Online Scams: How to Spot and Avoid Them


We all know the internet can be an incredibly entertaining place, but it also has a dark side. Hackers, viruses, catfish, spammers, scammers: the list of threatening people and harmful things goes on and on. With so many risks on the internet, it can be hard to know what’s safe. It’s difficult for law enforcement to keep up with all the illegal things that can happen on the internet, so it’s no wonder citizens find it hard too!

We know we can’t give you a complete list of all the things to avoid on your computer or smart phone. But we can give a few pointers, and hopefully they’ll save you some grief.


Common Scams and Malware

Phishing & Pharming

Here’s a malicious email I received recently. Note how the name of the sender doesn’t match the email address. You can also see an obvious grammatical error, and the email instantly offers me an unknown link. I have no doubt that link would either give my computer a virus or take me to a page that would try to get my credit card information. I deleted the email immediately.

Spam emails are so common that everyone has a spam or junk folder to help filter them out. Unfortunately, even the best filters can let malicious emails through once in a while.  So it’s important to be able to recognize these emails, even with a good filter.

One of the common email schemes is phishing. Phishing is a scam that uses an email designed to like it’s from a legitimate company or source. Often, the email will redirect a victim to a fake website, which is then used to grab private information. The email or site may ask for contact information, passwords, credit card numbers, or just about anything else you can imagine. In other cases, these emails will contain a virus or other malicious software.


Be skeptical of emails from companies you don’t normally use, and always be skeptical when you’re asked for private information. Check the website address and make sure it’s the real address for the company it claims to represent.

Another thing to keep in mind is that phishing emails may already show some of your personal information. That doesn’t mean the email is legitimate though. Scammers can get your information from your contacts, public records, or even through illegal means. Think of it this way: you wouldn’t give someone your Social Security Number just because they know your name. It’s the same thing with websites.

If you want more details on how to spot phishing emails, here’s a helpful article from CNET.


Online Friendship/Catfishing

One of the most harmful internet scams is the online variation of an old scheme: pretending to be someone’s friend or lover. Of course, these schemes end with the victim feeling betrayed, and usually with a lot less money.

Online, this can happen with someone who is pretending to be another person also. Using a fake profile to bait victims is often called “catfishing”. There can be a variety of motives behind catfishing scams: some people want money or information, some people catfish because they’re lonely, some just enjoy lying to other people. Whatever the reason, fake profiles can be dangerous, so it’s best to be cautious.


Always exercise caution when you meet people over the internet. Try to verify people really are who they say they are. Don’t just trust people you don’t know. It’s very easy to lie on the internet. So if you’re talking to someone from another country who says they need money to buy a plane ticket to come see you, that’s almost always going to be a scam. A little skepticism goes a long way to prevent these kinds of scams.



This is an example of a Ransomware virus that has infected a computer. These types of viruses can be extremely costly for victims.

Ransomware is a very dangerous type of computer virus. These viruses are designed to either lock or steal files from your computer and then hold them hostage. After the victim is locked out of the files, they receive a message that they need to pay to get their files back. In some cases where there is sensitive information in the files, the ransomware might demand payment to not release the files publicly.


Avoid downloading or opening files from any source you don’t know. Often, these types of files will look official, but be careful. Make sure you understand what you’re downloading and why you want to download it. Don’t just click because a message popped up from the internet. Ransomware can also come from emails, so be careful with those as well. If a message says there’s something wrong with your computer, check to make sure that’s true first.



One type of scam that can be particularly dangerous to young people is sextortion. This type of scam relies on obtaining explicit messages or pictures from a victim, then threatening to release them unless the victims pays. The scammer usually poses as a romantic interest to solicit pictures or messages from victims.

A similar problem some people experience is when someone the victim knows threatens to release explicit photos. This sometimes happens after a break up as a way of getting revenge, or sometimes these threats are used in a relationship to pressure the victim into doing something, such as performing sexual favors.


You can have whatever opinion you like on whether sending nude pictures is permissible, but we certainly recommend being very careful when sending explicit messages. It’s very easy for someone to take advantage of you with that kind of leverage, so at least exercise caution. If someone asks to see your face in an explicit photo, that’s a huge red flag. Photos where you can be easily identified are dangerous, whether it’s by your face or a tattoo or other mark.

Do not pay a scammer who is blackmailing you! Once you pay, a scammer can keep you on the hook until you have no money left. The whole scam is designed to scare into coughing up money quickly. Many times if a victim refuses to pay, the scammer won’t go to the effort of posting the pictures or messages.

If you know the perpetrator who is making the threats, report it to us immediately. It’s blackmail, and it’s illegal. We can either investigate the threats or coordinate with other jurisdictions that can help.

If a perpetrator does post your photos, make sure to document it and report it. It is illegal for any website to show nude photographs of you without permission, so you should be able to file a complaint with the website and have the pictures removed.

If you want more detailed information on sextortion, check out this Comparitech article.


Can the Sheriff’s Office Do Anything?

Many of these scammers live overseas and use the internet to target people in the U.S. and other countries. Our office can’t do anything to stop a scammer who operates outside our jurisdiction, but many times the FBI can. If you send information about what happened to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), they might be able to shut down the scammer. We wish we had the resources to stop these kinds of criminals, but we don’t, so we’ll refer you to the agency that does have that capability.

In the rare cases that an internet scammer lives in Carter County, we can investigate. But these cases are few and far between. You’re much more likely to be scammed by someone living elsewhere.

The main ways you can protect yourself are to have a healthy amount of skepticism and to educate yourself. If you don’t know where a file or email came from, don’t open it. If someone tells you something that sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And if something feels wrong, it probably is. Just treat the internet with caution, and you’ll be a lot better off for it.


— Thomas Gray, Public Information Officer