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Published: May 29, 2024 5 min read
Illustration of a scammer impersonating an Amazon digital storefront
Rangely Garcia for Money

Scammers are impersonating well-known companies to siphon hundreds of millions of dollars out of the wallets of unsuspecting Americans.

Often posing as representatives from Best Buy’s Geek Squad, Amazon, PayPal and several other big brand names, fraudsters stole over $660 million through business-impersonation schemes in 2023 alone, according to a new report from the Federal Trade Commission.

Such scams have become increasingly prevalent since the onset of the pandemic, FTC data suggests. For example, in the first three months of 2020, the FTC received about 26,000 complaints related to business-impersonation fraud. Complaints of business imposters peaked at roughly 130,000 between July and September of 2023, and the scheme remains by far the most common type of imposter scam today.

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While FTC complaints are helpful to determine how and where Americans are getting swindled, they’re just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the true number of scams taking place around the country.

“Because the vast majority of frauds are not reported to the government, these figures reflect just a small fraction of the public harm,” the FTC report says.

In fact, a 2021 study found that less than 5% of fraud victims actually lodge complaints with the Better Business Bureau or a government agency.

Most common business-imposter scams

The FTC report shows that scammers love to impersonate certain businesses, especially popular technology and banking brands. But the most common scams aren’t always the most lucrative for the fraudsters.

Here’s a look at the 10 most commonly impersonated businesses in 2023:

  1. Best Buy/Geek Squad: 52,000 complaints resulting in $15 million in theft
  2. Amazon: 34,000 complaints; $19 million theft
  3. PayPal: 10,000 complaints; $16 million theft
  4. Microsoft: 7,000 complaints; $60 million theft
  5. Publishers Clearing House: 7,000 complaints; $49 million theft
  6. Norton/Lifelock: 6,000 complaints; $11 million theft
  7. Apple: 5,000 complaints; $17 million theft
  8. Comcast/Xfinity: 4,000 complaints; $2 million theft
  9. Bank of America: 4,000 complaints; $8 million theft
  10. Wells Fargo: 3,000 complaints; $11 million theft

Known techniques include fake Geek Squad emails that try to get you to renew a service that you never signed up for; pop-up security alerts seemingly from Microsoft that prompt you to call a hotline for help; and phone calls from someone pretending to be from Publishers Clearing House saying you need to pay fees in order to collect your winnings from a non-existent sweepstakes.

The FTC also says that scammers most commonly request payments via PayPal, Cash App or Zelle or gift cards from Apple, Target or eBay.

Scammers may deploy a variety of schemes to steal your money. In addition to posing as familiar businesses, imposters also frequently pretend to be a family member, a friend, a government worker or an online love interest.

Collectively, the FTC received more than 850,000 imposter scam complaints in 2023, resulting in a loss of at least $2.7 billion.

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How to avoid imposter scams

Scammers are constantly changing their tactics and coming up with evermore convincing ploys. Familiarizing yourself with the trends outlined above can certainly help you identify well-known scams, though the list is far from exhaustive.

Especially with the introduction of generative artificial intelligence, scammers can easily create persuasive scripts, graphics and even replicas of a family member’s voice.

Avoiding scams requires vigilance. If you ever find yourself in a situation where someone (even if you think it is someone you know) is demanding money quickly, take a second to think things through. The FTC recommends getting confirmation about the requester's identity and situation first.

“Anyone who’s rushing you into sending money, buying gift cards, or investing in cryptocurrency is almost certainly a scammer,” the agency says.

Another golden rule: Never click links from unexpected texts or emails. And don’t answer calls from unknown numbers.

Even caller ID is not to be trusted, the FTC says, as phone numbers can be spoofed with relative ease. Instead, use a contact method you know to be true — like an email address or phone number (better yet, ask in person) — to verify the request that the business or person contacting you is legit.

Of course, payment requests via gift card, crypto or money transfers should set off immediate alarm bells.

“Only scammers say there’s only one way to pay,” the FTC says.

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