We tend to think we can see a scam coming, from sweepstakes scams to tax imposters to pesky robocalls. But scammers are getting savvier by the second, setting us up for costly cons we can’t even imagine existing.
These days, con artists are doing their dirty deeds on peer-to-peer (P2P) mobile payment apps such as Zelle, Venmo, Cash App and PayPal. Quick and convenient, these apps streamline financial transactions, allowing you to send money to friends, family and other people you trust, using their phone number or email address. For example, splitting the lunch tab with a girlfriend or paying the hairstylist can be done in an instant. But in true fraudster fashion, online criminals have found a way to ruin a good thing.
With peer-to-peer mobile payment apps, splitting the lunch tab with a girlfriend or paying the hairstylist can be done in an instant. But in true fraudster fashion, online criminals have found a way to ruin a good thing.
So what’s the scheme?
While P2P apps are easy to use, there’s a lack of credit card–like protections that we take for granted, making folks more vulnerable to scams. Crooks are using many different tactics. For instance, they might impersonate your bank, sending a text message that alerts you to suspicious transactions on your account. After obtaining key pieces of personal information from you, they’re able to access your account. Another hot con? Someone might pose as your utility company, threatening to shut off your service if you don’t make a payment via a P2P service immediately. But here’s the kicker: Since consumers are aware they’re making the P2P payment, reclaiming lost funds is nearly impossible, as banks classify such transactions as “authorized” and assume no responsibility.
It’s a scenario that’s becoming all too common. In fact, according to industry consultant Javelin Strategy & Research, in 2020 nearly 18 million Americans have lost money in scams involving digital wallets and P2P apps. Like 66-year-old Lura Daniels-Ball, of Los Angeles, who, the day after she launched her baking business, received a phone call from her “bank” claiming she’d been hacked. The caller explained to Lura that someone was trying to put Zelle transfers through her bank account, and they would “help” her recover the funds in just a few steps. After completing the two-step verification process, Lura received a text message in which the caller asked for the code. In reality, it wasn’t her bank who called but an impersonator. Turns out, the code she gave to the thief was all they needed to scoop up the money in her small-business loan, and then some.
Lura recounts the ordeal she went through:
“I said, ‘I just lost my business.’ I said, ‘That’s $18,500. That’s everything I have for my business.’ And [the bank representative is] like, ‘Well, I’m really sorry, miss, but this is all I can do.’ So I’m just like sick. I am absolutely just sick. And so I … do the claim, and I, let me tell you, it just … I can’t even begin to tell you how I felt. I felt ashamed, I felt sick to my stomach, I had, my head was swimming.”
Hear Lura’s harrowing story in her own words on the podcast The Perfect Scam at aarp.org.
But before you leave this page, scroll down to learn how to protect yourself from the kinds of criminals who targeted her.
Listen to part 1
Listen to part 2
Heed these tips for sidestepping P2P scams:
1. Only send money to people you know.
They say keep your circle small. But on P2P apps, consider making that circle even smaller. In other words, transferring funds to strangers is a no-no. Additionally, always verify the phone number and email address of the intended recipient. One mistake, and your money could land in the wrong hands.
2. Proceed with caution when purchasing goods and services.
Using P2P apps to shop online is a risky move, as you might be paying for goods and services you’ll never receive. Remember, once the money leaves your account, it’s likely gone for good — and fraudsters know this. Another tip? If a vendor insists on payment via a P2P app, run the other way. It could be a scam.
3. Opt for extra security.
Err on the side of caution by setting up multifactor identification requiring a personal identification number (PIN). And never share the PIN with anyone. Doing so is a sure way to give criminals access to your account. You might also consider using facial or fingerprint recognition.