How Scammers Target Low-Income Young Women On Social Media

Photographed by Serena Brown
One night in quarantine Abi*, who is in her early 20s and based in Boston, was scrolling endlessly through Instagram when she came across a post from a hilariously niche account she follows which serves nonstop content about...raccoons. It’s one of those esoteric animal accounts that provides inexplicable relief from modern life. 
"This is gonna sound super dumb so bear with me," she says at the start of our conversation, making it clear that she is worried about being judged for what she’s about to tell me. "But the owner of the account, which had around 100,000 followers, did a post saying that they wanted to sell it to the highest bidder. I thought running the account would be a laugh. I’ve been really bored and depressed recently so I wanted a fun hobby."
According to the British Psychological Society, lockdown has seen a stark rise in mental health struggles among young people. You can hear the regret in Abi’s voice as she recounts what happened next. She DM’d the account’s owner and within minutes was transferring them $100 via Cash App, the popular money transfer service. 
Abi is from a low-income background; $100 is a lot of money for her. Sadly, once she had sent it, the Instagram account disappeared and she never heard from the owner again. She reached out to Cash App and a few days later, they responded. 

I'm embarrassed even talking about it. I don't know why I fell for it. I'm so disappointed in myself. I bet this happens all the time but increased social media use and having more time on your hands because of a pandemic definitely doesn't help.

"They apologised that this happened to me but said I couldn’t get it reversed because the money had been transferred from their app to the recipient's bank account," Abi explains. "They’re looking into the recipient's account and have flagged it as a scammer but I’m not getting my money back from them. I’m going to try and dispute it with my bank, I just hope I get it back."
"I’m embarrassed even talking about it," Abi concludes. "I don’t know why I fell for it. I’m so disappointed in myself. I bet this happens all the time but increased social media use and having more time on your hands because of a pandemic definitely doesn’t help. I just wanted something to look forward to," she sighs.
It’s easy to understand how young women fall for coronavirus scammers, even though we might expect them to be a savvier demographic. As a freelancer, I’ve found myself looking for cash ‘quick wins’ more than once. They always result in disappointment. One fateful night, I noticed that the rapper Cupcakke occasionally posts cash giveaways to whoever drops their Cash App or Venmo details on her page. She did this in the run-up to her latest single release and I actually found myself daydreaming about the bills I could pay off. I sent my details, hoping for a message once she noticed me. It never came. 
With legitimate public figures like Cupcakke giving money away in this way, it’s easy to see how illegitimate scams aren’t always treated with the scepticism they deserve. My time on Cupcakke’s feed led me into a spiral of Cash App and Venmo scams on Twitter and Instagram. That’s when I came across thousands of tweets from people claiming to have free cash that they want to give away.
As we enter what is being forecast as the deepest economic slump in living memory, it’s easy to see the appeal of such magical financial thinking. People are losing their jobs, certain freelancers aren’t getting the benefits they need to survive, many workers have been furloughed and families are struggling with homeschooling while working. As we know, young women’s finances are particularly badly affected
Social media philanthropy like Cupcakke's is a fairly widespread phenomenon. Last year the Detroit millionaire Bill Pulte made headlines when he started giving away his inheritance on Twitter. His bio now reads: "Inventor of Twitter Philanthropy. Giving Money, Food, and Rent To People In Need."
However it seems that scammers are targeting people who follow Pulte in the knowledge that they are vulnerable. I spoke to Mary, a sugar baby in her early 30s who doesn’t want to disclose her location. 
"Scammers prey on the posts of Pulte and try to pretend to be him," she explains. "They have targeted me." While we’re talking she WhatsApps me screenshots of people using handles such as 'Team Pulte', who send long messages claiming you have won a 'Pulte sweepstake'.
Pulte’s actual giveaways are seen as random acts of kindness and although many would expect the money to go to charities which organise and implement change, thousands of dollars are sent directly to individuals for college fees, funeral costs and medical bills. This sort of philanthropy is as confusing and difficult to navigate as it is open to exploitation. 
But as growing numbers of young women find themselves jobless, the appeal of other income streams is increasing. Onlyfans, a popular platform for exchanging pornographic material for money, reports that it has seen a 75% increase in sign-ups, with more than 170,000 new users each day since lockdown began. 

One guy in Singapore kept asking me for videos where I wear red and undress slowly. I was happy to do it, and sent him screenshots for proof. He kept saying he was sending the money over Cash App or a bank transfer, but I never received anything.

I spoke to Sarah*, a 29-year-old woman based in London. She has lost all of her work because of coronavirus and was worried about paying her bills so she reached out to some of those "annoying men" in her DMs asking to be her "pay pig", to see if she could sell them photos of herself. "I made some money," she explains, "but it was actually one guy who didn’t want photos, just to help, that meant I could pay bills."
Surprised that this sort of thing actually worked, Sarah kept going. "I was then duped by a couple of men who asked for photos and videos but never sent the money over," she adds.  
"One guy in Singapore kept asking me for videos where I wear red and undress slowly. I was happy to do it, and sent him screenshots for proof. He kept saying he was sending the money over Cash App or a bank transfer, but I never received anything. He told me to just send my video anyway. I refused."
Although she knew there was little chance she was ever going to see the cash, Sarah kept checking her account in case there was a delay in the money transferring from Singapore. "He kept saying money wasn’t an issue, and it made me angry. I was in a horrible place and he didn’t care."
Jo O'Reilly is a digital privacy advocate at ProPrivacy. She says that her organisation is concerned. "Since the very early days of the pandemic, and then the subsequent lockdown, our research has uncovered 125,000+ malicious coronavirus websites. This shows very clearly that cyber-criminals are using the situation to their advantage and are preying on the vulnerable during a global health crisis," she explains. 
"This pandemic has naturally made us all feel less secure. We have also seen people who have tried to protect themselves or their families by buying PPE online finding themselves conned out of cash for products that never arrived, many may have even fallen victim to online ads promising them miracle cures," she adds. 
After my night of refreshing Cupcakke’s Twitter account, I got talking to one potential scammer in my Twitter DMs in the early mornings of my insomnia: "We will be sending you up to $12,000 - $10,000 in order for this to happen we will need to trust you to send us a 10% cut back to us will that be fine."
The way this scam works is that they ask you for a deposit to confirm your identity and say they will then send you the rest of the money – but they don’t. They block you. Your money is gone and so are they. This 'deposit' can be for any amount between $25 and $2,000.
I asked the scammer about this and their response made me wonder if they had even considered pretending to sound like a kindhearted philanthropist or someone with empathy: "Choose your word wisely please everything is legit." A few scrolls through the media section of their Twitter revealed that the woman of colour they were presenting as was actually a white teenage boy. I sent the photos to them, asking "is this you?" and was very quickly blocked.
Most of these accounts use #coronavirus to prey on the vulnerable. Not only are they utilising the hashtag to gain traction, they are occupying space for those seeking information related to the illness. Just like the black squares on Instagram tagged #blacklivesmatter, people are unaware of the power these spaces have for people at risk.
I would never blame someone who gets scammed out of their money, because I get it. I’ve been so desperate for cash that I’ve been close to getting scammed a series of times in my lifetime. But what’s for sure is that the confusion and desperation caused by this pandemic has presented an opportunity for scammers to make hay by exploiting those most in need. 
*Names have been changed to protect interviewees’ identities. 
For the government's advice on how to avoid scams during the coronavirus pandemic, visit their help page.
The World Health Organization says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don't get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.
Refinery29 contacted Cash App, Venmo, Twitter and Instagram for comment. 

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