Prevent Getting Scammed Online: Recognizing the 3 Stages

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4 minutes

It’s alarming that some of the most common online scams are not new; they have been around for centuries. The Nigerian Prince scam dates back to the late 18th century, and Ponzi schemes have been rampant since the late 1800s. Although the technology and tactics used by scammers may evolve, the scams themselves have not changed significantly. Most online scams follow three distinct stages.

While the term “online scam” is broad and includes everything from romance scams to shopping scams, this post focuses on the most common signs of one-to-one scams, such as Romance Scams and Investment Scams. Recognizing these stages and being aware of them can help you avoid losing money, depending on which stage of the scam you are in. (Learn more about how to spot online scams)

Stage 1: Luring the Victim

Scammers are skilled at exploiting human psychology, and they use different communication methods to reach out to as many people as possible. Scammers will try to lure victims with:

  • Emails
  • Text Messages
  • Messaging apps like WhatsApp, Messenger, and Snapchat
  • Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and Quora
  • Dating apps and platforms like Tinder and Bumble
  • Classifieds platforms like Craigslist, Mercari, and Facebook Marketplace

You may be targeted for a scam if you receive:

  • An email from a stranger asking for help in transferring funds out of their country
  • An email from a ‘lawyer’ claiming you inherited a fortune from a distant relative
  • An email or direct message from a stranger who wants to be your friend or get romantically involved
  • A classified ad that seems too good to be true
  • The first message will urge you to reply quickly, such as within a 48-hour window to avoid missing out on the opportunity.

Stage 2: Earning the Victim’s Trust (and Money)

If you respond to the scammer’s initial communication, they will attempt to create an impression of authenticity. Professional scammers seldom ask for money directly in the first or second message. Instead, they first attempt to persuade the victim that they have their best interests at heart. This could be done by:

  • Sharing fake documents to ‘prove’ their identity and affiliation with a well-known organization (such as a bank)
  • Sending pictures stolen from social media accounts of real people and claiming to be them
  • Exchanging informal messages with the victim for weeks, days, or even months to gain trust
  • Asking for identification documents from the victim to make the process appear formal and professional

Once the scammer has gained the victim’s trust, they will request money. The scammer may ask the victim to pay them for various reasons, such as:

  • Processing fees required by the bank
  • Delivery fees and customs duty required by the shipping company
  • Lawyer’s fees or other legal fees
  • Bribes to be paid to authorities
  • An advance payment for shipping a product
  • A personal expense or medical emergency
  • An incredible investment opportunity (usually cryptocurrency or forex)

Scammers rarely stop at one payment from their victim. They will try to get as much money as possible, usually by using several of the excuses mentioned above.

Scammers are also known to maintain “sucker lists” of victims, which they use to target vulnerable people repeatedly with different scams. Once the victim becomes suspicious of the scam, the scammer moves on to the third stage.

Stage 3: Abandoning the Victim

If the scammer realizes that they have gotten as much money as possible from the victim and cannot extract more, they will discard the victim and move on to new ones. You will know that you have been scammed if:

  • The scammer no longer replies to any of your messages or emails.
  • They suddenly turn hostile by threatening or abusing you.
  • They make excuses for not paying you and keep delaying the matter.
  • They repeatedly try to assure you that it is not a scam.
  • They block you when you ask for your money back.
  • If you recognize any of these signs, it is best to cut off all communication with the scammer. Confronting them or trying to expose them may not lead to any benefit as they are experts at covering their tracks and avoiding being caught.


In conclusion, it is essential to be cautious and vigilant when interacting online. While the scams may have evolved with the times, the underlying tactics used by scammers remain largely the same. By being aware of the three stages of an online scam and recognizing the signs, you can prevent yourself from becoming a victim and protect your finances and personal information.

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