the 11 years since victim Nev Schulman popularized the term in the documentary Catfish, most people have heard of catfishing. It’s the act of pretending to be someone you aren’t to lure strangers into a relationship on the internet.
There are plenty of statistics available on romance scams — the act of catfishing to steal money — and you can find two of them below. But not all catfishers are out to steal. The motivation is often psychological, not financial.
In a survey of 27 admitted catfishers, 41% said they started because they felt lonely. One-third felt they were unattractive and would never have a relationship if they didn’t lie about their appearance. Others catfished to explore their sexuality, escape from their everyday lives or just pretend to be older so they could use an age-restricted website.
One-third of respondents said they wanted to come clean to their victims. Some even reported continuing the relationship after admitting they were catfish.7
11. In 2020, romance scams took $304 million in the U.S. alone
The Federal Trade Commission reported that romance scam reports jumped 50% in 2020, taking lonely, quarantine-crazed Americans for over $300 million at a median loss of $2,500 per victim. Romance scammers profit from the pandemic and the increasing integration of online dating into everyday life.
In a romance scam, the catfisher pretends to be someone they’re not and lures the unsuspecting victim into a relationship. Commonly, they’ll use social media profiles filled with attractive photos and stolen names (a common variation involves using the name of a real U.S. soldier currently serving overseas).
The scammer comes up with elaborate reasons they can’t meet their victim in person, often involving a traumatic backstory — or more recently, blaming Covid-19 lockdowns.
Romance scammers have several ways to ask for money. Sometimes, they claim they accidentally sent the victim a lot of money and need to be reimbursed. Other times, they claim to need the money for medical treatment or their phone plan. Anything with a strong sense of urgency often works.7
12. Romance scams affect all age groups
When you think of romance scams, chances are you imagine the victim falling into one of two categories: twenty-somethings excited to find love online or middle-aged divorcees far too trusting of strangers who claim to be besotted.
The truth is that all ages are susceptible. In 2020, people from ages 20 to 29 reported twice the number of romance scams they did in 2019. People from 40 to 69 were the most likely to lose money, while people over 70 lost the most money — an average of $9,475 per person.7
Scam Statistics: E-Commerce and Payment Fraud
13. 74% of organizations were targeted by payment fraud in 2020
Fraud is extremely common in any situation where money changes hands. In 2020, 74% of all organizations were targeted by at least one attempt at fraudulent payment, according to the Association for Financial Professionals.
Additionally, 66% of organizations said that customers had tried to pay with illegitimate checks, and 62% of companies reported they were targeted through business email compromise (BEC). Scammers stole email addresses at their client businesses through phishing or other social engineering attacks, then impersonated those businesses to request payments.8
14. Worldwide payment fraud tripled from 2010-2020
Even before online shopping became the only way to access many goods during pandemic lockdowns, e-commerce fraud was a multi-billion-dollar business. In 2011, fraudsters netted $9.8 billion from unsuspecting customers and merchants; in 2020, that number swelled to $32.4 billion. Forecasts suggest it will increase at least another 25% this decade.
All this fraud isn’t distributed equally, though. Citizens of the United States are the most likely to be targeted by fraud, with 34% of citizens saying a scammer has attempted to victimize them at least once.
This kind of fraud can take many forms. The $32.4 billion total includes money spent by consumers on fraudulent websites or for inferior products. It also counts money lost by merchants who have to honor bogus chargebacks or real chargebacks by customers who’ve had their credit card data stolen.10
15. Identity theft is the most common type of e-commerce fraud overall
A study by payment company Worldpay surveyed 274 businesses about what kinds of fraud they encountered most often; 71% named identity theft as a primary threat.
Criminals buy information leaked in data breaches and use it to buy products under the stolen identity, getting the goods while someone else pays. They can also acquire identities through phishing or launch man-in-the-middle attacks against unencrypted communications.
Charge-back fraud, also called “friendly fraud,” was another major fear. In this scam, a customer buys a product using their real identity, then requests their money back because the product was damaged or never arrived. It’s difficult for the merchant to fight this, so they often end up eating the cost.
Also on the list is “clean fraud.” In this scam, the criminal combines a stolen credit card number with information gleaned about the cardholder’s identity. They use the identity to make a purchase without getting flagged for fraud but don’t technically “steal” it since they never act directly in the victim’s name.11
16. Reader Resources
Here are a couple tips about how to spot a scam, and what to do once you discover one.
How to Spot a Scam
Scammers will try hard to look legitimate. Be suspicious of anyone who claims to be a government official or other powerful person but can’t provide proof.
Scammers also try to create a sense of urgency through a ticking clock or impending deadline, hoping you’ll make a bad decision without thinking it through.
How to Report a Scammer
There are several public and private hotlines to report fraud to, but the best place to start is the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Use this link to report a scam to the FTC online.
Conclusion: Scamming Statistics
The number one thing scammers don’t want you to be is informed. If you’re alert for fake shopping websites and suspicious emails pretending to be from the IRS, they run out of two more ways to separate you from your money.
However, fraudsters are nothing if not creative. I’m constantly researching new types of attacks, and I’ll do my best to keep you informed as they arise. That said, I can’t catch everything, so you should do the number two thing scammers don’t want you to do: use a VPN.
A VPN (virtual private network) encrypts your online transactions so your passwords, credentials, financial info and other sensitive data can’t be stolen by hackers. Since many common scams rely on accounts stolen through data breaches, a good VPN freezes most grifts in their tracks.
Have you ever had a close shave with an online scammer after your money? Tell me about it in the comments! Thanks for reading.
- Exposed to Scams Report
- Insurance Information Institute
- Javelin Strategy
- Norton Wi-Fi Risk Report
- Senate Aging Committee
- FBI: Scams and Safety
- The Conversation: Catfish
- FTC: Romance Scams
- 2021 AFP Payments Fraud and Control Survey
- Merchant Savvy: Global Payment Fraud
- Information Age: Commerce Fraud