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 that more than 106,000 Americans were subject to investment fraud in 2022 with losses totaling more than $6.38 billion.
According to our findings, the number of reported investment-related scams increased by nearly 16 percent from 2021 to 2022 (from 91,762 to 106,201) and the amount lost increased by 121 percent (from $2.89 billion in 2021 to over $6.38 billion in 2022).
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that consumers lost more to investment fraud than any other category in 2022. The same has been reported by the IC3 who claim that investment scams were the costliest scheme last year with “unprecedented” increases in victims and dollars lost. The IC3 also highlights how much victims lost to cryptocurrency investment scams. These increased 183 percent from $907 million in 2021 to $2.57 billion in 2022. 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 2022.
- 106,201 people were estimated to have fallen victim to investment scams in 2022–a 16 percent increase from 2021 (91,762)
- Losses from these scams hit an estimated $6,387,441,626 – a 121 percent increase from 2021 ($2.89 billion)
- The IC3 saw a 61 percent increase in the number of investment-related scams reported from 2021 to 2022, rising from 14,381 to 23,165 cases. The amount lost to these scams increased by 191 percent (from $1 billion to just short of $3 billion)
- BBB data showed that investment scam reports decreased 33 percent (from 322 to 216). However, the amount lost to these reports increased by 136 percent (from $1.28 million to $3 million)
- SARs case figures also decreased 14 percent from 26,206 in 2021 to 22,478 in 2022
- The average amount lost for investment scams reported by the FTC increased from $20,333 in 2021 to $36,484 in 2022
Please note: the figures reported above may be lower than the overall figures reported by each entity as we only focus on the 50 states and don’t include other US territories.
How to protect yourself against online scams
There’s no unbeatable trick 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 actually know, 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.
We recommend using TotalAV or Norton Security. These are two reputable, effective antivirus services wiith apps for all major platforms and risk-free money-back guarantees. In other words, you don’t lose anything by trying them out.
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:
- Nebraska – 284.99 investment scams per 100,000 people
- Connecticut – 85.69 investment scams per 100,000 people
- Rhode Island – 53.13 investment scams per 100,000 people
- Massachusetts – 50.60 investment scams per 100,000 people
- Nevada – 46.06 investment scams per 100,000 people
The top four states remain the same as 2021, but Nevada and New York switch places with their 2022 figures (New York drops to seventh place).
As the above map shows, Nebraska is the only Midwest state with high figures. The remaining high numbers come from Northeastern states and Nevada, the only western state.
States with the highest number of investment scams and losses
The top five states for the highest number of investment scams and losses are:
- California – 17,767 investment scams with a total loss of $1.37 billion
- New York – 8,579 investment scams with a total loss of $492 million
- Florida – 8,501 investment scams with a total loss of $546 million
- Texas – 7,891 investment scams with a total loss of $458 million
- Nebraska – 5,590 investment scams with a total loss of $300.7 million
California remains the state with the highest number of investment scams and losses, with huge increases from 2021 to 2022. The number of cases increased 35 percent (from 13,191 to 17,767) while the amount lost to these scams increased 164 percent from $519 million to $1.37 billion.
Montana reported the highest increase for both case figures and for the amount lost to these scams. The number of reports increased 68 percent from 133 in 2021 and 223 in 2022, and the amount lost to these scams increased 381 percent from $3.1 million to $14.9 million. Oklahoma and Vermont were the only two states to see decreases in the amount lost to these scams (dropping 14 percent and 47 percent retrospectively).
States with the highest and lowest average loss per investment scam
According to IC3 2022 data, the states with the highest average loss per investment scam were:
- New Hampshire – $204,447
- California – $176,464
- Nebraska – $163,565
In contrast, the states with the lowest averages per investment scam were:
- North Dakota – $28,532
- Vermont – $36,813
- West Virginia – $42,688
Investment scam cases and losses see huge increases in 2022
According to our findings, the number of investment scams exceeded the 100,000 mark for the first time last year. Losses were more than double that of 2021.
In 2022, the FTC alone received 104,703 reports of investment scams, an increase of 27 percent from just 82,564 reports in 2021. The amount lost to these scams has more than doubled in a year with $1.68 billion lost in 2021 compared to over $3.82 billion in 2022.
