To a pandemic-stricken society, get-rich-quick schemes are becoming bigger, bolder, and more enticing. Even if you’re confident in your scam-seeking radar, you may be surprised at how clever and camouflaged the COVID-era schemes have become.

According to the FTC, Americans have lost $610 million to “income illusions” since 2016 – and $150 million of that was in the first nine months of 2020 alone. 

Predatory get-rich-quick schemes have become so audacious, so prevalent that the federal government has launched a full-scale operation targeting them: Operation Income Illusion

So what are all the modern scams and schemes that young people should look out for? How can you spot the especially sneaky ones? What are the early warning signs of a bad online business course or a phony job listing? 

And how can you convince that one relative of yours that they’re in an MLM?

Let’s cover this and more as we explore modern get-rich-quick schemes (and how to spot them). 

Common signs of a get-rich-quick scheme

Before we get into specifics, it’s worth pointing out some of the most common signs of any get-rich-quick scheme: 

  • A promise or guarantee of income.
  • Payment requested upfront to cover supplies/training/application fees.
  • Sketchy websites or email addresses.
  • Zero online reviews or ratings.
  • Hyperbolic marketing language (achieve your dreams, become your own boss, etc.).
  • The perfect opportunity somehow found you (instead of the other way around).
  • A request for sensitive info: credit card info, SSN, or a photo of your passport/ID.
  • They give you a bad gut feeling. When you have a bad gut feeling about a person in real life, you walk away. Do the same online.

1. Cryptocurrency

Ah, crypto. 

Perhaps no other investment in history has produced as much FOMO as Bitcoin. After all, everybody knows of somebody who got rich off of it, or alternatively, some rare altcoin (read: any crypto that isn’t Bitcoin) that exploded overnight. 

It would be an overreach to call cryptocurrency a scam, but it’s certainly not the investor gravy train it’s made out to be. 

Read more: The Top 10 Things You Need To Know About Bitcoin

What they promise

A $10,000 investment in Bitcoin in 2017 became $640,000 just four years later. Invest your money and buckle up, because you’re about to get rich. 

Or, alternatively, keep your eyes on the crypto forums. If you get in on the ground floor of a new crypto before it explodes, that’s another easy way to 100x your investment overnight. 

What really happens

A $10,000 investment in Bitcoin in November, 2021 would be worth $6,175.36 in February 2022. 

Source: Giphy.com

Cryptocurrency values are 100% speculation, upheld by investor demand alone. There’s simply no guarantee (or even near-guarantee) that your investment will grow in value in the short- or long-term. 

That’s especially true of new or obscure “altcoins” that trade for pennies a pop. Sure, a small percentage of them may blow up – but many more are simply scams or pump-and-dump schemes – and it’s extremely difficult to detect which is which. 

Read more: From High Risk To High Cost: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Bitcoin

How to spot a crypto scam

Any crypto that promises to multiply in value is a scam. Again, the only thing propping up crypto values is investor interest, which is fickle, fleeting, and unpredictable. 

Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other bonafide cryptos aren’t scams, but they’re ultra-risky investments nonetheless. For more on why, check out Crypto Crash Course – Everything You Need To Know About Bitcoin, Blockchain, And More

2. Multi-level marketing schemes 

MLMs are notorious for using psychology and manipulation to lure unsuspecting income-seekers into their midst. Then, they squeeze capital out of them on the dangling promise of eventually multiplying their returns. 

Now that John Oliver and others have shone a light on the industry, the MLMs have had to get even sneakier. 

What they promise

Join [Herbalife, Amway, Infinitus] and you’ll become your own boss, get free training, and earn six figures in your first year!

Who doesn’t want to become their own CEO for a small initial investment of just $150, especially when you can make 1000x within 10 months!

What really happens

Source: Giphy.com

99% of MLM participants lose money, according to the Consumer Awareness Institute. Anyone appearing like they’re making money from an MLM on social media is simply trying to dupe others into distributing for them. 

How to spot an MLM scheme

If you’re wondering whether the sales opportunity you’re considering is part of an MLM, or you’re trying to convince someone that they’re in an MLM, here are a few steps that you can take: 

  • See if it’s already a known MLM. TitleMax (of all places) published a helpful list of the top 25 MLMs by revenue. If your future “employer” is on the list, take a hard pass.
  • Search for complaints about the company. Reddit, The Better Business Bureau, and your state Attorney General’s office website are all helpful places to find consumer ratings, reviews, and official complaints.
  • Vet the products. MLMs tend to sell sketchy products with dubious or unsubstantiated research proving their efficacy. If you wouldn’t buy the product, you definitely shouldn’t sell it.
  • ID the “startup fee”. If a company has a flat fee for upfront training or especially your first round of inventory, it’s most likely an MLM.
  • Get a second opinion. Ask the company to provide all of its contracts and legal documents, and have a friend, mentor, or your attorney look over everything with a skeptical eye. Don’t try to convince them it’s legit; ask them to convince you that it’s an MLM.

