Cryptocurrency Scams Explained

Cryptocurrencies are more susceptible to scams than any other payment method. Here's how to identify and avoid them.
Dalia Ramirez
By Brean Horne and  Dalia Ramirez 
Edited by Claire Tsosie

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Though cryptocurrency can be an attractive investment, it’s more susceptible to scams than any other payment method. Over $1 billion has been reported stolen through crypto scams between January 2021 and June 2022, according to a report by the Federal Trade Commission.

Crypto scams are a type of investment fraud that can take many forms, from phishing scams to rug pulls. Since crypto’s blockchain technology isn’t regulated by a central authority like a bank, bad actors can easily take advantage of hopeful investors.

Crypto transactions are also pseudonymous (users interact through coded addresses, not legal names) and irreversible, so it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to recover any money lost to a scammer. Here are the most common crypto scams, how to avoid them, and what to do if you’ve been scammed.

Why is crypto prone to scams?

Cryptocurrency is especially attractive to scammers for three main reasons: a lack of centralized authority, irreversible transactions and the ability to be almost anonymous.

  • Decentralized: Since crypto assets and applications are part of a decentralized financial (DeFi) system, intended to be used without oversight from a bank or government, there’s no central authority to stop a transaction or flag something if it looks suspicious.

  • Irreversible: Because of the way the blockchain works, once you’ve sent a crypto transaction, there’s no way to retrieve your funds.

  • Pseudonymous: Crypto users interact through wallet addresses, not legal names, so it’s difficult to track down specific users, especially if they’re trying to stay hidden.

Though crypto can be more prone to scams than other assets, “a lot of the scams that take place were happening before crypto existed,” says Sol Nasisi, founder of cryptocurrency gifting service GiftaBit.

“With crypto, both the risks and rewards are supercharged,” Nasisi says. “And as with any new technology, there will be bad actors that exploit it.”

What are the different types of cryptocurrency scams?

There are many different scam techniques in the crypto space. Here are some of the most common:

Exit scams

Exit scams happen when developers of new crypto projects defraud investors by promising big returns, but pocket the funds or abandon the projects before investors can profit.

  • Initial coin offering (or ICO) scams, also known as “pump and dump” schemes, happen when developers promise their new coin or crypto platform will generate huge returns, then disappear with investors' funds by selling off all of the tokens at once.

  • Rug pulls, which get their name from the expression “pulling the rug out,” involve a developer attracting investors to a new cryptocurrency project, usually in DeFi, then pulling out before the project is built, leaving investors with worthless currency. These scams can sometimes include a version of a Ponzi scheme, where investors profit by recruiting other users with false financial promises.

  • Celebrity endorsements often fit into this category, too: Developers will pay famous actors or internet personalities to promote a coin or platform to attract investors, then pull the rug out. These can also be phishing scams when scammers use fake images, videos or websites to claim that public figures have endorsed their scheme.

Phishing scams

Phishing scams are nothing new, but transactions are harder to trace and reverse with crypto. These can look like employment offers or requests for help, usually via random contact by email, phone or social media.

Offers and requests might link to a professional-looking website or detail an “unmissable” investment opportunity. Scammers may ask for a direct crypto transfer and stop communicating once payment is received, while others might request you share the private keys used to secure your crypto wallet so they can access your account and empty it.

» Learn more about private keys: What is a crypto wallet?

Scammers may also attempt to create fake versions of popular crypto exchanges or online wallets under similar domain names to get investors to log in with their credentials.

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How can you avoid cryptocurrency scams?

Cryptocurrency scams are common and can involve sophisticated tactics, but it’s possible to prevent them from affecting you. Using common-sense measures and proven security protections can go a long way. Here are a few helpful methods:

  • Protect your wallet: You need some form of storage, like a wallet, to keep your crypto safe. If a firm asks you to share your private keys to take part in an investment opportunity, it’s almost certainly a scam. Using security backup methods like a seed phrase, a set of code words that can unlock your wallet like a master password, can provide additional protection.

  • Ignore cold calls: If you’re contacted out of the blue about a cryptocurrency investment opportunity, it’s likely to be a scam. Never give away your personal information or transfer money to someone you don’t know.

  • Ask yourself if it’s too good to be true: Cryptocurrency scams often promise to make high returns from your initial investment that are too good to be true. Any company offering get-rich-quick investment opportunities is likely to be fraudulent.

Crypto is a high-risk investment, and no asset can reliably guarantee high returns.

  • Take your time: If a company tries to pressure you into investing quickly, it’s likely to be fraudulent. Some scammers even offer bonuses or discounts to persuade you to invest right away. Take your time and do your research before investing any money.

  • Avoid social media hype: Scammers often use social media to advertise fraudulent cryptocurrency investment opportunities. Some also use images of celebrities — often without their consent — and high-profile people to “endorse” their company and make their investment seem legitimate.

  • Read the white paper: Developers release documents called white papers that explain the technology they’re working on and the purpose of the coin or project. These are generally published online and easily accessible.

“If you don’t know anything about the backers, or if the project doesn’t solve any kind of need, it’s not a good idea to invest,” Nasisi says.

What to do if you have been scammed

Falling victim to a cryptocurrency scam can be devastating, but it’s important to act quickly if you’ve made a payment or shared personal details. You need to contact your bank as soon as possible if you have:

  • Made a payment using a debit or credit card.

  • Made a payment via bank transfer.

  • Shared personal information.

Scammers often retarget victims of cryptocurrency scams or sell their details. Make sure to change your security details and passwords, especially for online banking, if you think you’ve been caught in a scam.

How to report scammers

Whether you’ve fallen for a cryptocurrency scam or just seen one online, it’s important to report them, as it helps officials investigate fraudulent companies and stop them from targeting other people.

Some scams fall outside U.S. jurisdiction, so law enforcement may not be able to enforce consequences, but it’s still helpful to report them. You can report a crypto scam to:

Charles Schwab
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