Thoughts of the American frontier, also known as the Wild West, often conjure up visions of lawlessness and expansion into new unknown territory. This period is often characterized by volatility, risk, reward, and loss. Feelings of what it was like in the Wild West often hit close to home for those who find themselves within a period of history in which new markets, manufacturing processes, or technological innovation upset traditional ways of living or doing business.
Today, the fast-changing state of the cryptocurrency market and the type of impact it will have on the future of commerce evoke many similar sentiments. As the attention of retail investors, speculators, and various types of institutional investors continues to turn toward the lucrative cryptocurrency markets, so too does the attention of scammers and cheats.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Consumer Sentinel, from October 2020 through March 31, 2021, reports of crypto-related scams skyrocketed to nearly 7,000 people reporting losses of more than $80 million. These figures reflect a 12-fold increase in the number of reports compared to the same period a year ago and a nearly 1,000% rise in reported losses.
Given the exponential rise in reported crypto scams, awareness of the common types of scams and what kinds of things you can do to protect yourself from being cheated are more important than ever.
- The mad rush into cryptocurrency over the past several years has caught the attention of all kinds of investors, but it has also caught the attention of scammers.
- Crypto scams most often aim to gain private information such as security codes or trick an unsuspecting person into sending cryptocurrency to a compromised digital wallet.
- Social engineering scams such as giveaways, romance scams, phishing, extortion emails, and others mentioned within the article are a problem in broader society, but they are especially prevalent when it comes to cryptocurrency.
Types of Cryptocurrency Scams
Generally speaking, cryptocurrency scams fall into two different categories:
- Initiatives aiming to obtain access to a target's digital wallet or authentication credentials. This means scammers try to get information that gives them access to a digital wallet or other types of private information such as security codes. In some cases, this even includes access to physical hardware.
- Transferring cryptocurrency directly to a scammer due to impersonation, fraudulent investment or business opportunities, or other malicious means.
Social Engineering Scams
For social engineering scams, scammers use psychological manipulation and deceit to gain control of vital information relating to user accounts. These types of scams condition people to think that they are dealing with a trusted entity such as a government agency, well-known business, tech support, community member, work colleague, or friend. Scammers will often work from any angle or take however much time they need to gain the trust of a potential victim so that they reveal key information or send money to the scammer's digital wallet. When one of these trusted connections demands cryptocurrency for any reason, it can often be a sign of a scam.
Scammers often utilize dating websites to make unsuspecting targets believe that they are in a real long-term relationship. When trust has been granted, conversations often turn to lucrative cryptocurrency opportunities and the eventual transfer of either coins or account authentication credentials. Approximately 20% of the money reported lost in romance scams was in cryptocurrency.
Imposter and Giveaway Scams
Moving down the sphere of influence, scammers also try to pose as famous celebrities, businesspeople, or cryptocurrency influencers. To capture the attention of potential targets, many scammers promise to match or multiply the cryptocurrency sent to them in what is known as a giveaway scam. Well-crafted messaging from what often looks like a valid social media account can often create a sense of validity and spark a sense of urgency. This mythical "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity can lead people to transfer funds quickly in hopes of an instant return.
For example, in the six months prior to March 31, 2021, there had been reports of more than $2 million in cryptocurrency transferred to Elon Musk impersonators. According to the FTC, 14% of reported losses to imposters of all types are now in cryptocurrency.
Within the context of the cryptocurrency industry, phishing scams target information pertaining to online wallets. Specifically, scammers are interested in crypto wallet private keys, which are the keys required to access funds within the wallet. Their method of working is like that of many standard scams. They send an email leading holders to a specially created website that asks them to enter private key information. When the hackers have acquired this information, they can steal the cryptocurrency contained in those wallets.
Phishing scams are among the most common attacks on consumers. According to the FBI, more than 114,700 people fell victim to phishing scams in 2019. Collectively, they lost $57.8 million, or about $500 each.
Blackmail and Extortion Scams
Another popular social engineering method scammers use is to send blackmail emails. For such emails, scam artists claim to have a record of adult websites or other illicit web pages visited by the user and threaten to expose them unless they share private keys or send cryptocurrency to the scammer. These types of cases represent a criminal extortion attempt and should be reported to an enforcement agency such as the FBI.
