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Published: Oct 27, 2022 15 min read
WhatsApp Logo On Fish Hook
Jose Velez / Money

WhatsApp has over two billion users, making it one of the world's most popular instant messaging apps. Given its popularity, it’s no surprise that some are trying to exploit it to try to steal your personal and financial data.

Scammers operating through the messaging app contact people through texts or phone calls, often impersonating legitimate entities. They sometimes also demand money with threats of harming a loved one.

WhatsApp scams are constantly evolving, making some of them hard to spot. However, there are some ways you can identify the most common red flags.

Read on for our guide to WhatsApp scams and how to avoid them.

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What is WhatsApp?

WhatsApp allows users to send texts and voice recordings, make video and voice calls, share documents and more.

Perhaps one of WhatsApp's most attractive features is that it uses end-to-end encryption. With this secure messaging method, only the sender and receiver can read sent messages. In fact, when you open up a new chat on WhatsApp, a notification states that no one outside of that chat, not even Whatsapp, can read or listen to anything shared.

The app also lets you create encrypted backups of your chats. This allows you to save a copy of your conversations to iCloud or Google Drive that can only be accessed with a password or an encryption key.

What are WhatsApp Scams?

WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption makes it a relatively secure messaging service, and can prevent hackers from reading your conversations. However, WhatsApp users are still at risk for other types of scams .

Some WhatsApp scams involve cybercriminals sending messages that trick people into sharing personal or financial information, such as a password, credit card number or Social Security number. They may also get you to click a malicious link by impersonating a friend or designing a notification that resembles one from a legit company. Malicious links can infect your device with a virus or other malware in order to access your data.

Once scammers steal your information, they can gain access to your email, banking or social media accounts. They could also steal your identity and apply for credit cards or loans.

How to spot Whatsapp scams

WhatsApp scams are increasingly becoming more sophisticated, making them harder to spot if you don't know exactly what to look out for. Luckily, most fraudsters use similar approaches, and learning which these are can reduce your chances of becoming a victim.

Most WhatsApp scams involve messages that:

  • Ask you to take immediate action. Fraudulent texts are often alarming, stating your accounts are blocked, or a government agency will take legal action against you.
  • Includes grammatical errors. Text messages from legitimate businesses (like banks) won't have any spelling mistakes. If you get a text that has errors and prompts you to take action on a personal account or follow a link, it's most likely fake.
  • Come from unknown numbers. Do a quick Google search to verify that the number the message was sent from matches who they’re claiming to be. You might find that number is not associated with the company or agency that the text claims.
  • Say you've won a random giveaway. Some WhatsApp spam messages announce you've won a giveaway in which you didn't participate. They ask you to share personal information to claim your prize or to click a link for more details.
  • Includes unfamiliar links. Spammers can use links to hack your device or lead you to a fake site designed to snatch your data. Beware of links from numbers you don't recognize or that lead to websites you never visit. Some links might look familiar but, if you look carefully, might contain spelling mistakes and extra letters or numbers.
  • Are sent from an unusually long phone number. Receiving an offer from an unidentified 11-digit number will probably lead to a scam. Marketing texts are usually sent from six-digit phone numbers, also called six-digit codes or SMS short codes.

Although not as common, some scammers might also call you through WhatsApp. In this case, ask which institution they represent. Then, contact the company or agency to corroborate what the callers told you. If the caller threatens you with the safety of a loved one, call your loved one directly to make sure their safe

Scammers on WhatsApp

WhatsApp scammers often pose as someone you know or a well-known entity, like a credit card company or government agency. They’re usually pretty good at creating a sense of urgency, claiming that an immediate response is required to avoid an unpleasant outcome.

Common scamming techniques include texts saying a loved one is in imminent danger or that you need to update an account's billing information to avoid fees. However, fraudsters constantly design new methods to align with recent national events. For example, during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, many people received texts with offers for bogus cures and tests.

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Types of scams on WhatsApp

The main types of WhatsApp scams include:

Family emergency scams

Family emergency scams, or impersonation scams, happen when someone contacts the victim pretending to be a relative. To convince victims, the scammer might say that their phone broke and that they're using a replacement or a friend's phone.

The impostor then asks for money to solve an emergency. For example, the person might say they need cash urgently, and that their wallet was stolen.

Kidnapping scams

In this type of scam, fraudsters contact you claiming they've kidnapped a relative or friend. They then try to coerce you into paying a ransom with threats of violence.

The fraud might seem realistic if the criminals accessed the supposed victim's information (like their name or favorite hangout spots) through social media.

Account takeover scams

Account takeover scams involve receiving a text that says one of your online accounts requires immediate attention. These messages usually state your account was locked due to suspicious activities or that it might be suspended due to outdated billing information.

When you call the number or click a link provided in the message, the thief will ask for your private information or account details. The person could take over your social media accounts and could start contacting your friends for money.

Government impersonator scams

A fraudster impersonates a government employee or sends a text that looks like it's from an official agency, like the Social Security Administration or Internal Revenue Service. The person then asks you to pay a fine or debt to avoid legal action. They might even know some of your personal data, like your name or address.

Note that government agencies won't ever contact you through text, call or email, much less leave you a voicemail.

Giveaway scams

The target receives a text informing them that they've won a giveaway. They're then instructed to reply with personal details or to follow a link to claim their prize.

It's easy to spot these scams if the award notification is for a giveaway you didn't participate in or if you're asked for some form of payment. If you're unsure about the authenticity of a sweepstake, contact the brand directly through their website or social media to double-check.

