Holiday Shoppers—Watch Out For Text Scams

If you get a phone call or text message warning there may be fraudulent activity on your account, take a moment and pause: The fraud may very likely be the alarming call or message itself.

Fraudsters are hoping, in your panic, you will click on a link that can potentially download malware or trick you into revealing information such as your date of birth, Social Security number, passwords and other personal details that can be used to steal your cash or identity.

Fake callers pretending to be from legitimate businesses like Amazon, Apple and other name-brand companies was the top scam reported by users of BeenVerified’s free reverse-call service that tracks potentially fraudulent spam call numbers. These business imposter scams account for 15.1% of all categorizable complaints we fielded this past year.

But romance scams are now on the rise—14.3% of complaints in 2022 were victims of romance scammers, up from 10% in 2021. It’s an alarming trend: Victims of romance scams reported much higher monetary losses to BeenVerified compared to all other categories of phone and text scams. One victim revealed anonymously on our reverse-phone lookup platform the following:

This person got my email address from a dating site … took $97k and is still asking for more every month. Says will marry me when he gets back. Said [cash] got stuck as the bank held his money….

For this study, BeenVerified analyzed more than 165,000 scam calls and texts reported in the past three years. Our study shows 2022 saw a profusion of scam angles that dwarf the years that preceded the pandemic, in particular a growing number of cons that target the customers of peer-to-peer payment services and classified ad platforms that connect users directly with each other.

Users of Facebook Marketplace and P-2-P cash transfer apps Zelle and PayPal were among the fastest-growing targets of scams the past year, along with crypto and romance scammers that use WhatsApp, the popular phone and text messaging app.

“Scams that show fast growth are worth our attention, as they often become scams that dominate in years to come,” said Robert Lowry, the vice president of security at BeenVerified.

Common tactics across scam types

No matter the new schemes and approaches that fraudsters develop, there are common themes and tactics used across phone and text scam categories:

  • Scammers depend on fear tactics. Many scams cause you to drop your guard and, in a moment of panic, click dodgy links or reveal personal information such as date of birth, account numbers and passwords.
  • Scammers also use greed and wishful thinking. We’ve seen a rise in free money, sweepstakes and other prize scams the past year, where winners are promised rich rewards but first must pay taxes or fees before receiving their winnings.
  • Scammers feed off the lonely. Romance scams saw the highest amount of cash stolen according to victim reports to BeenVerified.
  • Scammers follow the news. As the Biden administration introduced Student Debt Relief to qualified borrowers, a profusion of new scams promising bogus student-loan relief proliferated this year. Throughout the pandemic, scammers showed themselves to be avid followers of the news. During the early days of lockdowns in 2020, scammers quickly pivoted to delivery scams as the home-delivery industry skyrocketed. In 2021, when cryptocurrency value exploded, get-rich-quick schemes around Bitcoin began to proliferate.
  • Scammers often traffic in gift cards. If anyone asks for payments in gift cards, walk away fast—gift cards are often favored by criminals because of their difficulty to trace.

BeenVerified’s Scam Call Complaint Monitor analyzed complaints from users who used our free reverse-number lookup tool and opted to self-report details of unsolicited calls and text messages. Complaints were recorded from all 50 states from Oct. 12, 2019, through Oct. 12, 2022.

The fastest growing scams in the past year

1. Facebook Marketplace scams

Reported Facebook Marketplace scams grew 184.8% the past year. There were many instances where sellers reported losing products to scammers who sent fake checks or other bogus cash for “payments,“ as well as buyers who sent full cash or deposits but never received the product.

Other common Facebook Marketplace scams reported were:

  • Google Voice verification scams. Gaining access to your Google Voice account—or creating a fraudulent account in your name—is the gist of the Google Voice scam. The scammer asks for your phone number and a six-digit one-time verification code, then potentially hijacks your account and personal information. Never trust anyone who asks you to share any one-time verification code.From the BeenVerified Scam Call Monitor: Facebook Market listing. Tried to change my Google Voice account by asking me to verify a 6-digit code.
  • Rental scams. Fake owners list a property for rent, then take deposits or cash for “background credit checks.” This number scammed $150 for application fees for a house I desperately wanted to better the lives of my kids. Using a Redacted name who is out of Georgia. Met on Facebook Marketplace

2. Zelle scams

User complaints related to Zelle scams grew 86% the past year, the second-highest rise. Zelle is an online digital payment service that allows you to transfer money to and from bank accounts. Zelle transactions are encrypted, making it difficult for anyone to hack an ongoing transaction. But as it’s a peer-to-peer direct-payment provider, Zelle scam victims are unlikely to recover lost cash.

