FRAUD RESOURCE CENTER
En español | Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin and hundreds more are a hot commodity in online trading, and it’s possible for a smart investor to make a big profit. But the prospect of quick riches can blind some people to the risks and enable crooks to lure them into scams.
What is cryptocurrency? According to the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), it’s a digital representation of value that isn’t backed by any government or central bank. Even so, this virtual money can be used to make purchases, and it can be exchanged for U.S. dollars or other conventional currencies.
But unlike government-backed money, the value of virtual currencies is driven entirely by supply and demand. That can create wild swings that produce big gains for investors, or big losses. And cryptocurrency investments are subject to far less regulatory protection than traditional financial products like stocks, bonds and mutual funds.
Cryptocurrency fraud has taken a quantum leap in recent months. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received nearly 6,800 complaints of cryptocurrency investment scams from October 2020 through March 31, up from 570 in the same period a year before. Reported losses grew 10-fold to more than $80 million.
For all cryptocurrency’s high-tech gloss, many of the related scams are just newfangled versions of classic frauds. For example:
Bogus websites. Phony sites festooned with fake testimonials and studded with crypto jargon promise huge, guaranteed returns, as long as you keep investing.
"Celebrity" endorsements. Scammers posing online as billionaires or other big names promise to multiply your investment in a virtual currency but pocket what you send. (The FTC says Elon Musk impersonators have driven some of the recent scam boom.) Or, they use messaging apps or chat rooms to plant rumors that a famous business mogul is backing a certain cryptocurrency. Once they’ve lured investors to buy and driven up the price, the scammers sell their stake and the currency plummets in value.
Virtual Ponzi schemes. Some cryptocurrency crooks peddle nonexistent opportunities to invest in digital currencies and create the illusion of big returns by paying off old investors with new investors’ money. One such operation, called BitClub Network, raised more than $700 million before its principals were indicted in December 2019, according to federal prosecutors.
Romance scams. The FBI warns of a new trend in online dating scams, with crooks persuading people they met on dating apps or social media to invest or trade in virtual currencies. The bureau's Internet Crime Complaint Center fielded more than 1,800 reports of crypto-focused romance scams in the first seven months of 2021, with losses topping $133 million.
Other fraudsters pose as legitimate virtual currency traders or set up phony exchanges to lure people into giving them money. Another con involves fraudulent sales pitches for “IRS approved” individual retirement accounts in cryptocurrencies. There are also straight-up hackers who break into the “digital wallets” where people store their virtual currency. If you want to dip into this brave new world of money, take these precautions to avoid being ripped off.
- Someone you don’t know sends you a message out of the blue about a virtual currency investment opportunity.
- The pitch claims that a virtual currency investment involves no risk and surefire profits.
- Do understand the risk. Even if you’re not being scammed, the virtual currency trade is speculative and volatile. As the FTC notes, “An investment that may be worth thousands of dollars on Tuesday could only be worth hundreds on Wednesday.”
- Do resist pressure to buy right now. Scammers often try to create a false sense of urgency around a supposedly red-hot cryptocurrency.
- Do check out any dealer in virtual currency options or futures contracts before you buy. The CFTC has a tool for running an online background check.
- Do thoroughly research any virtual currency platform or digital wallet provider before providing any credit card information, wiring money or disclosing sensitive personal data.
- Do carefully read any agreement with a digital wallet provider. Unlike banks and credit card companies, they might not accept responsibility for replacing your money if it’s stolen, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warns.
- Don’t put money in a virtual currency investment if you don’t really understand how it works.
- Don’t speculate in cryptocurrencies with money that you can’t afford to lose.
- Don’t invest in or trade virtual currencies on the advice of someone you've only dealt with online, whether it's an anonymous tipster in a chat room or a supposed romantic partner.
- Don't believe social media posts promoting celebrity cryptocurrency giveaways.
- Don’t put money into an individual retirement account advertised as “IRS approved” or “IRA approved.” Some self-directed IRAs do allow investment in virtual currencies, but the Internal Revenue Service does not approve or review IRA investments.
- Don’t share your “private keys” — the long letter-and-number codes that enable you to access your virtual currency — with anyone. Keep them in a secure place.
Updated September 21, 2021
About the Fraud Watch Network
Whether you have been personally affected by scams or fraud or are interested in learning more, the AARP Fraud Watch Network advocates on your behalf and equips you with the knowledge you need to feel more informed and confidently spot and avoid scams.
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