Your Money

What to Do if You’ve Been Scammed

5 minute read

When Ian Mitchell, a fraud specialist with 25 years’ experience, wanted to buy a car, he found himself browsing a familiar-looking auto website. But when he asked a seller if he could view one of the cars in person, “they came up with every excuse in the world [about] why I couldn’t see the vehicle,” Mitchell says. 

Mitchell realized that he was on a fake website, and he reported it to the company whose name was being misused as well as to local law enforcement. “I did my best to try to prevent them from abusing someone else,” he says.

Mitchell, who is co-founder of fraud services company Mission Omega and founder of crime prevention network The Knoble, did not part with any money. But many aren’t so lucky: consumers in the U.S. lost $10 billion to scams in 2023, according to the Federal Trade Commission. That’s a $1 billion increase on the year prior. 

Imposter scams—in which someone pretends to be a friend or relative who needs money, claims to be from your bank’s fraud department or says they are a technical support operative needing access to your computer—are the most common, according to the FTC.

Read More: Why Gen Z Is Surprisingly Susceptible to Financial Scams

Perpetrators focus on people’s vulnerabilities, Mitchell says. “Whether it's a desire for love, or greed, or need, they prey on that.” Scams have also become more sophisticated, he adds. “You might get an email or a text that really looks legitimate, and it looks like it's catered to you—because it is.”

Been scammed? Here’s what to do

Act immediately if you suspect you have sent money to a scammer, says Kimberly Palmer, a personal finance expert at financial resources site NerdWallet. 

“If you have shared any of your passwords, or information about your bank, change your passwords,” she says. “Contact your bank and tell them what happened because they'll immediately put a hold on your account.”

Read More: Banks Aren’t Doing Enough to Protect Customers From Scams

Next, report the scam to the FTC, Palmer says. You can do this via ReportFraud.ftc.gov. You should also report what happened to local law enforcement agencies and your state attorney general if you’ve sent money within the U.S. If you paid someone overseas, report the incident to the FBI, she advises.

Palmer also recommends changing your bank account numbers, which your financial institution can help with. “It does take some effort on your part of course, because it means you have to update so much in your financial life, but it's worth protecting your money.”

Unfortunately, if you realize you’ve sent money directly from your bank account to a scammer, it can be very hard to recover the funds, according to Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), a non-profit that supports those who have been victim to scams.

“If I wire money, that cash is gone. If I send this as a direct payment, a Zelle payment, a Venmo payment, that cash is gone,” Velasquez says.

Read More: Why Crypto Scams Are Driving an Online Crime Boom — And How to Outsmart Them

The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau’s Regulation E safeguards people from unauthorized electronic funds transfers from their bank accounts, but you won’t be covered if you’ve authorized a payment yourself. “There's a lot of factors that go into the success of getting the money back and it's not unheard of,” Velasquez says. “[But] the need for investigating where's that money gone, far, far outweighs the resources that we have.”

How to protect yourself from scams

If someone contacts you claiming to be from an organization and asks for personal information or money, or sends an email or text asking you to click a link, check that they are who they claim to be, says Velasquez. Scammers can spoof email addresses and phone numbers to make it appear like they are legitimate. “Go to the source. If it’s your bank, hang up [and] call the number on the back of your card. If you have an online account, log in online and see if there’s any messages for you.”

Scammers might already have personal information like your name and address, which they use to make you think they are genuine. “Don't let that fool you,” Velasquez says. “Unfortunately, most of that information that they're using is easily purchased on the dark web.”

Read More: The Enduring Nightmare of Trafficked Scammers

There are basic steps you can take to protect yourself, Palmer says. “You want to have really complex passwords on your accounts. And then you want to add two-step authentication to your financial accounts and even your social media accounts,” she says. She also warns against accessing online accounts while connected to public Wi-Fi because of the risk of having information stolen.

When doing business with a company that’s new to you, such as a home builder or used car dealer, check whether it is accredited by the Better Business Bureau, Palmer says. The organization also has a Scam Tracker.

It’s also good to talk about scams to friends and family, and not feel embarrassed if you’ve been taken in by one, says Mitchell. “We need to have these conversations so that the scammers don't start from a little problem ballooning into [a situation] where they’re taking life savings.”

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