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Beware of These 5 Bitcoin Scams

Bitcoin’s meteoric rise in prices in 2020 awakened mainstream interest in the original cryptocurrency.   But the rise in interest has not been without consequences. One of the downsides of new investors entering the market is the increase in the number of scams, frauds, and stories of retail investors who lose their coins to shady ventures. From ICO scandals to wallet theft and fraud, regular consumers can fall prey to crime easily.

It may seem as though it’s the Wild West for investors, but it doesn’t have to be. While there are certainly risks in the market, the opportunities may be irresistible for some. However, being cautious is always a must, and there are clear signs of scams that investors can look for. By avoiding these traps, users can better their chances of success and protect their investments. These are some of the most common scams and how they can be avoided.

Key Takeaways

  • Bitcoin investors can increase their odds for success by identifying common scams, such as Ponzi schemes, fake ICOs, and fraudulent exchanges.
  • One common scam, exposing bitcoin users to theft, is the sale of a hardware wallet with a compromised pre-configured seed phrase, which allows hackers to steal funds.
  • Since bitcoin exchanges are unregulated, fraudulent exchanges can trap investors with the promise of unrealistic prices and heavy discounts on use.
  • Websites featuring fake ICOs instruct users to deposit funds into a compromised wallet through their site, resulting in the theft of funds.

Hardware Wallet Theft

For users who are concerned with security and privacy, a hardware wallet—a physical device that stores their private keys—is an increasingly popular option. Usually, as small as keychain USB drives, these wallets offer an offline way to help crypto investors protect their bitcoin even further. However, there have been reports that some of them have built-in vulnerabilities that open them to hackers that could easily steal all a user’s holdings. 

This is far from the only issue, however. According to Ofir Beigel, the owner of 99Bitcoins.com:

One scam entails selling hardware wallets to users with a ‘pre-configured’ seed phrase hidden under a scratch card. The new user is told that he should scratch the card . and set up the wallet with the compromised seed.

This creates a backdoor that allows hackers to drain funds once a wallet is activated. These scams are becoming more common, but they can easily be avoided by only accepting wallets from trusted sources. 

Exchange Scams

Despite their decentralized nature, most cryptocurrencies are still bought and sold at exchanges. While this makes it easier to find the coins investors desire, there is still no regulatory body overseeing these exchanges in many countries. Thus, many investors have been left penniless when the exchanges they signed up for turn out to be traps. In December of 2020, several South Korean exchanges were exposed, leading to promises of stiffer regulations by the country’s authorities. 

These scams are not hard to spot but can be costly if not avoided. One of the biggest red flags is the promise of unrealistic prices. Exchanges that promise heavy discounts on bitcoin use this strategy to lure in unsuspecting victims.

Additionally, users can check exchanges’ URLs. Web addresses should always begin with HTTPS, a sign that traffic is encrypted. Visiting unsecured websites is a bad idea, but alert investors can avoid losing thousands by looking for the right signs.

Fake ICOs

One of the best results of the cryptocurrency boom has been the rise of the initial coin offering as a way for companies to raise capital. With thousands of new blockchain-based companies entering the market with unique ideas and exciting projects, users can now back their favorite businesses easily. However, this massive explosion of ICO opportunities has inevitably raised the specter of fraud.

There are several ways scammers can separate investors from their bitcoin. One popular method involves creating fake websites that resemble ICOs and instructing users to deposit coins into a compromised wallet. Other times, it’s the ICOs that are at fault.

Centra Tech, for example, a blockchain venture backed by several celebrities, has been sued in the US. The company stands accused of portraying fake team members, misleading investors, and lying about their products.   The best way to avoid these scams is close research that involves picking apart the white paper, reviewing the team behind the venture, key board members, and investors. Before making any investment, it’s vital to learn as much about the company as possible to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

Cloud Mining Schemes

Mining is the only way to extract new bitcoins without buying or exchanging them, but it has become an incredibly resource-intensive activity. Due to the unique way new coins are mined, it takes massive amounts of processing power and electricity, and thus money, to mine a coin. However, many companies now offer regular users the ability to rent some server space to mine coins for a set rate.

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Some companies offer “lifetime contracts” that keep costs the same and supposedly offer outstanding returns. However, as the difficulty of mining increases, the same investment will return smaller amounts each time. Moreover, some companies make bold claims regarding their returns without being transparent about the true costs and diminishing returns. Others operate Ponzi schemes that can lead to massive losses. It’s vital to look into opportunities and understand the risks and costs associated with mining before investing.

