WhatsApp has a reputation for being one of the most secure online messaging apps, although its ownership by Facebook means some take this with a pinch of salt.
But sadly, alongside a great many user-friendly features, much like its parent company, WhatsApp is also riddled with scams and fraudsters looking to make a quick buck from unsuspecting WhatsApp users.
Fraud on WhatsApp is on the rise and neither the platform nor law enforcement agencies seem to be able to do much about it, which is not great for your online safety.
With more than 2 billion WhatsApp users worldwide, there are plenty of opportunities there for fraudsters, so what can you do to avoid becoming their next victim?
In this guide, we will tell you everything you need to know about WhatsApp fraud and how you can avoid WhatsApp scams.
The most common WhatsApp scams
Before we provide some top tips on avoiding scams on WhatsApp, it is worth looking at some of the most common tricks you might encounter on the platform.
This will give you some idea of the sort of thing to be on the lookout for:
1. Unexpected Six Digit Code
WhatsApp uses six digit codes when you are setting up a new account or logging into your account from a new device for the first time.
It is a form of two-factor authentication. Two-step verification is a good way to prevent people from breaking into your account. In fact, you should use two-step verification on all accounts and apps that offer it, not just WhatsApp.
But if the app sends you a six-digit code without requesting one, it could well be a WhatsApp scam or indicate that a fraudster is trying to log into your account.
Be careful not to inadvertently send a log-in code for your account to a fraudster.
2. Friends and Family scam
If you get a message from an unknown number purporting to be a family member or a friend, always presume it is a scammer.
This is a common trick and usually the message will quickly get around to requesting money.
There will typically be a sense of urgency, such as an emergency situation that they have to resolve now by asking for money. Only, your friend doesn't know anything about it.
Sometimes the hacker may have hacked your friend or family members real account. If this is the case and the message comes from a genuine source but appears out of character, check with them through other means before acting.
You might just discover that it is a case of identity theft.
Avoid sending money under any circumstances. This is a popular WhatsApp scam and the only person you will be financing is a scammer.
3. WhatsApp Gold
WhatsApp Gold is a special version of WhatsApp which includes hidden features and is only available for celebrities and the uber-rich.
Except it isn't. It is a scam that crops up every few years. There is no such thing as WhatsApp Gold.
Instead, fraudsters will invite you to download a fake new app or visit a site that is packed with malware. Some versions have locked users out of their device and worse.
When WhatsApp releases new features, which it does on a pretty regular basis, it makes a big song and dance of them on official channels. If you are offered a new service and haven't seen mention of it elsewhere, it is likely to be a fake.
4. Supermarket voucher scam
Another common scam involves distributing what appears to be coupons for popular supermarkets or other retail outlets.
You will be told this is a special offer and invited to click on links to download your vouchers which might be worth hundreds of dollars or pounds.
Except they aren't real, and the link likely leads to a malicious site.
This is a scam too and when you click on the links, all your will be downloading is a world of trouble. It is safer to delete them or report them.
5. The Voicemail Fraud
This is a classic example of a more integrated WhatsApp fraud to enable a fraudster to hijack your WhatsApp account.
When a WhatsApp verification code is sent to your phone number, a scammer will indicate that they haven't received it. WhatsApp will then offer to send it via text message or an automated call.
The scammer requests the call but then rings you themselves at the same time to force the code onto your phone voicemail.
Because many voicemail boxes are unprotected or use a default passcode, it is then easy for them to access to your voicemail, get the code, and then gain access to your WhatsApp account.
This is just one popular example of many similar phone scams in which fraudsters try to steal your account.
How to spot a WhatsApp scam?
There are literally hundreds of different WhatsApp scams around, most trying to access your account or bank details.
According to HSBC, Hong Kong police have received more than 600 reports of WhatsApp fraud since 2017. However, there are some characteristics that many of these scams share that you can be on the lookout for.
These include things like:
1. In a hurry
Typically, if a scam is going to work, it needs the victims to respond quickly. The more time the victims have to think about things, the less likely they are to do what they want but instead see through the trick.
So fraudsters will create artificial scenarios which create a sense of urgency. They will pose as your contact and try to justify them needing the victims to send them money or details fast.
If you get messages asking for you to transfer money or sensitive information fast, assume the worst, especially if it is from an unknown phone number. Don't send anything.
Instead, check with the person the message claims to be from first, using another means of communication.