Investment or Business Opportunity Scams
The adage "if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is" is one to keep top of mind for anyone venturing into investing in general, but it is especially true for cryptocurrencies. Countless profit-seeking speculators turn to misleading websites offering guaranteed returns or other setups for which investors must invest large sums of money for even larger guaranteed returns. While funds flow freely inward, these bogus guarantees often lead to financial disaster when individuals try to get their money out and find that they can't.
New Crypto-Based Opportunities: ICOs and NFTs
With the rise of new crypto-based investments such as initial coin offerings (ICOs) and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), there are now even more avenues for scammers to try to gain access to your money. The background of these investments is beyond the scope of this article, but what's important to know is that although crypto-based investments or business opportunities may sound lucrative, this doesn't always reflect reality. For example, some scammers create fake websites for ICOs and instruct users to deposit cryptocurrency into a compromised wallet. In other instances, the ICO itself may be at fault. Founders could distribute tokens that are unregulated by U.S. securities laws or mislead investors about their products through false advertising.
DeFi Rug Pulls
DeFi rug pulls are the latest type of scam to hit the cryptocurrency markets. Decentralized finance, or DeFi, aims to decentralize finance by removing gatekeepers for financial transactions. In recent times, it has become a magnet for innovation in the crypto ecosystem. However, the development of DeFi platforms is beset with its own problems. Bad actors have made away with investor funds via such avenues. This practice, known as a rug pull, has become especially prevalent as DeFi protocols have become popular with crypto investors interested in magnifying returns by hunting down yield-bearing crypto instruments.
Cloud Mining Scams
Platforms will market to retail buyers and investors to put upfront capital down to secure an ongoing stream of mining power and reward. These platforms do not actually own the hash rate they say they do, and will not deliver the rewards following your downpayment. While Cloud Mining in itself is not necessarily a scam, thorough due diligence must be conducted on the platform prior to investment.
Are Cryptocurrency Scams on the Rise?
Unfortunately, yes. Cryptocurrency scams have been growing exponentially in recent years, a by-product of the boom in cryptocurrencies. Cryptoasset risk manager Elliptic notes that decentralized finance (DeFi) users and investors have suffered losses of $10.5 billion as of November 2021 due to theft and fraud, up sevenfold from $1.5 billion in 2020.
What Are Some Claims That May Be Warning Signs of a Potential Crypto Scam?
According to the Federal Trade Commission, look for tall claims like these to help spot companies and people to avoid -
- A guarantee that you'll make money: don't believe such promises as they indicate a scam, even if there's a celebrity endorsement or testimonials, since these can be easily faked.
- Big payouts with guaranteed returns: "Guaranteed" returns are a big red flag.
- Free money: Whether in cash or cryptocurrency, free money promises are always fake.
- Big claims without details or explanations: Be very skeptical about such claims.
What Are Some Measures to Prevent Being Caught Up In a Cryptocurrency Scam?
According to AARP.org, here are some preventive measures for avoiding crypto scams:
- Don't put money in a virtual currency or cryptocurrency if you don't really understand how it work, and don't speculate in cryptocurrencies with money that you can't afford to lose.
- Don't invest in or trade cryptocurrencies based on advice from someone you've only dealt with online.
- Don't believe social media posts promoting cryptocurrency giveaways.
- Don't share your "private keys", which enable you to access your virtual currency, with anyone; keep them in a secure place (preferably offline, where they cannot be hacked).
The Bottom Line
For many people, the mad rush into cryptocurrencies has evoked feelings of the Wild West. As the crypto ecosystem continues to gain scale and complexity, it will undoubtedly remain a top focus of scammers. As mentioned above, crypto scams generally fall into two main categories: socially engineered initiatives aimed at obtaining account or security information and having a target send cryptocurrency to a comprised digital wallet. By understanding the common ways that scammers try to steal your information (and ultimately your money), you will hopefully be able to spot a crypto-related scam early and prevent it from happening to you.
Investing in cryptocurrencies and other Initial Coin Offerings (“ICOs”) is highly risky and speculative, and this article is not a recommendation by Investopedia or the writer to invest in cryptocurrencies or other ICOs. Since each individual's situation is unique, a qualified professional should always be consulted before making any financial decisions. Investopedia makes no representations or warranties as to the accuracy or timeliness of the information contained herein.