Over 114,000 Americans lost more than $8 billion to investment scams in 2023 (1)

Investing money online is now quicker and easier than ever before. You’re often just a click away from investing your hard-earned cash into something that promises great financial returns.

It’s as simple as that. Or, is it…?

All types of investments carry some risk– it’s not just the stock market you need to keep an eye on, but also who and what you’re investing in.

There are a number of clever, well-thought-out investment scams that aim to catch out people who try to “get rich quick.” From Ponzi schemes to advance fee scams, investment scams are often cleverly disguised amid a whole host of other legitimate offerings.

Here at Comparitech, our estimates suggest more than 114,000 Americans were subject to investment fraud in 2023, with losses totaling more than $8 billion.

According to our findings, the number of reported investment-related scams increased by nearly 6 percent from 2022 to 2023 (from 108,630 to 114,790) and the amount lost increased by 25 percent (from $6.46 billion in 2022 to nearly $8.05 billion in 2023).

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports consumers lost more to investment fraud than any other category in 2023 with total losses of $4.6 billion (a 21 percent increase from 2022). The IC3 reported the same trend: investment scam losses were the most reported of any crime type tracked by the IC3. The IC3’s latest report also highlights how much victims lost to investment scams involving cryptocurrency. These increased 53 percent from $2.57 billion in 2022 to $3.94 billion in 2023. Scams associated with cryptocurrency have risen exponentially over the last few years (something we’ll explore in more detail below).

To get a clearer picture of the extent of investment scams on a state-by-state basis, Comparitech analyzed data from the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Better Business Bureau (BBB), and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network’s (FinCEN’s) Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) from 2019 to 2023.

Key findings:

  • 114,790 people are estimated to have fallen victim to investment scams in 2023–a 6 percent increase from 2022 (108,630)
  • Losses from these scams hit an estimated $8,045,407,410 – a 25 percent increase from 2022 ($6.46 billion)
  • The IC3 saw a 22 percent increase in the number of investment-related scams reported from 2022 to 2023, rising from 23,350 to 28,518 cases. The amount lost to these scams increased by 31 percent (from $3 billion to $3.9 billion)
  • BBB data showed that investment scam reports increased 162 percent (from 217 in 2022 to 568 in 2023). The amount lost to these reports was five times higher in 2023 ($15m) compared to 2022 ($3m)
  • The number of investment scam cases reported as SARs did decrease slightly by 1.4 percent from 22,484 in 2022 to 22,176 in 2023.
  • The average amount lost for investment scams reported by the FTC increased from $36,217 in 2022 to $43,101 in 2023

Please note: the figures reported above may be lower than the overall figures reported by each entity. We only focus on the 50 states plus the District of Columbia and don’t include other US territories.

How to protect yourself against online scams

There’s no silver bullet that’ll keep you safe from investment scams, but you can reduce your chance of becoming a victim by refusing to make decisions in a hurry. Carefully think about whether the promised returns are actually realistic, whether the pitch is coming from someone you know or trust, and whether it includes any of the red flags mentioned below.

Remember: never click links in emails and never download attachments unless you trust the sender. If you’ve already done one of these, don’t panic: just run an antivirus scan and change your passwords to make sure that scammers don’t have access to your computer or accounts.

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States with the highest rates of investment scams per 100,000 people

The states with the highest number of investment scams are also the most populous of the United States, so there isn’t much surprise with the figures. However, if we take a look at the rate of investment scams per 100,000 people, we can see that the top states aren’t the highly populated ones.

Rather, the states with the highest rates of investment scams are:

  1. Nebraska – 176.5 investment scams per 100,000 people
  2. Connecticut – 86.61 investment scams per 100,000 people
  3. Rhode Island – 64.79 investment scams per 100,000 people
  4. Massachusetts – 57.82 investment scams per 100,000 people
  5. Delaware – 49.89 investment scams per 100,000 people

The top four states remain the same as 2022, with Delaware replacing Nevada this year in fifth place (Nevada drops to 10th place).

