NEW YORK — Social media is full of scammers promising guaranteed returns on investment, and consumers lost billions of dollars to them last year.
Troy Gochenour, 50, of Columbus, Ohio, was conned out of $25,800, including $15,800 in borrowed money, in a crypto-mining scam that began with a WhatsApp message from a beautiful stranger.
“I had just moved home to restart my life, after trying to make it in show business in New York, and I was lonely,” Gochenour said. “So I started online dating. Then I got a WhatsApp message that began, ‘Sorry to bother you.’”
Financial scams, including cryptocurrency schemes, cost consumers $3.8 billion last year just in the U.S., according to the Federal Trade Commission, twice as much as in 2021. Such scams are also a problem globally.
Those who work in the space, including the FTC and Better Business Bureau, say the speed and convenience of the internet, the rise of online payment platforms and apps, and the spread of financial misinformation have all contributed to the increase. They also cite pandemic-era isolation and loneliness.
In Gochenour's case, he spent several weeks messaging with someone who seemed romantically interested in him before she brought up “liquidity mining.”
Though he'd been a crypto skeptic, he eventually began following her advice and instructions. Scammers like Gochenour's have become skilled at setting up sites that convincingly look like legitimate cryptocurrency companies, and Gochenour was taken in. After he set up a crypto wallet, it appeared that the money he transferred there was growing just the way his scammer said it would.
“I was hooked on this person,” he said. “And at first it looked like it was working. She said, ‘We could be together, you and I, and make all this money.’"
Then one day, when he had transferred about $5,000 of his own money to the wallet, he woke up to check the balance and the money was gone. When he looked at a website his scammer had directed him to, to try to understand what had happened, he saw a “contract.” He contacted the scammer about it, and she told him to contact “customer service,” who told him to put in another $10,000 in order to get all of his money back, plus bonuses.
Gochenour continued to add money to his wallet when prompted, despite the money being transferred out each time, until it looked like he had $200,000 coming to him.
“The numbers were all fake, all manipulated,” he said.
When he was told he'd have to pay $35,000 in taxes up front to access the $200,000, Gochenour realized it was a scam. By that point, he had taken out nearly $16,000 in personal loans on top of his $55,000 in student debt, each time lured by promises of even greater rewards. He now works with the Global Anti-Scam Organization to investigate similar frauds and to help educate others.
To avoid being taken for a ride, consider the following:
WHAT ARE SOME COMMON SIGNS OF AN INVESTMENT SCAM?
Most will sound quick, easy, and low- or no-risk. Many involve real estate, cryptocurrency, financial coaching, or gold. Typically, the company uses words like “proven” and “guaranteed,” along with testimonials from people saying they're on the other side and have benefited wildly. These are most often paid actors and invented reviews, according to Melanie McGovern, director of public relations for the International Association of Better Business Bureaus.
“Watch out for those endorsements,” McGovern said. “And know your friends. If you get a message that seems sketchy from someone's account, especially someone you haven't heard from in a while, reach out to them on a different platform. Because someone may be spoofing them.” (Spoofing is a term for when a hacker disguises themselves as a trusted source.)
Offers also tend to come with time pressure: “Make big money fast!” “Once-in-a-lifetime offer, gone tomorrow!” Or elaborate steps that require infusions of more money at each stage, such as the liquidity mining con that Gochenour experienced. The scammer typically paints a picture of what life will be like when you’re rich. But no one can guarantee a return, and anyone who promises a no-risk investment is a fraud.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU SUSPECT AN INVESTMENT SCAM?
First, take time to research the offer. Scammers want to rush you, so slow down. Search online for the name of the company and words like “review,” “scam,” or “complaint.”
Second, run the information by a friend or adviser. You may not have gotten an offer like this, but chances are you know someone who has, especially as scams often target specific communities, according to the FTC.
Third, don’t accept any unsolicited offers. If you get an out-of-the-blue call, text, or e-mail about “an amazing investment opportunity,” it's a scam.
Finally, reject the high-pressure pitch.
“Legitimate companies let you take the time you need to investigate before spending any money,” says McGovern.
Scammers will also exaggerate the significance of current events, following headlines and tying their pitch to the news. By making an opportunity seem exciting, innovative, and timely, they hope a target will commit without having fully researched the offer.
“Delete, hang up, and walk away," the FTC advises. "Especially if they want you to take money out of your 401(k) to invest.”
WHAT ABOUT CRYPTO INVESTMENT SCAMS?
One tell-tale sign of a crypto con is when the scammer asks you to send money in advance for any reason, the FTC warns. The fraudster will often claim this advance payment is to buy something needed for a big return or to protect the money you've already invested somehow. Gochenour experienced several versions of this send-money-to-get-more-money approach.
“Never mix online dating and investment advice,” the agency cautions. “If you meet someone on a dating site or app, and they want to show you how to invest in crypto, or they ask you to send them crypto, that’s a scam.”
McGovern said that the real scale of losses is greater than reported, because many people are embarrassed to have fallen for these schemes, and want to hide the outcomes from family and friends. But she encourages people to report the scams to the BBB, the CFPB, the FTC, and the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
WHAT ARE SOME OTHER COMMON INVESTMENT FRAUDS?
In this scam, the fraudster will tell you their “patented,” “tested,” or “proven” strategy will let you make money investing in stocks, bonds, foreign currency, or tax liens. They promise the approach will set you up for life and let you stop working. But after the free events and introductory videos, you'll have to pay fees up front for the rest of the expensive coaching, with no guarantee of return.
"It’s all part of a marketing scheme to get you to pay thousands of dollars for what turns out to be empty promises,” the FTC warns in its consumer alert.
REAL ESTATE COACHING
In-person and online seminars about how to invest in real estate often promote “risk-free” training, luring targets with promises of financial freedom. If the promotional materials and sales pitches make over-the-top claims, be wary. Watch for phrases like “sure thing,” “security for years to come," or the chance to “rake in money by working part-time or at-home.” Most people never make back the thousands of dollars of up-front fees.
PRECIOUS METALS AND COINS
If “metal dealers” or “rare coins merchants” tell you there’s no better time than now to invest, watch out. Scammers in this con typically simply keep your money. The FTC advises consumers to read the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s precious metals fraud alert before investing in bullion, bullion coins, collectible coins, or gold.