Cryptocurrency scams

Cryptocurrency scams are trending and involve crooks pretending to be finance experts that offer too-good-to-be-true investment opportunities. They might also advise you to move your existing investment funds from a legitimate crypto exchange to a fraudulent one they control.

Online romance scams

Romance scams are especially prevalent in online dating sites like Tinder or eHarmony. However, once you get matched with someone through these dating services, the schemer might convince you to move the conversation over to WhatsApp.

In WhatsApp, the criminal tries to connect with you emotionally, sometimes professing their undying love and how they're willing to leave their current life behind to be with you. Then, they start asking for money with the excuse of needing financial help.

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How to avoid WhatsApp scams

Staying safe on WhatsApp starts by knowing how to recognize the most common types of scams. But here are some additional tips to help you avoid becoming a victim:

  • Beware of any messages asking for money. Contact the supposed person or entity directly to assess the situation.
  • Second-guess any supposed family members or acquaintances reaching out from new numbers.
  • Look out for spelling or grammar mistakes. Texts from legitimate companies or agencies will be free of errors.
  • If the person claims they're someone you know, consider if their writing matches their usual communication style.
  • Ask the scammer a question only your relative or friend would know the answer to.
  • Don't use any links or phone numbers provided in the text. Search for the company or agency's official contact information online.
  • Remember, government agencies won't ever contact you through text or call. Never share bank account details or private information, like your Social Security number or date of birth.
  • Set up two-factor authentication. This security measure prevents hackers from accessing your Whatsapp account if they try to open it from another mobile device.
  • Don’t respond to Whatsapp messages asking you to share a verification code.
  • Block suspicious WhatsApp accounts.

How to identify a fake WhatsApp number

There is no tool to help you weed out fake Whatsapp numbers or accounts. However, there are some simple steps you can take to find out.

Try Googling the phone number . A quick search can reveal, for example, whether the number is from another country while the caller claims to be in the U.S. You might also find other people posting warnings about that exact number.

You can also run the number through a reverse phone lookup site. These services are like search engines that dig for data about a particular phone number. Note, however, that most reverse phone lookup services are not free, and the ones that are provide very little identifying information.

If your online search is unsuccessful, it's better to be cautious and not answer any messages from unfamiliar contacts.

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What to do if you were scammed

If you think you might have fallen for a scam, these are the steps you should take:

  • If you mistakenly share bank details or other financial information, inform your bank or creditors immediately.
  • Consider closing compromised accounts or credit cards.
  • Request a copy of your credit report from Transunion, Experian and Equifax through AnnualCreditReport.com.
  • Review your credit report to check if the scammer has opened new accounts in your name or made unauthorized transactions.
  • Update the login credentials on all your online accounts.
  • Consider subscribing to an identity theft protection service. Some of the best identity theft protection services include Aura, Identity Guard and IdentityForce.

If you believe you’ve been the victim of identity theft, check out our in-depth guide on how to report identity theft.

How to report scams on WhatsApp

When you report a WhatsApp message, it's analyzed by artificial intelligence software and content moderators.

The last five messages you received from the reported contact are reviewed for violations of WhatsApp’s Terms of Service, which forbid publishing deceitful messages or impersonating someone. If the company finds that the reported message violates the usage terms, the account that sent it is banned.

Reporting a scam on WhatsApp is simple. Here's what you need to do:

Android users:

  • Open the chat of the user you want to report.
  • Tap the three dots in the upper right corner.
  • Select "More options" and then "More."
  • A report option will appear at the bottom of the screen.
  • Press "Report."
  • A confirmation message will pop up.
  • Check the option that says you'd like to block the user and delete the chat
  • Tap "Report" again.

iPhone users:

  • Open the chat of the user you want to report.
  • Tap the contact's name or phone number on the upper part of the screen.
  • Scroll all the way down and select "Report."
  • A pop-up message will appear asking if you'd like only to report the person or report and block simultaneously.
  • Press the option you prefer.

WhatsApp Scams FAQ

Is WhatsApp safe?

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WhatsApp is a relatively safe messaging service because of its end-to-end encryption technology. This security feature prevents hackers from reading your conversations. However, scammers might still try to contact you and trick you into sharing your private data.

Why do scammers use WhatsApp?

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There's no particular reason why scammers use WhatsApp. Many also use iMessage or send out phishing emails through Gmail, for example. They use any messaging app that allows them to contact consumers directly.

Can WhatsApp be hacked?

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Your WhatsApp account may be hacked if you click on a malicious link from an unknown contact or share data with a criminal unintentionally. To reduce the chances of  someone else accessing your account, set up two-step verification through your account settings.

How to track a scammer on WhatsApp

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Tracking scammers on WhatsApp or other online apps involves hacking techniques and specialized tools. If you suspect you've been scammed, it's best to report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at IdentityTheft.gov.

How safe is WhatsApp video chat?

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WhatsApp video calls are encrypted, meaning only call participants can access the conversation. However, if you've previously clicked on malicious links, your device may be infected with a virus. This could grant hackers access to everything you do or store on your phone. To prevent this, consider purchasing anti-virus software that protects mobile devices.

Summary of Money’s How to Spot and Avoid WhatsApp Scams

  • WhatsApp is a popular messaging service that allows users to send texts and voice recordings. You can also use it to make video and voice calls and share documents.
  • Scammers often use WhatsApp to contact people and trick them into sending money or sharing their private information.
  • Common WhatsApp scams involve fraudsters faking a family emergency or impersonating a government employee.
  • There are several ways to steer clear of WhatsApp scams, such as being wary of messages asking for money.
  • If you think you've been scammed, report it through WhatsApp and to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at IdentityTheft.gov.