Please note: The total investment scam figures reported by the FTC and IC3 are always higher than the total of our individual state figures. This is due to some reports not being assigned to a specific state due to a lack of location data.
The IC3 witnessed a similarly large increase in investment fraud cases.
From 2021 to 2022, the IC3 noted a 48 percent increase in investment scam reports (from 20,561 to 30,529). The amount lost to these scams saw an even larger increase, by 128 percent (from $1.45 billion in 2021 to $3.31 billion in 2022).
As we’ve already noted, investment scams involving cryptocurrency were a key concern in the IC3’s annual report. It noted “unprecedented” increases in crypto investment scams with the age group seeing the highest number of victims being those aged 30 to 49.
The crypto scams of note were:
- Liquidity mining – Where victims are encouraged to link their wallets to a fraudulent app. Scammers then drain the funds from their wallet.
- Social media hacking – By hacking social media accounts, scammers are able to create fake crypto opportunities, targeting the hacked user’s friends and contacts.
- Celebrity impersonation – The scammers impersonate a well-known celebrity in order to create a fake friendship with the victim. They then entice the victim to make an investment in crypto.
- Real estate – Scammers contact real estate professionals and offer to buy an expensive property using cryptocurrency or cash. Once on board, the scammer then tries to get them to invest in a scheme by showing fictitious accounts with millions of dollars in them.
- Employment – Victims are tricked into applying for a job with a fake crypto company and instead of getting the job are given crypto advice where they ultimately part with money.
For SARs, the number of reported cases decreased 14 percent from 2021 to 2022 (26,206 cases in 2021 and 22,478 cases in 2022). Our estimates suggest victims who reported their investment fraud to SARs could have cumulatively reported losses of more than $1.19 billion (an increase of 43 percent, from $830.9 million estimated for 2021).
Reports of investment-related fraud at the BBB also saw a year-on-year decrease for 2021 to 2022, down by 33 percent (from 322 to 216). However, the amount lost to these scams increased from $1.28 million to $3 million.
All four reporting avenues show a similar picture when it comes to investment-related fraud increasing each year. While some case figures may have decreased, the amount stolen in these scams continues to rise. 2022 has 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 2023 so far is in FinCEN’s Q1 SARs report. From January to April 2023, 3,306 investment-related SARs were filed. While this is slightly less compared to 7,621 reports in the same period for 2022, this doesn’t necessarily suggest a decreased trend for 2022. As we can see from the FTC chart above, investment scams tend to get more frequent toward the end of the year.
The true cost of investment scams in 2022 could have been over $10.3 billion
While the figures mentioned above make for a shocking read of just how destructive investment scams have been, it’s possible that reality could be even higher. 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 106,201 people who reported being the victim of an investment scam only represented around 6 in every 10 cases, this would imply around 171,300 people may have been subject to investment scams in 2022. And based on the total reported losses (of known cases) being $6.39 billion, that would equate to total losses of around $10.3 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 2022 to be securities which accounted for 4,996 reports. Other categories include advanced fee scams (3,622 reports) and insider trading (3,120 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 – Is the practice of someone who artificially affects the 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 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. 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 “pay 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.
To get overall figures for all 50 states we put together data from the IC3, FTC, BBB, and SARs for 2022. We also made a note of 2019, 2020, and 2021 figures (including any updates to these figures since our 2021 study).
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.
FTC Data: 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.
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 0.000161, which made the estimated number of investment fraud cases for Kentucky 725 (rounded from 725.44).
The FTC reported an average loss of $36,484 in 2022 ($3.82 billion for 104,703 reports). However, these figures do include reports that couldn’t be assigned to a specific state, and, therefore, our estimates by state result in lower figures than the amount provided by the FTC by year. For Kentucky, the estimated loss is $26,467,047.
BBB Data: Data 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.
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 2022, for example, the average $ amount lost per scam across IC3, FTC, and BBB was $52,980, so this amount was multiplied by the SARs number of cases for 2022. Alabama, for example, reported 46 investment fraud cases in 2022, an estimated loss of $2,437,080.
State populations: https://data.census.gov/cedsci/all?q=Population%20Total&g=0400000US02
Data researcher: Charlotte Bond