Scammers Wasted No Time During Pandemic, FTC data shows

February 4, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

If you think scammers also took a break during the Covid-19 pandemic, think again! On Feb. 4, the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) said it received more than 2.1 million fraud reports from consumers in 2020. Imposter scams were the most common type of fraud reported.

Online shopping was the second-most common fraud category reported by consumers, propped by a surge of reports in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Internet services; prizes, sweepstakes, and lotteries; and telephone and mobile services were the other fraud categories in the top five.

The scammers wore various hats ranging from that of a government official, to a known business, to a family member or friend, the FTC said in a blog post on the Top Frauds of 2020. Government and business imposter scams were also among the top categories of Covid-19 and stimulus related reports, proving that scammers follow the headlines, the blog added.

Consumers reported losing more than $3.3 billion to fraud last year, up from $1.8 billion in 2019. Nearly $1.2 billion of the losses were due to imposter scams, while online shopping accounted for about $246 million. Just over a third of all consumers who filed a fraud report with the FTC — 34 percent—reported losing money, up from just 23 percent in 2019.

With the pandemic came an increase in online shopping, and then a wave of reports about sellers failing to deliver on promises — or just failing to deliver, period. The FTC got more than 350,000 such reports. The phone is still the top way that scammers are reaching us — both through phone calls and text messages, the data also showed. There was a sharp increase in the number of reports saying scammers contacted them by text message. And, not surprisingly, many of these text messages were related to the pandemic. 

The FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network is a database that receives reports directly from consumers, as well as from federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, among other organizations. Sentinel received more than 4.7 million reports in 2020; these include the fraud reports detailed above, as well as identity theft reports and complaints related to other consumer issues, such as problems with credit bureaus and banks and lenders.

In 2020, there were also nearly 1.4 million reports of identity theft, received through the FTC’s IdentityTheft.gov website, about twice as many as in 2019.