Multilevel Marketing

Even in the digital spheres, many multilevel marketing schemes have emerged that offer naïve investors excellent “opportunities” for progressively larger sums of bitcoin. MLMs, as they’re known, are predicated on offering quick returns, but involve taking more money for the promise of even higher profits.

One major company that has been repeatedly outed is OneCoin, whose owners were implicated in several other shady operations. The company offered investors massive earnings, as well as luxury goods and perks for paying more. 

However, there is little information on the company outside of its site, and users have left scathing reviews online. It’s important to pay attention to a company’s fine print and ensure that their claims are feasible and real. Avoiding these scams early can protect investors’ wallets.

With the current craze, being vigilant and doing one’s due diligence are a must before investing in bitcoin. The market is also showing signs of maturity, leading to better transparency and clearer rules. Regardless, a smart investor’s first step should always be careful research to ensure their investments are winners.

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Common bitcoin scams — and how to avoid them

Our guide to how to spot bitcoin scams and stay safe when trading and using cryptocurrency.

Last updated: 21 June 2020

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Cryptocurrencies are complicated, very confusing to new users and lightly regulated — all of which makes them an ideal target for scammers.

But with a little bit of know-how and some good old-fashioned common sense, you can do plenty to protect yourself against cryptocurrency scams.

Keep reading for the lowdown on the most common bitcoin scams and how to avoid them.

8 common crypto scams to keep an eye out for

Watch out for scams

A number of concerns have been raised regarding the cryptocurrency and ICO markets, including that, as they are currently operating, there is substantially less investor protection than in our traditional securities markets, with correspondingly greater opportunities for fraud and manipulation.”

Checklist: How to detect a crypto scam

Unsure whether a particular crypto website is a scam or not? Use this checklist to help sort legitimate providers from those platforms you’re better off avoiding altogether.

Does the website connect securely over https (not http)? If the address starts with “http” instead of “https,” the data you send to the website is not secure.

Can you see the word “Secure” or an image of a padlock in your web browser’s address bar? This indicates that a website is secure.

Does the website’s URL have any noticeable spelling mistakes or errors? If so, it could be a fake.

Does the site feature bad grammar, awkward phrasing or spelling mistakes? If it does, this doesn’t necessarily indicate a scam, but it does mean you should proceed with caution.

Does the website promise abnormally high returns? (For example, does it claim you’ll be able to double your investment?) This should raise a big red flag and is a common indicator of a scam.

Is there an “About us” page? Does it show the real people behind the company? Does it provide any details about where the company is registered? If there’s little or no information about who the company is and what it does, you could be dealing with a scam.

Do legitimate, reputable websites link to this site? This could indicate that the site is trusted and respected.

What do other users say about the website? Are there any negative reviews and, if so, what do they say? The crypto community is usually pretty quick to spread the word about scams.

Who is the registered owner of a domain or website? Is the owner hidden behind private registration? Has the domain been registered for less than six months? (You can find this information by searching for the platform’s URL registration details on a site like WHOis.net). The more information you can find about the people/company behind a website, the better.

Is there anything else about the website that raises red flags or just seems too good to be true? If there’s something that just doesn’t seem right, trust your gut.

Please note that this checklist is far from foolproof, as it’s possible for a website to pass several of the above tests with flying colors and still be a scam. The important thing to remember is to do your due diligence before providing any personal or financial information to any website or app.

1. Phishing

The first scam on the list is one that you may well be familiar with already, as it’s also been widely used to target customers from major banks.

Known as “phishing,” this type of scam occurs when you receive an unsolicited email that looks as if it’s from your bank — or, in this case, from your crypto exchange or wallet provider. This email contains a link that takes you to a site that looks almost identical to the exchange or wallet you usually use, but is actually a scam site.

Once you enter your account details on this unofficial page, the scammers have everything they need to log in to your real account and steal your funds.

How to avoid phishing scams:

  • Always double-check URLs to make sure you’re visiting the genuine website.
  • Don’t click on suspicious links that are emailed to you.
  • Never disclose your private key.

2. Fake exchanges and wallets

In a similar vein to phishing scams, keep an eye out for fake bitcoin exchanges. They might walk and talk like a reputable exchange, but they’re merely a front to separate consumers from their hard-earned cash.

