The growing problem of WhatsApp scams – what to look out for

The more people flock to WhatsApp, the more it is going to become a target for scammers

WhatsApp has exploded in popularity over the last couple of years, and for good reason. Free, web-based messaging has largely come to replace text messaging for a lot of people.

Add to this the fact groups can be organised around every aspect of modern life, from families and work to hobbies, and it is no wonder that the app is almost universally loved.

But, unfortunately, the more people flock to WhatsApp, the more it is going to become a target for scammers. The frequency and sophistication of the strategies being used to trick people into giving up their personal details has grown recently. The appeal of WhatsApp to scammers is clear: it allows them to get up close and personal with potentially millions of users.

Luckily these scams are not really widespread, and it is likely that you have not encountered one yet. However, it’s best to be vigilant so here are some of the most common practices out there to be aware of. If you see one of these, make sure you steer well clear.

Phishing scams
Phishing is the practice of trying to get people to voluntarily give up their personal information by manipulating them. This commonly takes the form of emails that claim to be from a reputable company, but in actual fact are a way to extract valuable information such as passwords or credit card details.

A common WhatsApp phishing tactic involves sending potential victims an email saying that a payment is needed to continue using the service. The claim here is that a small payment (usually around $0.99) is needed to stop the person’s account being blocked.

The genius here is that the payment is so small that many people won’t mind paying it to continue using a service that they get so much value from.

But the payment itself is a red herring. When the victim fills in the form authorising the $0.99 they are giving the scammers something far more valuable: their credit card number and security number.

WhatsApp has been free to all users since 2016, and if this changes it will be big news. Make sure you always check the return email address, the company logo and the language being used. If WhatsApp was to institute a big change, it is likely that they would send you a message on the app.

Fake vouchers
An old staple of social media, the fake vouchers promising discounts for shoppers have started appearing on WhatsApp too. The aim of these scams isn’t as potentially disastrous to the victim as phishing, but can still lead to a lot of annoyance.

By signing up to a fake voucher the scammer gets a whole host of personal information that they can either sell on to third parties or use to target you with advertising. These scams often make use of copycat websites designed to look exactly like the company they are impersonating.

These imitations are often so good that even the most vigilant consumer can be sucked in. Recent years have also seen these fake vouchers being used to get people to download an app.

A good antivirus will be able to analyse and alert you if a site you are visiting is a fake one designed to steal your data.

Fake apps
Scammers are getting pretty clever when it comes to trying to trick people into interacting with them. An example of this is how some are trying to get users to download fake apps as a way to gain access to their personal information.

The scammer will manage to get a fake app uploaded to a reputable app store (which means bypassing whatever validation processes that particular site has in place), and disguising them as a WhatsApp system update. When someone installs the fake app, they are asked to login using their WhatsApp details. What is actually happening is that the person is just giving all of this information to the scammer, who is then free to do what they want with it.

Even if you are downloading an app from a really legitimate app store, you still need to do some due diligence. Check out the developer to see if they look like a genuine company and make sure you look at the app store comments. Previous users that have been duped will be eager to make sure others avoid the same fate. You can also check WhatsApp’s website to see if there is a new update. 

Scammers are likely to evolve their methods to suit the medium they are targeting, so keeping up to date with the latest trends is a must. Making sure that you all the devices you use regularly are properly protected is also an important way of ensuring that if you do get scammed, the damage can be minimised.

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