Cryptocurrencies are amazing. They allow us to send lightning-fast transactions overseas, develop applications in a decentralized way, encrypt information in a manner that is safe and effective, and — most importantly — they give us an innovative new way to grow our wealth. Bitcoin (CCC:BTC-USD) blazed the trail, creating the first generation of crypto billionaires and blockchain entrepreneurs. In its wake, altcoins have been cropping up everywhere as potential gateways to gains. Although this crypto craze brings great opportunity, it also brings a wealth of cryptocurrency scams, like the Elon Musk impersonators who’ve made off with millions in coins.
This new frontier of digital, decentralized finance can be a labyrinth for new investors. There are many bad actors who know that, and seek to take advantage of those who are just beginning to explore the complex world of cryptocurrencies.
At InvestorPlace, we want to ensure our readers are as educated as possible in order to tell the real from the fake. In the world of traditional investing, this means highlighting the risks that come with penny stocks and other volatile names. In the world of cryptocurrencies, it’s the same.
And, just like with traditional pump-and-dump schemes and other stock scams, there are signs you can look for to avoid falling for fraud.
Altcoin schemes are frustrating because they can take many forms. AARP says it best, though: “For all cryptocurrency’s high-tech gloss, many of the related scams are just newfangled versions of classic frauds.”
In the six months from October 2020 to May 2021, those Elon Musk impersonators have been making a killing. By just creating a Twitter account using Musk’s profile image and name, these scammers have convinced users to send over $2 million in Bitcoin to them. The scam, a play on the popular “Nigerian prince” email scheme, is shockingly lucrative. And, unfortunately, it’s only a drop in the bucket as far as crypto scams go.
With this in mind, it’s a good idea to make yourself familiar with different crypto schemes to minimize the risk of falling victim to one. Let’s take a look at some of the most common crypto scams.
Cryptocurrency Scams to Avoid: Fake ICOs
A fake ICO, or initial coin offering, takes a similar shape to a pre-IPO scam. In it, a cryptocurrency will pop up. It will have a white paper and all the fixings, advertising a “groundbreaking” new blockchain tech or yield-farming model that is certain to bring huge gains.
These crypto scams usually also have great marketing. Victims are the type who are prone to speculative investing; they’ll bite, pouring money into an initial offering in order to get those “big gains.” Before you know it, they’re seeing no movement in their portfolio. Or, they’re getting a worthless token with absolutely no utility. The scammer rides off into the sunset with a full wallet.
A famous example of a fake ICO is Pincoin. The development team raised $660 million from investors, launched a different coin from the one advertised, and compensated the victims with loads of the worthless crypto before disappearing. The resulting protests outside their Ho Chi Minh City office were a fruitless effort; the seven developers emptied the commercial space and never came back.
So how do you avoid these cryptocurrency scams? The key for spotting a fake ICO is in the details.
This means you should pore over the white paper, which is the cornerstone document to a blockchain project. It contains all the details of how a crypto functions, how it is used, and the roadmap for the underlying company and team.
The details of a white paper are where you will find the evidence of a scam. If it doesn’t have a white paper, that’s an immediate red flag. If there are typos, or if there is a lack of a clear vision or roadmap for the crypto, these are all signs of a cryptocurrency scam.
If you’re at all familiar with investing, you are familiar with Ponzi schemes. The scam is one in which old investors are paid with the money of new investors, under the guise of receiving gains from their investment. It’s a scheme as old as — well, as old as Charles Ponzi, who originated the scam under the façade of selling discounted postage stamps.
In the 100-plus years since, the scam has remained, but it’s become more sophisticated.
With cryptos, a Ponzi scheme takes a similar form. Scammers offer huge gains through an “up and coming” new arbitrage model. Money is taken from the new investors, given to the old investors disguised as the gains, and the scammer pockets his share.
The most notable Ponzi scheme in crypto is Bitconnect, a high-yield investment program disguised as an open-source currency. Users could stake their coins for high daily interest, which was actually just money taken from newer investors. And the company made a huge profit; Bitconnect was a top 20 cryptocurrency in terms of market capitalization before its collapse.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission keeps a handy guide on spotting this particular crypto scheme. Investors should look out for the classic “high return, no risk” promise typical of a cryptocurrency scam. Overly complex strategies and returns that look uncannily consistent are also signs of fraud. Because of the nature of cryptos, overly consistent returns are unusual. Things ebb and flow on the market, so when returns are the same month after month, it suggests the gains are artificial.