Some will entice users with promotional offers that sound too good to be true. Others pressure users into creating an account and depositing funds, perhaps even offering “bonuses” to those who deposit larger amounts. But once they have your money these platforms might charge ridiculously high fees, make it very difficult to withdraw funds or simply steal your deposit altogether.

Other scammers have turned their attention to creating quite sophisticated fake wallet apps that, once downloaded to a user’s smartphone, can be used to steal critical account details. These apps have even made it into official, legitimate app stores like Google Play, so it pays to do your research before downloading anything to your phone.

BitKRX

In December 2020, the bitcoin community and South Korean authorities exposed a fake exchange known as BitKRX.

By posing as a legitimate exchange and passing itself off as a branch of KRX, a large and reputable trading platform, it was able to ensnare innocent users.

How to avoid fake exchange and fake wallet scams:
  • Stick with well-known and popular exchanges.
  • Thoroughly research any exchange or wallet before creating an account — who is the team behind the exchange or wallet? Where is the company registered? Are there reliable reviews from other users confirming its legitimacy?
  • Don’t let yourself be pressured into depositing funds or providing any personal information.
  • Don’t just randomly pick a wallet from the app store — only download apps and software from legitimate wallet providers and exchanges.

Two of the apps, “Poloniex” and “Poloniex Exchange,” were downloaded more than 5,500 times before they were removed from the store. These apps asked Poloniex users to enter their account credentials, thereby giving fraudsters a way to perform transactions on behalf of users and even lock victims out of their own accounts.

3. Old-school scams

Cryptos may be based on new technology, but there are still plenty of scammers using old tricks to con unwitting consumers.

The classic example of this is an unsolicited phone call or email from someone claiming to be with the IRS. This fictional tax man will try to convince you that you owe the IRS money and you’ll be facing legal action if you don’t transfer them a certain amount of bitcoin as soon as possible.

The tried-and-tested “Nigerian prince” scam has also migrated into the world of cryptocurrency. So if you’re ever contacted out of the blue by someone overseas promising you a share in a large sum of digital currency if you help them transfer funds out of their own country, use your common sense and recognize it for the scam it is.

How to avoid old-school scams:
  • Use your common sense.
  • Don’t trust unsolicited emails or phone calls.

4. Fraudulent ICOs

Seduced by the astronomical price rises bitcoin has experienced since its inception, many everyday consumers venture into the world of cryptocurrency looking for the next big thing. After all, if “the next bitcoin” ever actually arrives, getting in at the ground floor could see early-adopters earn a fortune.

And if you want to get in on the ground floor, the easiest option for the average person is to buy coins or tokens in an ICO. There’s a huge appetite for new digital currencies — in the first half of 2020 alone, ICOs raised a total of $11.69 billion — and with many new buyers having limited knowledge of how the crypto industry works, it’s the perfect breeding ground for scammers.

Pincoin and iFan

In April 2020, the Pincoin and iFan ICOs, run by the same Vietnam-based company, are believed to have cheated more than 30,000 investors out of a combined total of $660 million.

iFan was meant to be a social media platform for celebrities and Pincoin promised 40% monthly returns to investors. Both were later shown to be multi-level marketing (MLM) scams.

This has led to the rise of fake ICOs which, with some slick marketing and a little bit of hype, can convince people to buy a cryptocurrency that doesn’t actually exist. For example, one report found that 78% of ICOs in 2020 were scams, while a separate report put that figure at above 80%.

Finally, if you’re dreaming of getting rich quick from a crypto ICO, be aware that for every ICO success story there are many, many more failures, even if the project isn’t a scam.

How to avoid fraudulent ICOs:
  • Thoroughly research any ICO before buying in. Look at the team behind the project, its white paper, the purpose of the currency, the tech behind it and the specifics of the token sale.

5. Ponzi or pyramid schemes

A Ponzi scheme is a simple but alarmingly effective scam that lures in new investors with the promise of unusually high returns. Here’s how it works: a promoter convinces people to invest in their scheme. These initial investors receive what they believe to be returns, but are actually payouts from the money deposited by newer investors. Now satisfied that the scheme is legit, those investors who received payouts pump more of their money into the scheme and encourage others to do the same.

Sooner or later, the scheme collapses when the promoter runs off with the money or it becomes too difficult to lure new investors. These types of pyramid schemes are nothing new and can be easy to spot, but that hasn’t stopped some crypto buyers from being scammed in a handful of high-profile incidents.