3. The lottery

There’s no more open and honest get-rich-quick scheme than the lottery! 

Playing the lotto in tiny doses can be fun when you expect to lose. My better half and I buy a ticket or two per year and fantasize about how we’ll fill our 20-car garage. 

Then we lose and laugh. 

But playing the lottery with even the faintest expectation that your investment will eventually pay off is a slippery slope – both financially and psychologically. 

Read more: Why You Should Never Play The Lottery – And How To Better Spend Your Money

What they promise

Whether it’s $10,000 or $10,000,000, you’re just a scratch away from winning life-changing money. 

What really happens

It’s better to gamble your money in Vegas than to play the lottery. 

I say that because generally speaking, you have a 5% to 30% chance of beating the house in a Vegas casino (WSJ). Your chances of winning the lottery are 1 in 300 million (CNBC). 

But what about a non-jackpot? Can you profit from buying scratch-offs? 

“Scratchies” typically list their odds of winning on the back of a card, usually between 5% and 20%. Your chances of winning something are better – but your chances of profiting are still extremely low. 

Lotteries are also inherently problematic and controversial. Supporters say they benefit society by generating tax revenue – but it’s worth considering where that revenue is originating. 

A mass study on the lottery’s net impact on society found that “the percentage of income spent on the lottery is significantly higher for players with low family incomes and low education,” hence the lottery’s ignominious nickname: “a tax on the poor.” 

While it may be more transparent, make no mistake – the lottery is just as bad of a get-rich-quick scheme as an MLM (just with much worse odds). 

4. Phony job listings

This one’s more of a straight-up scam than a scheme – and even as far as scams go, it’s pretty nefarious. FBI Special Agent, Jeanette Harper writes:

“Fake Job Scams have existed for a long time but technology has made this scam easier and more lucrative.” 

What they promise

A supposed rep from a legit-looking company – or even one pretending to be from a company you’ve heard of – will reach out and say they’re hiring for a high-salary role. 

They either say “no experience necessary” or that you’d be perfect for it, and since they want to fill the role right away, they’ll just do the interview via a chat window. 

Before your start date for your high-salary role, they’ll need to add you to payroll and benefits – so you’ll need to pass along your W-9, 1099, and/or a scan of your ID. 

What really happens

The scammer uses this sensitive information to steal your money and/or identity. 

How to spot a phony job listing

Source: Giphy.com

Fake job opportunities are pretty insidious, but at least they’re pretty easy to spot. Here are some of the telltale signs: 

  • The job listing appeared on social media (nearly all legit companies recruit via job boards, LinkedIn, or by referral only).
  • The rep’s email address doesn’t match the company name.
  • The company has no website/social media/LinkedIn presence (or a sketchy one).
  • The rep won’t reveal themselves – they won’t share their own personal data nor will they get on a video call with you – they insist on communicating via chat.
  • Everything they’re telling you seems oddly vague.
  • The interview process is moving oddly quickly – you’re accepted in minutes or hours, when the real-world process takes days or weeks.
  • The rep wants money – such as a $25 fee to submit your application.

5. COVID-era robocall scams

At the risk of sounding indelicate, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a target-rich environment for robocallers who peddle MLMs, phony jobs, or shady website building services. 

To give an example, the FTC is going after scam company National Web Design for sending out millions of illegal robocalls specifically targeting people who’d just lost their jobs, guaranteeing them passive income if they just paid a little upfront. 

I try not to use the term evil lightly… 

What they promise

Here’s what National Web Design told its victims: you could earn up to $400 a day as an Amazon affiliate. Just let us build your site for $2,000 and your passive income awaits. 

What really happens

The scammers may actually deliver a product, but it never works as advertised. You’re out $2,000 and they never pick up the phone. 

How to spot a robocall scam

If someone calls you offering a job or passive income opportunity, it’s a scam. But don’t just hang up – report their call as spam on your phone and report the company to the FTC using this form

BONUS: how to prevent robocalls in the first place

You can help stem the flow of robocalls to your own phone by adding your number to the official Do Not Call Registry. Don’t worry, it’s free and 100% legit. 

