Our teens have grown up with computers and smartphones, so it's no surprise that they are tech and internet-savvy, giving them confidence online. Unfortunately, they also tend to be inexperienced and more trusting than most age groups when interacting with others. This combination can make young people vulnerable to scam artists, especially in an increasingly dangerous online world.
According to the FBI, 14,919 scam incidents were reported by people aged 19 and younger in 2021. These scams resulted in losses of $101.4 million to the teens that reported them.
"Minors under 18 are far more likely to become victims of identity theft than adults," says scam expert Steve Weisman. "They are targeted for two reasons. The first is that they take longer to find out that they are victims of identity theft, thereby allowing the identity thieves more time to use their identities for criminal purposes. In addition, their information is often used in synthetic identity theft where criminals create a phony identity with information taken from several different people."
According to a 2021 study, social media use is up 84% among teens compared to 2015. As many as 94% of 8- to 18-year-olds have access to a smartphone. It only makes sense to know what scammers are doing and how to defeat them. Here are 10 of the most common scams that target teenagers and what you can do to help ensure your teen doesn't become a victim.
- The onset of COVID-19 and the resulting isolation were especially hard on young people, leading to increased scams targeting teens.
- Scams that target teenagers abound, especially in their favorite habitat—the Internet.
- Fraudsters use social media to trick teens into providing personal information, which can be used for identity theft.
- Many scams take the form of ads and online offers, promising luxury goods for amazingly cheap prices—goods that never arrive.
- Other scams involve contests, scholarships, or employment opportunities requiring the teen to pay a fee or deposit.
- Yet another trick is to lure teens with free services for smartphones that actually incur a monthly charge.
1. Social Media Scams
Social media is prime territory for Internet-based scams that target teens. Teenagers, after all, are social animals, and recent pandemic lockdowns have helped create a perfect storm of teen anxiety and scammer opportunities that continue to play out on most of the major social media platforms.
Among scams common to social media are those involving identity theft. Chief among these are surveys or contests that request personal information and catfishing in which the scammer poses as someone they are not and befriends the victim intending to take money, personal information, or more.
Though these are the most common social media scams, many other fraudulent activities appear on these platforms, including most of the rest of the scams in this article.
2. Online Shopping Scams
"Teens and millennials are also big online spenders for expensive goods," says Weisman. "Often they are lured into phony websites that take their money and sell them nothing, lured into providing personal information used for purposes of identity theft or tricked into clicking on links and downloading malware."
Finding the latest iPhone, designer handbag, or state-of-the-art headphones for a fraction of the retail price sounds too good to be true. Unfortunately, that's exactly what it is: too good to be true. When paid for, online bargain-basement-priced goods rarely arrive.
Another version of this scam involves knock-offs or counterfeit products pretending to be the real deal. Once the province of shady back-alley salespeople from the trunk of a car, online knock-off sales have found a new home and, in bargain-hunting teens, new victims.
Like many adults, teens are often so embarrassed about being duped that they won't tell their parents or the authorities, so many of these scams go unreported.
3. Identity Theft
This scam deserves special mention because it is one of the most prevalent and also because social media is just one online area where it appears. Others include websites, email, messaging apps, and pop-up windows.
The naiveté of youth often makes it easier for would-be identity thieves to phish for information. Young people don't always realize that they're handing over personal data that can be used for identity theft. This is illustrated in a survey that found a much higher rate (15%) of identity theft among those 18 to 29 years old than those 45 and older (8%).
Any online interaction that asks for personal information could be an identity theft operation. This includes:
- False employment opportunities
- Fake applications for credit cards, scholarships and grants, and student loans
- So-called freebies
Weisman also notes that job scams can lead to identity theft or worse. "Some of these job scams send counterfeit checks in an amount more than what the young person is to be paid, and they are tricked into depositing the money in their account and wiring the balance back to their 'employer.' The check sent by the scammer ultimately bounces, but the money wired by the young person is gone forever."
4. Skill or Talent Contests
Another popular online scam that thrives outside of social media is a variation on acting and modeling scams, which are also alive and well on the Internet. More recent scams involve skill-based contests in which teens are urged to enter artwork, music compositions, or creative writing to win money and, more importantly, fame.
These scams may or may not require an entry fee, and if the teen wins, even more cash. Spoiler alert: The entry does win, and the additional fee or fees supposedly help with the cost of promotion, publication, and so forth.