States with the highest number of investment scams and losses

The top five states for the highest number of investment scams and losses are:

  1. California – 17,818 investment scams with a total loss of $1.56 billion
  2. New York – 9,841 investment scams with a total loss of $667 million
  3. Florida – 9,457 investment scams with a total loss of $618 million
  4. Texas – 8,795 investment scams with a total loss of $635 million
  5. Massachusetts– 4,065 investment scams with a total loss of $270 million

California remains the state with the highest number of investment scams and losses for another year. While the number of scams in California did decrease slightly by 1.5 percent (from 18,097 to 17,818), the amount lost to these scams increased 13 percent from $1.38 billion to $1.56 billion.

North and South Dakota reported the highest increase in cases from 2022 to 2023 with a 38 percent increase each (North Dakota increasing from 120 to 166 cases and South Dakota from 153 to 211 cases). Montana reported the highest increase for the amount lost to these scams, increasing by a whopping 174 percent (from $15.2 million to $41.7 million). Seven states reported the amount lost to investment scams decreased year on year. These were– the District of Columbia, Delaware, Wyoming, Maine, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Nebraska.

States with the highest and lowest average loss per investment scam

According to IC3 2023 data, the states with the highest average loss per investment scam were:

  • Montana – $370,164
  • Nevada – $213,899
  • California – $183,856

In contrast, the states with the lowest average losses per investment scam were:

  • Maine – $50,199
  • West Virginia – $54,602
  • Delaware – $62,441

 

Investment scam cases and losses continue to rise in 2023

According to our findings, the number of investment scams increased 5.7 percent from 2022 to 2023. Although figures have increased year-on-year, the rate at which they’re increasing does appear to have slowed down. From 2021 to 2022, we saw a 18.6 percent increase. Similarly, losses increased by $1.5 billion from 2022 to 2023. From 2021 to 2022 losses increased by $3.5 billion (from $2.9 billion to $6.5 billion).

Investment Scams per Year

In 2023, the FTC alone received 107,699 reports of investment scams. This is a similar figure to the one reported in 2022 (107,728). Despite this, the amount lost to these scams increased year-on-year by 19 percent from $3.9 billion to $4.6 billion. This demonstrates how scammers gleaned larger rewards from fewer scams.

Please note: The total investment scam figures reported by the FTC and IC3 are always higher than the total of our individual state figures. Some reports are not assigned to a specific state due to a lack of location data.

In contrast, the IC3 witnessed an increase in the number of cases and the amount lost to investment fraud scams.

From 2022 to 2023, the IC3 noted a 30 percent increase in investment scam reports (from 30,529 to 39,570). The amount lost to these scams saw an even larger increase, rising by 38 percent from $3.31 billion in 2022 to $4.57 billion in 2023. Investment scams were once again the costliest crime presented to the IC3, with victims aged 30 to 49 being the most susceptible.

Some of the key warnings issued by the IC3 included:

  • Play-to-Earn Games: The scam works whereby victims are contacted online by the scammer who tries to build a relationship with them. Scammers then introduce victims to an online/mobile game that enables them to ‘earn’ crypto rewards in exchange for playing the game, e.g. growing crops on a computer-generated farm. Victims have to create a crypto wallet to play the game–and the more money they add to the wallet, the bigger the ‘rewards.’ When the victim stops adding money to the wallet, the scammer drains it of its funds. Worse still, victims are sometimes told they can recoup the funds if they pay additional fees and/or taxes–but these also end up in the scammer’s pocket.
  • Non-Fungible Token (NFT) scams: Posing as NFT developers (often by hacking into social media accounts or creating spoofs of legitimate accounts), scammers target victims within the NFT community. They’ll make posts that evoke a sense of urgency to try and get people to invest in the NFT, e.g. through a limited supply or the minting of a new token. The phishing links included within the post redirect the victim to a spoofed website. There, victims unwittingly connect their wallet to a drainer smart contract.
  • Cryptocurrency recovery schemes: These specifically target those who have already fallen victim to a crypto scam or forget their wallet passwords. Fraudulent businesses offer to help recover the victim’s funds, often marketing themselves through social media sites and through comments on news articles. To receive help, victims have to cough up an upfront fee. Once paid, the scammer will either disappear or provide fake reports.

