The global pandemic transformed many aspects of our daily life, including our reliance on digital modes of financial transactions. Peer-to-peer payments providers, such as Zelle, Venmo and PayPal, have seen tremendous growth in the last two years, with Zelle reporting a 49% year-on-year increase in 2021. However, the increased convenience has attracted scammers to steal your hard-earned money. In this article, we talk about some of the most common Zelle scam techniques, how to identify them and how to best avoid falling prey.
What are the common types of Zelle scams?
Zelle is an online digital payment service that allows you to transfer money to and from bank accounts. Zelle transactions are encrypted, making it difficult for anyone to hack an ongoing transaction. However, scammers often target humans behind the smartphone rather than hacking into Zelle’s servers by extracting your personal information using fraudulent ways.
Almost all of the common Zelle scams involve a scammer trying to trick you into sending them the money using psychological bait. Therefore, identifying and avoiding Zelle fraud boils down to recognizing a scammer through some common scammer traits.
Here are some of the most common Zelle scams and ways to avoid them:
Imagine a close friend or a relative asking for urgent money because of an emergency. What would be your reaction? Because the request comes from a person you know, there is a high chance you would immediately send the money without even thinking twice. But what if it is a scammer on the other side? This particular method of scamming people is known as an imposter or impersonation scam—such as a fraudster pretending to be a grandchild in need of help.
There are many versions of the impersonation scam besides those involving family or friends. Sometimes the scammers pretend to represent a bank, credit card company or government agencies such as the IRS or the Social Security Administration. Scammers may contact you through social media or email and ask you to pay them through Zelle.
Culprits try to create a sense of urgency in their targets because people often miss the obvious red flags.
Sometimes scammers pretend to be from Zelle, sending an email with a subject line that says, “Your transaction has been refused.”
“This is a hoax since a Zelle transaction cannot fail because there is no such thing as a failed transaction,” said Klara Dumancic, a marketing specialist at private online B2B marketplace, InvestorsClub. “If you do receive this email, please delete it as soon as you can.”
The best way to protect yourself against this type of scam is to stay calm and verify the payment request directly from the person or organization, not through contacts provided by the potential fraudster. If a scammer pretends to be a family member or a close friend, it is best to contact them first and verify.
Remember Netflix’s headline-grabbing crime documentary, “The Tinder Swindler” in which Simon Leviev baits his Tinder matches by pretending to be a billionaire? That show depicts a textbook example of a romance scam. You are approached on a dating app by an attractive person. Things progress, and once trust is established, suddenly there’s an emergency situation that requires cash sent through Zelle.
In this scam, too, fraudsters try to develop a sense of urgency so you miss some obvious red flags and end up losing your money. The worst part about a romance scam is that it preys on loneliness: Victims face both financial and emotional scars.
The best way to protect yourself against a romance scam is to carefully verify all the information from your match’s profile, and if money is mentioned, think twice.
Phishing scams date back to the early years of the internet when hackers posed as AOL employees and collected login credentials. The scammers provide you with bait and expect you to share your personal details or make urgent payments in response to the bait.
Similar to impersonation scams, swindlers might pretend to be from a well-known bank or business, government agency or utility company. They contact you through phone or email and solicit a payment—in this case, through Zelle. Scammers may try to convince you to share your Zelle account details claiming your account has been hacked.
Alternatively, they may ask you to make urgent payments while threatening to cut off your water or power supply—a scenario former New York Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez described while giving play-by-play at a game earlier this year.
“Got a note that looked like it was from [the power company] … and they said I had 30 minutes to pay or they would shut off my power,” Hernandez said. “I had to pay through Zelle, and I never heard of Zelle.”
Because Zelle payments are made directly from your bank account, it is relatively difficult to recover the loss compared to credit card fraud.
The best way to avoid falling for a phishing scam is to directly contact the business or organization the fraudster claims to represent. For emails, always verify the sender’s email address before clicking on any link or sharing your details. Often scammers use real-looking email templates but send emails from untrustworthy and alien email IDs that may not correspond to your bank or the agency mentioned in the communication.