Bitconnect

In January 2020, bitcoin investment lending platform Bitconnect shut down its lending and exchange services amid allegations it was a Ponzi scheme. Launched in early 2020 with promises of returns of up to 40% per month, the platform was quick to attract criticism from the wider crypto community and soon drew the attention of regulators.

How to avoid Ponzi/pyramid schemes:
  • Look out for cryptocurrency projects that encourage you to recruit new investors to enjoy bigger profits.
  • Never trust a scheme that promises returns that sound too good to be true.

6. Malware

Malware has long been a weapon in the arsenal of online scammers. But thanks to the complicated and highly technical nature of cryptocurrencies, much of which isn’t well understood by most people, malware now poses an even bigger threat.

Rather than stealing credit card and bank account details, crypto-related malware is designed to get access to your web wallet and drain your account, monitor the Windows clipboard for cryptocurrency addresses and replace your legitimate address with an address belonging to a scammer, or even infect your computer with a cryptocurrency miner.

How to avoid cryptocurrency malware scams:
  • Update your antivirus software regularly to protect yourself against malware.
  • Never download and install programs unless you’re 100% sure they’re from a reputable, legitimate provider.
  • Don’t open suspicious attachments.

7. Mining scams

Cloud mining allows you to mine cryptocurrencies like bitcoin without having to purchase the expensive hardware required to do so. There are several legitimate cloud mining services that let users rent server space to mine for coins at a set rate.

However, there are also plenty of cloud mining scams out there. Some promise astronomical (and implausible) returns and fail to disclose a range of hidden fees, while others are fronts for Ponzi scams and are simply designed to part you from your money.

How to avoid cryptocurrency mining scams:
  • Thoroughly research any cloud mining operation before signing up. Does it use https? Does it have a public mining address? How long has it been in business? Can you find any legitimate reviews from other users? Does the site have a registered domain name? Can the company provide proof of equipment?
  • Be extremely wary of companies that “guarantee” profit.

8. Pumps and dumps

Cryptocurrencies are often dismissed as a speculator’s dream come true that are ripe for a little bit of market manipulation, which has led to the rise of what are known as “pump and dump” schemes. This is where large groups of buyers target an altcoin with a small market cap, buy that coin en masse at a particular time to drive its price up (which attracts a whole lot of new buyers fueled by FOMO — a fear of missing out) and then sell to take advantage of the significant price rise.

This sort of thing is illegal in traditional securities markets, but is a common occurrence in the largely unregulated world of cryptocurrencies. In fact, there are several online groups and forums dedicated to this exact practice, so it’s important that you stay savvy and know how to steer clear of these scams.

How to avoid pump and dump scams:
  • Be wary of low-market-cap cryptos that normally have a low trading volume but that suddenly experience a sharp price rise.
  • Keep an eye out for “fake news” on social media that hypes particular coins.
  • Carefully research the credentials of any cryptocurrency before buying.

In January 2020, a fake Twitter account purporting to belong to cybersecurity guru and crypto enthusiast John McAfee tweeted support for the GVT cryptocurrency, naming it “coin of the day.”

For some in the crypto community, this was good enough reason to buy some GVT, and just four minutes after the tweet was posted the price of GVT had jumped from $30 to $45 and trading volume had doubled. Fifteen minutes later, the price was hovering around the $30 mark once again, after early buyers “dumped” and ran.

On closer inspection, the Twitter account was revealed to be bogus and not associated with McAfee at all. Instead, it was simply a key player in a pump and dump scheme devised and implemented in a chat room called “Big Pump Signal.”

Simple tips to help you stay safe

There are plenty of other simple steps you can take to protect yourself against fraud, such as:

Use 2-factor authentication

If you’re using a crypto wallet or exchange that supports two-factor authentication, enable this feature before depositing any funds. It’s simple to set up and provides an extra layer of account security.

Use a cold wallet

A “hot” wallet is one that’s connected to the Internet, while a “cold” wallet is one that’s held offline. Storing your crypto offline in a secure physical cold wallet is usually considered to be a much safer option than using an online wallet.

Stick with established providers

Avoid new and untested platforms. Let the early-adopters take the risks and make sure you don’t get involved with an exchange or wallet until you can be sure it’s legitimate.

Make sure your PC is protected against malware by keeping your antivirus software up to date.

Always double-check addresses

Get into the habit of scanning the URL bar to look for the https and “secure” lock symbol, and remember to double-check the URL to make sure you’re visiting the correct site.

Never share your private keys with anyone

You need your private key to access your crypto holdings, so make sure you never disclose any of your private keys to a third party.

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