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Social Catfish report, FBI data

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You might think today’s teens are as tech-savvy as they come. But being digital natives doesn’t make them immune to online scams.

People under the age of 20 lost $101.4 million to online scams in 2021, according to a recent study from cybersecurity startup Social Catfish, which cited figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Report.

That’s compared with just $8.3 million in 2017, marking a nearly 1,126% increase in just four years — larger than any other age group in that same period.

“That was actually super surprising for us to find out,” David McClellan, Social Catfish’s founder and CEO, tells CNBC Make It. 

McClellan says his company first noticed the trend last year, but added that “over the last 24 months, that number has grown by 1,100%.”

Part of that increase can likely be attributed to the pandemic, which has seen an overall surge in online scams for all age groups compared to previous years. People over the age of 60 are still losing the most money to online scams, by far: nearly $1.7 billion combined last year, according to the FBI.

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But McClellan says today’s kids face a unique disadvantage: Their tech and social media aptitude could make them overconfident when identifying scammers online.

“As these kids have grown up, they’ve been the ones teaching their parents how to use their iPhone [or] teaching their grandparents how to use a computer,” McClellan says. “So they’re very confident with their skills online — and, like, overly confident.”

A 2019 Morning Consult poll of young Americans found that 86% of them would want to be online influencers if given the chance. Influencers typically engage heavily with their online followers, which means chatting with strangers online, McClellan notes.

In other words, for people growing up using apps like Instagram and TikTok, it can seem totally normal to engage with people they don’t know online. That can make it easier for scammers to win their trust and mislead or extort them.

“These people are overly trusting of the technology they’re using, and they’re more apt to respond to a stranger messaging them,” McClellan says.

Discord, the online gaming community and messaging app, recently saw a rise in scams involving malicious links and QR codes sending users to sales of fake nonfungible tokens (NFTs) or cryptocurrency tokens.

Younger Americans have been targeted by student loan forgiveness scams, where scammers trick people into giving up personal information and financial data under the guise of applying for student loan forgiveness.

McClellan even points to “sextortion” scams, where scammers pose as young girls to extort money from teen boys.

Seventy-six percent of parents believe schools need to do more to educate children on digital wellness and online safety, according to a 2021 survey from McAfee Corp. Federal law requires public schools to offer some instruction, but McClellan says those efforts often fall short.

Teaching young people about the types of scams that are prevalent — along with basic rules, like not sharing their personal information with strangers or clicking on suspicious links — can go a long way toward ensuring that their comfort with technology and online communities doesn’t end up being used against them, McClellan argues.

“The biggest differentiator between somebody who gets scammed and somebody who doesn’t,  is usually because they know what to look out for,” he says.

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