Fake invoice scam
If you run a business, you probably go through many invoices each day. However, be careful when you click on an invoice link in the future because it could be a targeted invoice scam. In a fake invoice scam, the scammer sends you a fake invoice link that lands you on a fraudulent website that looks exactly like the company’s website.
The website asks you to enter your login credentials to access the invoice. If you enter your credentials on such websites, you essentially hand them over to the scammers and give them complete access to your business accounts.
Lottery scams are a special category of phishing scams where the bait is a fake lottery prize. The scammers send you an email or personal message congratulating your lottery win. They ask you to enter your Zelle account credentials to claim the lottery amount. As soon as you hand over your credentials to the scammers, they drain your bank account using Zelle.
“The most prominent Zelle scam on payment services like Zelle, Venmo, and PayPal is the ‘send money to get money’ scam, which tricks someone into sending a small amount of money to access a larger amount in their name,” said Tanya Williams, CEO at Background Check Repair, a non-profit aimed at informing everyone, especially minorities, about targetted scams.
A malware scam is when you click on a fishy link that installs malware on your computer. These malware scams can perform a spectrum of functions, including monitoring your online activity, stealing your login credentials from your Zelle account and much more. Sometimes the malware even uses your computer’s resources to mine cryptocurrency.
One of the best ways to protect yourself against a malware scam is to cautiously verify a link before clicking on it. Hover your cursor over the link to view the URL at the bottom of your screen or in a popup. Using incognito mode on a spare browser could also help ascertain unknown links. Also, never enter your secret credentials on a website that is not directly associated with Zelle, or you may end up being scammed.
Goods and services scam
Watch out for goods and services scams if you frequently use online marketplaces like Facebook Marketplace or OfferUp. Although these marketplaces come with their own payment gateways, scammers often ask their buyers to pay outside these platforms through digital payment platforms like Zelle.
You should never agree to pay outside these platforms because you may never receive your products or your money. When you pay outside platforms like Facebook or OfferUp, they will not be able to help you because they won’t have any records of your payment.
How to best protect yourself from Zelle scams?
You may easily protect yourself against Zelle scams if you keep some points in your mind:
Don’t respond to unsolicited emails or text messages
Scammers often send scam emails with malicious links. Clicking on these links can expose your device to malware from these websites. Avoid any suspicious links if you receive by email or text.
Never share your personal information online
Sometimes it is hard to identify whether the person on the other side is legit. Therefore, it is best to avoid sharing personal information with people you come across online, no matter how needy and destitute they may sound.
Use two-factor authentication wherever possible
Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a second security layer to your online accounts and can massively reduce hacking risks. You should enable two-factor authentication wherever possible to ensure that you get a second warning while making any payments or approving login attempts.
Use Zelle only with trusted friends, family or businesses
Avoid making digital payments to strangers or people who don’t know through Zelle. If the scammer tries to create a sense of urgency, you should carefully pause to determine if the threat is real—call the person directly. Zelle recommends you only make payments to people you know and can trust.
Can Zelle refund my money if I’m scammed?
Zelle lets its users make peer-to-peer payments. These payments occur between two people and only materialize when the sender authorizes it. That’s why it is unlikely you will receive your money back if you fall prey to a scam. However, you may still get your money back if someone hacks into your Zelle account and makes payments on your behalf.
If you have been scammed on Zelle, here are a few things you should immediately do:
- Make sure you inform the authorities about the scam as soon as possible. Contact both law enforcement and Zelle’s customer line for better chances of getting your money back.
- You can dial the FBI’s toll-free fraud hotline at 833-FRAUD-11 and contact Zelle’s customer support at 844-428-8542.
- You can also fill out Zelle’s online form for reporting fraud.
Zelle scams can quickly drain you of your money if you don’t identify the red flags. However, it isn’t as complicated as it seems to identify these, and you can easily avoid scams if you keep a few key points in mind. Try to hold your nerves when a scammer creates a sense of urgency by impersonating a close friend or a government organization. Also, avoiding suspicious links can massively reduce Zelle scams.