Cryptocurrency Scams to Avoid: Fraud Wallets
A fraud wallet scam is closely related to the internet-age-old practice of phishing. But rather than sending out emails pretending to be a reputable company, fraud wallets typically wait for you to come to them.
Fraud wallets can take the shape of a website or a mobile app, just like a real crypto wallet. Everything might seem totally legitimate: a shiny logo, high ratings, a sleek interface; heck, just the fact that a wallet app is on the Apple App Store could seem like reason enough to believe a wallet is real.
Much like a lemon car, the fraud takes advantage of the adage “looks can be deceiving.” When one signs up for a fraudulent wallet, they do all the work for the scammer. They add in their information, link a card or two, and load crypto right into the scammers’ hands. Then, just as quickly as the scammers showed up, they vanish with the coins.
Trezor’s doppelgänger app is a famous example of a fraud wallet scheme, even getting coverage in the Washington Post. The app posed as Trezor, which is a reputable crypto wallet. However, the doppelgänger app was acting in bad faith and stripped customers’ coins. As a result, victims have lost nearly $1 million in cryptocurrency. The most disturbing part of it all is that the app was housed on Apple’s platform, a supposedly safe space to download applications. It proves that you can’t let your guard down.
My advice here is to stick with the biggest wallet players. Look for wallets with blue checkmarks on their Twitter profiles. Go to websites through official links to be sure you’re on legitimate sites. Don’t necessarily trust an app just because it has hundreds of reviews on an app store; security firm ESET says to “only trust cryptocurrency-related and other finance apps if they are linked from the official website of the service.”
Double and triple check that you’re looking through official channels when preparing to sign up for a wallet in-browser. If you go through as many channels as possible that evaluate content for fraud, the likelihood that you are using a crypto scam product decreases significantly.
Social Media Scams
Social media scams are not exclusive to cryptocurrency. They’ve been around as long as social media has existed, and while all seek different ends, many recent social media scams want your digital currency.
Another variant of phishing, social media scams typically involve an account advertising big gains, a survey, or something similar, with a link. Clicking the link can lead to malware being installed on one’s device. Or, scammers can simply lure you into entering your information.
In the crypto-sphere, these scams usually target Bitcoin holders, due simply to the coin’s high value and rapid growth. A famous scam occurred in 2020, when hackers gained access to a slew of different celebrities’ Twitter accounts. Tweets went out from Barack Obama, Elon Musk and Kanye West; all including a wallet address. The promise was that a Bitcoin payment to the address would be paid back to users in double. The hackers made approximately $121,000 from willful payments.
This cryptocurrency scam is the most easily avoided of the bunch. If you don’t know a user, don’t click any mysterious links. Typically, the scam is perpetuated by scammers on accounts that are brand new, have zero followers, and no profile picture. Even in the case of the famous Twitter hack that saw scams coming from verified accounts, it’s obvious that a promise to double one’s investment for free is illegitimate. Tom Robinson, co-founder of Elliptic, says of these scams, “what we often see with these type [sic] of exploits is that the exploit itself can be very sophisticated but they’re not very good at monetizing it.”
Some common sense and a keen sense of skepticism can go a long way.
The Bottom Line on Cryptocurrency Scams
This list isn’t all-encompassing; as cryptocurrencies change shape to fit consumers’ needs, so too will scams shapeshift to lure in new victims. Crypto is a booming industry, and a large part of that is because it is not regulated. Users can do whatever they want, which means some will use their privileges for malicious purposes.
Meme coins are going to keep cropping up, promising the success of Dogecoin (CCC:DOGE-USD). They’re not all illegitimate, but keep all of this information stored. You should be able to stay wary and skim the fakes from the pool. Likewise, fraudulent wallets and exchanges will continue popping up as long as legitimate ones keep hitting the market as “innovative new platforms in blockchain tech.”
Almost all crypto scams can be rooted out by simply taking a closer look. Scammers are sloppy — they make typos, they leave out details. If it walks like a scam, and it talks like a scam, it’s best to stay away, because it’s a scam.
On the date of publication, Brenden Rearick did not have (either directly or indirectly) any positions in the securities mentioned in this article. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, subject to the InvestorPlace.com Publishing Guidelines.