2. Payment requests to unknown accounts
If you get a phone SMS asking for you to transfer funds to an unknown account, this is one of the biggest red flags.
It is a common scam and the money will quickly be moved on by scammers, often via a number of different accounts, making it untraceable and ensuring it is gone for good.
Another common request is to send money via a service such as PayPal, Facebook Messenger Payments, Google Pay, Apple Pay Cash or apps such as Cash App or Venmo.
These should also raise alarm bells for you, especially if the method of payment is unusual for you.
It is pretty easy to fake these contact accounts, so double-check with the person you are sending money to first and if you have any doubt, don't transfer funds.
3. Messages from an unknown number
If you start to get SMS from a number you don't have in your contacts, be cautious immediately.
Even if the messages claim to be from friends and they get the contacts' name and other details right, if the number is unknown, it could easily be a scammer.
You might get excuses such as “I changed my number”, but unless you can verify that this is true via another means, assume that these messages are scams.
4. Poor spelling or grammar
A lot of WhatsApp scams originate overseas and the perpetrators are not native English speakers. This can often mean that scam phone messages are littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes.
Even if you are not a word-perfect linguist yourself, you should be able to spot a scam message that has spelling or grammar mistakes that you would not expect a native speaker to make, especially if it is purporting to be from someone you know.
Check spelling and grammar carefully and if it is full of errors, assume the worst.
5. Refuses a call
WhatsApp allows users to make voice calls and a simple way of verifying that a message is from the real contacts is to call them to hear their voice.
If the messenger refuses to do this, even if they have the best excuse in the world, this should be a red flag and a telltale sign of a scam.
How to avoid scams on WhatsApp
There are a number of simple steps you can take to stay safe on WhatsApp, such as the ones we have outlined below.
Here is a rundown of simple guidance for you to follow to stay safe from scams:
1. Verify anonymous messages
If you get a message from an anonymous number, double check that it is from who it claims before undertaking any of the actions it is asking of you.
If it is a new number, call the old number or contact them through another means that you can be confident of.
2. Call the number
If you doubt whether a message is legitimate or a scam, call the number. If it is the family member or friend as the message claims, there is no reason for them not to answer.
If the number comes up with elaborate reasons why you can't speak to them, assume the worst.
3. Don't succumb to pressure
A common trick of WhatsApp scams is to try and rush you into doing something. Don't be hurried, no matter how urgent the requests seem. Take your time and make sure you are happy with what's happening.
Even urgent debts don't usually need to be settled instantly. A few hours shouldn't make any difference if this type of WhatsApp message is genuine.
4. Don't share private or personal information
This is a good rule for all social media but applies just as much to WhatsApp.
Never share personal information on WhatsApp that you wouldn't want the whole world to know.
This is especially true if you are speaking to an anonymous person, but allies to everyone. When it comes to your bank details, you should not share them online under any circumstances.
5. Never share verification codes
There are no circumstances where you need to share a verification code with anyone. No one needs access to your account but you.
If some else needs a verification code, a six-digit pin, they can get it from WhatsApp directly. If they are asking for it from you, it is highly likely to be a scam.
6. Avoid links and pics
Don't click on links or tap save on images or files received from other WhatsApp users unless you are 100% certain who the link has come from and what it contains.
A malicious link is a common way to compromise your own account and even your device. Don't make life easy for the fraudsters.
7. Set up Two-Factor Verification
Always ensure that you have two-factor verification enabled in the settings of your WhatsApp account.
This is not a new form of protection, but a lot of people ignore it so they wouldn't have to bother with the code every time.
But, it helps to keep your account secure from hackers and ensures that if anyone does attempt to compromise your account, you have a good chance of stopping them.
8. Keep your voicemail secure
The voicemail scam outlined above is a common one. To avoid it, make sure that your voicemail is secured with a random code that cannot be easily guessed.
9. Always keep WhatsApp up to date
WhatsApp does include some security features in its settings, and ensuring the app is updated with the latest version means you should always have the best protection possible.
WhatsApp scams are increasingly common but it is not that difficult to give yourself the best possible chance of staying safe.
This article is packed with helpful advice but the key things are to make sure of the security tools provided by WhatsApp, take your time and don't act rashly, and be sceptical of anonymous accounts and usual requests.
Much of the advice in this guide boils down to a simple rule. Use your common sense and don't be sucked in by the WhatsApp scammers out there.