The average number of hours teenagers spend online each day, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
5. Scholarship and Grant Scams
As college costs loom and young people (and their parents) worry about financing higher education, skepticism about unsolicited scholarships and grant offers may not be as strong as it should be. The goal of these scams may be simple identity theft, or it may be a more direct attempt to charge for so-called proprietary information about scholarships or free money the public doesn't know exists.
These bogus offers sometimes guarantee you will get your money back if you don't receive the scholarship; special fee-based scholarships; and even unclaimed scholarships only available through a special fund you can access by—you guessed it—paying a fee.
6. Student Loan Debt Forgiveness Scams
The scam companies often have names that make it appear they are government-affiliated. However, real student loan forgiveness only applies to federal student loans and involves no fees.
In addition to promises of forgiveness, some scammers promise consolidation loans that also appear to be from the government. In fact, these are private loans that charge high fees just to apply. Legitimate student loan consolidation does not require a fee.
Due to a federal court block on student loan forgiveness, the U.S. Department of Education has extended the student loan payment pause until 60 days after the department is allowed to implement its forgiveness program, or 60 days after June 30, 2023, whichever is earliest.
7. Online Auctions
Auction scams have been found to target unsuspecting teens in various ways. One scam involves an auction that the teen wins for an item that doesn't exist or never arrives—even though the teen has paid for it.
Alternatively, when an unsuspecting teen is encouraged to auction off possessions, the scam artist (the auction house rep) requires the teen to send in the item in advance, before the buyer's payment arrives, or even before bids are placed. Of course, the funds never arrive, the auction never happens, and the rep disappears.
8. Cellphone Freebies
As noted above, with nearly all teens having access to cell phones, scammers have flocked to the space with confusing offers of free ringtones and wallpaper images that arrive regularly.
Missing from the pitch is clear language about the fact the teen has subscribed to an expensive service with monthly fees that can add up quickly. Worse yet, the fees often come with confusing names that do not clarify the purpose of the fee.
9. Weight Loss Scams
Many teens have body image issues. Though social media has received plenty of attention for its role in this, scammers are equally guilty because they weaponize insecurity and use it to encourage teens to spend money on useless and sometimes dangerous products and services.
Scams include everything from so-called keto diet pills to free trial offers that lead to long-term contracts, doctored images in ads, and more. Eating a healthy diet and regular exercise are the keys to weight loss, but scammers promise quicker and easier results for a fee.
10. Webcam Security
Another type of fraudulent activity magnified by the pandemic is webcam security. Zoom classes, a desire on the part of teens to connect with classmates while in quarantine, and a general desire to remain socially active, resulted in the growing use of webcams and an understandable but dangerous lack of webcam security.
The scam part of this situation involves the ability of hackers to infiltrate webcams that are not covered or otherwise disabled and, as a result, collect information and images that can be used to blackmail teens and their parents.
How to Fight Back
"Trust me," says Weisman, "you can't trust anyone." It's an old but eternally important life lesson. If you're a parent, take the time to discuss with your teen(s) the types of information that scammers are looking for and emphasize the need for security, privacy, and caution in sharing data.
Beyond that, here are some specific steps teens can take to protect themselves:
- Install malware and antivirus software and activate it.
- Use unique passwords for every site you visit.
- Don't click on links from anyone you don't know or trust.
- Unsolicited messages or offers should always be treated with a great deal of skepticism.
- Check online reviews before visiting a website.
- Don't give out personal information unless you know you can trust the person receiving it.
- Never pay to enter a contest, apply for a scholarship, or get a job. Period.
- Learn what a reverse lookup search engine is and how to use it.
- Don't be embarrassed to tell your parents or a trusted adult if you think you've been scammed.
What Percentage of Young People Use Smartphones?
Based on a 2021 study by Common Sense Media, teenage cell phone use is up 84% compared to 2015, with 94% of 8- to 18-year-olds having access to a smartphone.
What Is Catfishing on the Internet?
Catfishing is when someone uses images and information to create a new identity online. They then use that identity to damage someone's reputation or befriend an unsuspecting person to scam them or worse.
Do You Have to Pay to Have Student Loan Debt Forgiven?
No. Scammers charge a fee for student loan debt forgiveness assistance, but neither legitimate debt forgiveness nor loan consolidation requires upfront payment. Both are free to student loan borrowers.
The Bottom Line
Children are highly susceptible to scams due to their young age and inexperience. As many of today's scams happen over the Internet, it can be difficult for parents to know when a child has been scammed. There are actions you can take to protect your child and family so that neither of you is taken advantage of.