  • Rental scams. Rental scammers tend to bait victims with fake listings on Facebook Marketplace, then defraud them using Zelle as a common payment method. Scammer – pretended to rent an apartment – showed the apartment – took $3k [through] Zelle. Scheduled to meet at the apartment but no show. This person is stealing people’s money by offering rental properties that he doesn’t own. He unfortunately took $1790 from my husband and I via Zelle.
  • Pet scams. Like rental scams, criminals post pets for sale online only to dupe victims out of cash and deposits. I Zelled $700 to buy a pug puppy from Odessa, Texas. Once they verified they received the money they are no longer in contact with me. This phone number is related to a scam due to us sending $1000 through Zelle. We purchased two puppies and did not receive them.

3. Tax/IRS scams

Scams from bogus IRS officials claiming victims owe back taxes has been a perennial threat, but this year fraudulent tax claims grew 55.4% with a few new wrinkles:

  • Bogus tax-debt relief Capitalizing on pandemic-era government payments, we saw reports of scams that falsely claim a new Biden administration program promising tax-debt forgiveness. I got a voicemail from Redacted saying her name was Mary Lopez and talked about a tax debt program that was part of a Biden initiative. Note: I don’t have and have never had any tax debt…He states he is an agent with the Empowerment Program with the federal government. He wants to grant monies to people in need, but they need to pay a tax fee between $450 to $1000 and shipping costs prior to receiving the money.
  • False claims of owing taxes on recently purchased products Fraudsters typically bait victims with false claims of purchases of big-ticket items on their account. In a new update to an old script, this fraud uses small dollar claims of unpaid taxes to lure victims into clicking dodgy links.Your parcel #YJL8876S containing the following products: 1.PS 5. Cannot be delivered until the outstanding tax has been paid. Current outstanding balance: $2.01. Additional info: RedactedDid not click link… Your parcel #YJL8276S which includes the following products: 1.Samsung Smart TV. Cannot be approved for delivery until your outstanding tax balance have been paid. Current outstanding balance: $1.32. More info: Redacted

4. WhatsApp scams

Scams involving WhatsApp rose 32.1% the past year. WhatsApp, the internationally popular free phone and text messaging app owned by Facebook parent company Meta Platforms, Inc., appears to be a growing gateway for romance and sextortion scams, as well as fake cryptocurrency investment opportunities.

  • Sextortion In these scams, fraudsters initiate contact, sometimes prompting victims to share intimate photos, only to then be blackmailed to give money or they will release damaging information.This person asked for a sugar baby relationship from TikTok and then progressed to WhatsApp. They stole 50 dollars from me and tried to blackmail me for more money.Joined a dating site called Plenty of Fish. This person claiming to be named Linda contacted me. I gave “her” my number. We talked on WhatsApp. This number I searched is the number this Linda is using on the app to message me. I later received a phone call about someone acting as if they are with the police and that I was speaking to a 15-year-old. This person is a scammer using a spoof number. Don’t give out phone numbers to people.
  • Romance scamsVictims groomed for romance scams often have conversations that start on one site then move to WhatsApp. Fraudsters often purport to be military and/or working overseas.Started on Facebook and then WhatsApp and asked for money twice, asked for me to get them a phone, asked me to send it to Nigeria and then wanted me to make payments to help unlock their inheritance … I foolishly sent them $50 twice through cash app.Only uses WhatsApp for communication and lied about being a veteran from the US Navy and scammed [me]out of sending fake checks to … an “orphanage.” She claims to be Redacted but the police reports say that her identity is fake.Claims to be ER doctor in the Army stationed in Aleppo, Syria. Is a scammer who keeps asking for Apple/iTunes gift cards… He uses this number on WhatsApp.
  • Crypto scamsReceive an invitation from the cryptocurrency Insider Discussion Group. Lead you to earn 1K-28K per day. Reply number ‘1’ and click the link to join. Redacted

5. Paypal scams

PayPal-related scams grew 31.8% this past year. In some cases, victims reported scams where cash was sent by PayPal, but the product was never sent. But most victims cited bogus fraud claims and fake Bitcoin purchases related to PayPal.

  • Fraudulent chargesThis man fraudulently billed $600 to my Paypal account – there is NO question about it.
  • Fake fraud claimsReceived email from a fake account showing my name as sender. Bogus charge of $755. I don’t have a PayPal account.Got a text message from this number stating, “Your order worth $998 has been placed from Amazon using your PayPal account. If you did not place this order call PayPal on toll-free number 18886975042.” I immediately checked my Amazon account and did not see any orders in that amount. I then checked my PayPal account and there were no charges that showed up.
  • Bogus Bitcoin purchasesFake Paypal number – trying to get personal info to use paypal to buy BitcoinReceived an email from PayPal that my order was confirmed. Item Bitcoin. $614.93