The second thing you can do is to never, ever, ever give your phone to a business unless it’s essential to your wellbeing. Even companies that claim to “protect your privacy” will still sell your data to their partners (since it’s not a violation of their own privacy policy). 

6. Bad online business courses

Here’s one that I fell for. 

To my credit, it wasn’t named so blatantly – and I can tell that the instructor was being sincere in his advice – but it was still bad advice that I paid an embarrassing amount of money for. 

Bad online courses always seem like good investments upfront. They’re taught by people who’ve “made it” in the industry and who promise to tell you all of their “best money-making secrets.” 

They’re also sold to you at a weirdly high discount (e.g. 97% off) and sometimes, you even have to apply to be in the course. 

But crappy online courses aren’t just dangerous due to high cost and missed expectations – they can teach you the wrong things that actually hinder your progress and take months to unlearn. 

What they promise

Sellers of “How To Get Rich In XYZ Industry” courses promise exactly that – that you can make millions in a certain industry by simply following in the instructor’s footsteps. 

What really happens

The advice you learn in an unaccredited online course can range from good to bad to downright toxic. And if you’re new to an industry, it can be hard to distinguish which is which. 

You could be paying for advice that could win new clients – or immediately turn them off. 

That’s why you’ll want to be extremely careful who you learn from. Some instructors truly are at the top of their industry and their tips are worth their weight in gold. 

But others are on their way out – their way of doing things in their industry no longer works, so they’re packaging and selling bad and outdated advice to make up for lost income.

How to spot a bad online course

Part of the challenge to spotting bad online business courses is that they’re often marketed exceedingly well – so well, in fact, that if it’s a course in How To Make Millions Selling Bad Online Courses, maybe it’s worth it!

Facetiousness aside, here are some of the signs that the course you’re considering isn’t worth it:

  • The instructor has limited, outdated, or vague experience – e.g. they’ve “worked with dozens of Fortune 500 companies” but won’t say who, in what capacity, or how much they actually earned.
  • The course promises or downright guarantees income. No course can guarantee income, so that’s a huge red flag.
  • High-pressure sales tactics. If the vendor of an online business course gives you a short time window to decide, or says the price will increase in 13 hours, just shrug and hang up the phone.
  • No reviews or ratings. If the instructor can’t point to a single successful past student, that’s probably a sign that one doesn’t exist – and you won’t be the first.
  • A high price tag. Finally, if a 3-day “Mastermind” costs thousands of dollars, that could be a sign that the instructor values his or her advice. It could also mean that they need the money because their clients dried up.

7. Mystery shopper scams

Mystery shopping is when a restaurant, retailer, or third-party data company will hire you to go into a store or restaurant and report back on your experience. Mystery shoppers are often paid a flat fee per assignment, and sometimes even get the product/meal reimbursed, too. 

From what I’ve heard, it’s a fun gig if you can get it. But since lots of folks are interested, the scammers are taking advantage.  

What they promise

Source: Giphy.com

Mystery shopping scams often start with a text stating that you can earn $200 to $500 per assignment by becoming a secret/mystery shopper or “filling out a survey.” 

All you have to do is visit a retail store, purchase a product or a gift card, send it to a specific address, and report on your experience. You’ll be compensated upon completion. Easy $500. 

This may sound like an obvious scam, but in the victims’ defense, this isn’t too far removed from how legit mystery shopping works. 

What really happens

In the case of the scam, you send the product or gift card and are never compensated. To rub salt on the wound, the scammer may sell or abuse the personal data you gave them. 

How to spot a mystery shopping scam

Luckily, the Mystery Shopping Professional Association (MSPA) publishes a running list of all the mystery shopping scams they’ve seen. 

If you don’t see the potential scam listed there, cross-reference it with their free online directory of legitimate mystery shopping companies

Summary

To a pandemic-stricken society, get-rich-quick schemes are becoming harder to spot and more seductive all at once. 

But by helping yourself and your loved ones avoid them, you can protect your money and ride out the storm. 

Featured images: Focus and Blur/Shutterstock.com

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About the author

Total Articles: 185
Chris helps people under 30 prosper - both financially and emotionally. In addition to publishing personal finance advice, Chris speaks on the topics of positive psychology and leadership. For speaking inquiries, check out his CAMPUSPEAK page, connect with him on Instagram, or watch his TEDx talk.