For SARs, the number of reported cases decreased by just 1 percent from 2022 to 2023 (22,484 cases in 2022 and 22,176 cases in 2023). Our estimates suggest victims who reported their investment fraud to SARs could have cumulatively reported losses of more than $1.37 billion (an increase of 15 percent, from $1.19 billion estimated for 2022).

Late last year, FinCEN released an alert regarding virtual currency investment scams, known as ‘pig-butchering scams.’ The name of these scams is derived from scammers calling their victims “pigs” and effectively fattening them up (draining as much money as possible) before defrauding them (butchering them). Having seen “far too many Americans” falling victim to these scams, it urged financial institutions to report suspicious activity that appeared to fall into these schemes. FinCEN said many of these scams are carried out by criminal enterprises based in Southeast Asia. Often, their outreach is carried out by victims of labor trafficking.

The BBB reported a year-on-year decrease in cases from 322 in 2021 to 217 in 2022. However, reports in 2023 skyrocketed again increasing by 162 percent to 568 investment scams reported. The amount lost to these scams increased 5 fold from $3 million to $15 million.

All four reporting avenues show a similar picture: investment-related fraud is increasing each year. While some case figures may have decreased slightly, the amount stolen through these scams continues to rise. 2023 has once again been a record-breaking year, with the possibility of even more investment scams to come in the next few years.

The only data available for 2024 so far is in FinCEN’s SARs report. From January to February 2024, 3,579 investment-related SARs were filed. This is already significantly higher than the number reported during the same period of 2023 (3,290). Investment scams often increase in frequency toward the end of the year (as we can see from the FTC chart above). This suggests investment scams could continue to reach new heights this year.

The true cost of investment scams in 2023 could have been nearly $13 billion

While the figures mentioned above highlight just how destructive investment scams can be, it’s possible that they underestimate the true extent of the problem. Unfortunately, many scams go unreported.

A report conducted by the FTC found only 62 percent of cases are reported when it comes to investment-related fraud. If the 114,790 people who reported being the victim of an investment scam only represent around 6 in every 10 cases, this would imply around 185,000 people may have been subject to investment scams in 2023. And based on the total reported losses (of known cases) being $8.05 billion, that would equate to total losses of around $13 billion.

What are some popular investment scams and what are the key warning signs to look out for?

The Suspicious Security Report (or SARs reported to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network–FinCEN) highlights specific types of investment fraud. It found the most popular scheme (excluding a category labeled ‘other’) in 2023 to be advance fee scams which accounted for 4,519 reports. Other categories include securities (4,366 reports) and insider trading (3,501 reports).

Below is a list of definitions for some well-known investment scams to be aware of:

  • Advanced Fee – occurs when you are asked to invest a small upfront payment with the prospect of earning a greater value but instead are left with nothing.
  • Insider Trading – Through the use of confidential information, an individual would illegally trade on the stock exchange to benefit themselves.
  • Market Manipulation – The practice of artificially causing stock prices to rise or fall dramatically.
  • Misappropriation – Is essentially the same as theft, or using someone’s investment funds for a purpose that was not pre-agreed.
  • Ponzi Scheme – Uses current investors’ money to pay previous investors.
  • Pyramid Scheme – Each paying participant is asked to recruit two or more further participants, with the returns made from the later participants given to the original ones. Similar to the Ponzi scheme but uses the investment victims to recruit further victims themselves.
  • Unauthorized Pooling – Or “unauthorized mutual funds” is the illegal collaboration of investors to benefit from a larger amount to invest.
  • Wash Trading – Often brokers and traders can join forces and feed misleading information to the market for their own financial gain.
  • Cryptocurrency Schemes – Crypto investment scams cover a multitude of the aforementioned schemes, while often being a popular payment method in these scams, too. Many involve creating hype to artificially inflate the price of a specific coin. For example, the FTC has noted an increase in crypto-related investment scams with people sharing “tips” in a bid to get people to invest in the schemes, which are, in fact, based on referral chains (a type of pyramid scheme) that see people bringing in more investors. Other scams include websites that are built to look like legitimate investment sites (even showing users’ growth in their investment) but when users go to withdraw anything they’re told to pay more crypto and end up with nothing. Some have even been known to enter giveaways with “celebrities” within the crypto space only to find the crypto they’ve sent hasn’t been multiplied as promised but has gone straight into a scammer’s wallet.

