Buyer Beware: Social Media Traps and Other Online Scams

By Beth Dedman on Friday, May 14, 2021

Generation Z is the first generation of kids to have no recollection of what life was like prior to the internet. They have grown up with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so many other apps as a regular part of their day to day. A study by Qustodio, based on 60,000 families in the U.S., U.K. and Spain, shows that the increase in screen time has only accelerated, largely because of the coronavirus lockdowns, which have doubled the amount of time kids spend online. The average time kids spent on entertainment apps by mid-April 2020, at the height of coronavirus social distancing measures, was up to 99 minutes per day in the U.S.

With this dramatic increase in use, companies, scams and advertisers have more opportunity than ever to manipulate you and take your money. Every social media algorithm is designed and curated to prime you to want to buy something in an advertisement. Everything you like, everything you look at and for how long, everything you search and everything you click is collected and used to figure out which ads are the most likely to get you to buy something.


Advertisers try to benefit from any personal insecurities you might have. Advertisers make money telling you that there is something wrong with you and that only they can fix you.

You do not need to be fixed.

It can be a big task to try to overcome the thousands of engineers and computers that are designed to get you to buy things and scroll through your feed. But even just knowing that your feed is trying to manipulate you to spend money can help you resist the temptation.

And those cool influencers you follow? They’re accomplices in this plot to get your money. According to Forbes, the influencer marketing tactic is somewhere between a 5-16 billion dollar industry—that’s how much companies are spending to pay influencers to, let’s be real, peer pressure you to buy their goods.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with buying something cool that you found online—as long as you’re not spending money you need for essentials, and as long as you’re not going into debt.


You also need to make sure you are not being scammed out of your money. Here are some of the most common scams targeted at teenagers:

1. Surveys:  Online surveys can promise money, but you have to provide personal information to complete the survey. Scammers can use this information to access your accounts, use your credit cards or steal your identity.

2. “Too good to be true” prices:  Wanted to learn how to roller-skate because of all the cool girls on TikTok? During 2020, most skating companies ran out of product, so scammers swooped in and started advertising roller skates (which can easily cost $100-$250) for only $30! Do your research on ANY company that offers prices on luxury items for dirt cheap. It might be a ploy to steal your card information, or take your money without delivering the promised good. Remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

3. Identity Theft:  Never respond to an ad or email that claims to be your bank or card company without verifying it first. Scammers will try to steal your bank information by posing as your bank and having you input your information in a fake website. Be very careful with your social security number, too, and don’t put it in any site that you are not 100% sure is run by someone legit. Sometimes people will even pose as potential employers to get this information from you. In general, don’t trust a pop-up ad.

4. Contests:  Some scammers run contests, either to gather entry money or steal your identity. Or, there is always some financial catch after you "win."

5. Email Scams:   In general, most people know better than to send money to a Nigerian prince or any other stranger who emails you, but sometimes the emails appear to come from a business or a person you know. This is known as “synthetic identity fraud,” and according to management consultancy firm McKinsey, it’s the fastest growing financial crime in the U.S. You must check incoming email addresses carefully. Look for anything unusual or out of place. Some scams can be quite convincing, and although they don't necessarily target teens, you may be more likely to fall victim to them.

6. Scholarships and Grants:  Many young people are worried about financing their higher education, and this may cause them to fall victim to scams surrounding false scholarships or grants. Many of these scams are attempts to steal personal information from students looking for financial aid and scholarships.

“One of the most important things is that a scholarship application should never ask you for an application fee,” says Alisha Lewis, the associate director of the Arkansas Division of Higher Education. “Consider the source for who this scholarship is funded by (usually nonprofits, government entities, larger corporations, etc.). Scammers prey on young adults’ needs. Young people are trying to make enough money to pay for their tuition. They have goals and they are ready to move forward. In your zealousness to move forward, you don't always pay attention to warning signs and red flags.”

7. Online Auctions:  Auction scams have been found to target unsuspecting teens in various ways. One scam involves an auction where a teen wins an item that doesn't exist or never arrives—even though the teen has paid for it. Alternatively, when an unsuspecting teen is encouraged to auction off possessions, the scam artist requires the teen to send the item in advance, before the buyer's payment arrives or even before bids are placed. Of course, the funds never arrive or the auction never happens and the rep disappears.

According to Statista, almost 30% of Instagram users are 18-24 years old and 33% of users are 25-34 years old, which means that young adults comprise more than 60% of Instagram’s target user base. While there are distinct differences in those generations, they both fall prey to targeted ads in all of these categories: 

1.   Clothing
2.   Jewelry
3.   Beauty/Skincare
4.   Health Products
5.   Home Décor
6.   Fitness Gear
7.   Food/Cooking Gear
8.   Crafts/DIY
9.   Eco-living Items
10. Artwork