If you are planning to invest your money online, and want to do so safely, be wary of who you’re handing your money over to, and look out for these key warning signs that might suggest a scam:

  • If it seems too good to be true, like all types of scams, it probably is.
  • “Guaranteed returns”–many scammers may use this term to suggest a low level of risk when partaking in their investment plan, but all investment options come with at least some risk, so guaranteed or “risk-free” returns are often a false claim.
  • Ask questions. Fraudsters will often try and rush you into settling a deal. Instead, make sure you take your time and ask numerous questions about any doubts you may have.
  • Research as much as possible before investing money, the more research, the better.
  • Look out for key phrases such as “everyone is buying it.” Is the scammer suggesting that everyone is buying their product? This is often a red flag for investment scams.
  • If anyone asks for money to be sent right away and you feel rushed to make a decision, resist the urge to “buy now” and check the reliability of the source.
  • Check for unregistered products, many scammers are selling fake products online so doing a quick Google search to confirm the product is real can help protect your investment.
  • Avoid complex investing strategies. Legitimate investing professionals will be able to define clearly how their system works.

If any of these have happened to you during your time spent investing money, you can protect yourself by:

  • Responding with a firm ‘No’. Don’t be afraid to say no to someone you suspect might be a scam.
  • Speak to someone else and get their opinion on the investment.
  • Protect all personal details and social media sites. Never give away any personal information and make sure you have two-factor authentication for social media log-ins.
  • Looking for any reviews or similar scams online to the one you might be experiencing to see if it is a common scam.
  • Block and report anyone you suspect is an investment scammer.

Methodology

To get overall figures for all 51 states we put together data from the IC3, FTC, BBB, and SARs for 2023. We also made a note of 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022 figures (including any updates to these figures since our 2022 study).

This year, the District of Columbia was added across all criteria.

IC3 Data: Data categorized as “Investment” scams.” Reports are reviewed and researched before being passed on to federal, state, local, or international law enforcement or regulatory agencies.

https://www.ic3.gov/Media/PDF/AnnualReport/2023_IC3Report.pdf

FTC Data: For 2023, the FTC was able to provide state-by-state figures for investment scams. However, for previous years the FTC doesn’t provide a full breakdown of state-by-state figures for investment scams and instead lists the top 15 states with the highest-ranked reports per million of the population. We made estimates for the other states by finding the average number of cases by the population total for each state.

For example, in 2022, only one state didn’t rank investment scams in its highest fraud types (Kentucky), and so estimates were made for this state from the averages from all other states. In Kentucky, the population is 4,505,836 and the average number of cases for each state’s population came out to be 0.000169, which made the estimated number of investment fraud cases for Kentucky 761.

The FTC reported an average loss of $43,101 in 2023 ($4.64 billion for 107,699 reports). However, these figures do include reports that couldn’t be assigned to a specific state, and, therefore, our state estimates are lower than the total amount published by the FTC by year. For Kentucky, the estimated loss is $21,205,534.

https://public.tableau.com/app/profile/federal.trade.commission/viz/FraudReports/FraudFacts

BBB Data: We analyzed BBB fraud reports categorized as “Investment” scams and submitted against companies – i.e., fraudulent investment sites, scammers posing as professional traders on social media, and asking for advanced fee payments. Complaints were investigated by the BBB.

https://www.bbb.org/

SARs Data: The data from SARs provided the number of cases but not the $ amount lost per scam. To estimate the $ amount lost by state, we averaged figures from the IC3, FTC, and BBB to get an average amount lost for all states by year.

For 2023, for example, the average $ amount lost per scam across IC3, FTC, and BBB was $61,773. This amount was multiplied by the SARs number of cases for 2023. Alabama, for example, reported 43 investment fraud cases in 2023, an estimated loss of $2,656,239.

https://www.fincen.gov/index.php/reports/sar-stats/

State populations: https://data.census.gov/cedsci/all?q=Population%20Total&g=0400000US02

Data researcher: Charlotte Bond