Is It Safe To Google Chat With Strangers?
When someone claiming to be Johnny Depp contacted a 72-year-old woman via Google Chat, she knew there was a good chance she was talking to a fraudster. Still, seven months later, she’d sent the “star” the equivalent of thousands of dollars to cover costs ranging from a private visit to a shared home [*].
Google Chat is just one of the many platforms that scammers use to contact their victims — often by pretending to be celebrities, businesses, or even potential love interests.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) [*]:
Nearly 70,000 Americans fell victim to romance scams in 2022 — with 40% taking place over Google Chat and other messaging platforms.
If someone wants to chat with you over Google Chat, you need to be careful. In this guide, we’ll explain how Google Chat scams work, the warning signs to look out for, and what you can do to protect yourself if you’ve communicated with or given sensitive information and money to a scammer.
What Is Google Chat? How Do Google Chat Scams Work?
Google Chat — formerly “Google Hangouts” — is a messaging app that allows users to send files and collaborate on projects. While Google Chat is an effective tool for businesses, it’s also popular with scammers.
Fraudsters often begin their scams on other platforms where it’s easier to attract victims — such as social media or dating sites. But once you engage with them, they’ll quickly ask to move the conversation to Google Chat to prevent their social profiles from being reported and banned.
Here’s how a typical Google Chat scam works:
- First, scammers engage with you online — via dating sites, social media, or other web pages. Fraudsters create fake online profiles to lure their victims with offers of romance, friendship, jobs, or investment opportunities. Some Google Chat scams originate on the platform. For example, scammers may try to get your attention or strike up conversation by sending an "accidental" Google Chat request [*].
- Next, they move the conversation to Google Chat. Scammers try to transition the conversation to Google Chat by claiming it offers more privacy and security. In reality, they’re just trying to protect their other profiles from being reported or banned.
- As they build your trust, they start to ask for money or sensitive information. Once they believe you’re hooked, scammers begin their ploy. This could be a romance scammer asking for money to visit, someone offering “guaranteed” investment advice, or any other type of scam. If you fall for it, you could end up sending a scammer personal information, sensitive photos that can be used for blackmail, or money.
- In some cases, hackers may send links that infect your device with malware. Hackers may also use Google Chat to send attachments that hide malware. If you download the link, it can infect your device with malware or give hackers remote access to your computer.
The bottom line: Fraudsters use messaging platforms such as Google Chat because they provide a layer of anonymity that other platforms don’t. Make sure you know whom you’re dealing with before sending them money, financial information, or sensitive data.
Note: Google Chat is only one of many messaging apps that scammers may use to target you. These scams can just as easily appear on WhatsApp, Telegram, Discord, or via text messages.
How To Know If You’re Chatting With a Scammer
Google works hard to shut down scammers — providing warnings for common scam messages [*]. However, fraudsters are always looking for new ways to avoid these safeguards and trick you into trusting them.
The good news is that there are common warning signs that will help you distinguish between a real person and a scammer.
Here are nine red flags indicating that you’re dealing with a Google Chat scammer:
- You receive an “accidental” message. To bypass Google Chat’s security measures, scammers send legitimate-looking yet nonsensical messages. For example, they’ll ask if you’re still meeting up this afternoon at 2 p.m. But if you respond to tell them they have the wrong person, they’ll try to build a relationship with you.
- They ask for financial help or gifts. The most obvious sign that you’re talking to a scammer is if you’re asked for money, gifts, or financial information. Fraudsters often provide an emotional backstory for why they need help — such as to pay for surgery or help their children.
- They’re never able to video or voice chat. While scammers use Google Chat or Hangouts apps, they rarely use video chat or video call platforms (such as Skype). This allows them to hide their identity more easily and keep up the con for a longer period of time. Fraudsters almost always have excuses for why they can't talk or cancel calls at the last minute.
- They create a sense of urgency. Scammers try to move things along quickly. They often use emergencies as the reason for needing money or as an excuse for why they can't meet you either in person or via video chat. They may also add time limits to decisions in order to limit your research and reasoning.
- They ask a lot of personal questions without saying much about themselves. If someone keeps asking you peculiar personal questions, such as where you grew up or your pet's name, they may be trying to deduce your passwords or security question answers.
- They appeal to your emotions. Scammers use your emotions against you. For example, in dating scams, fraudsters often profess their love early on to try to build an emotional bond that will make you look past the obvious warning signs of a scam.
- You’re promised something amazing (such as a job). Many scams include an offer that seems too good to pass up — for example, a high-paying job with simple duties or an investment opportunity with “guaranteed” returns.
- They're always busy. These scammers always have something on the go. This helps them avoid calls or video chats and also gives them control over the communication schedule.
- Their online profiles are “too perfect.” Scammers use stolen photos to impersonate attractive people and get your attention. These “catfishing” schemes often involve fake social media accounts or dating profiles. If someone seems too attractive or their interests align perfectly with yours, it could be a sign that you’re being catfished.
The 6 Most Common Google Chat Scams in 2023
- Romance scams
- Crypto or other investment scams (i.e. “Pig Butchering”)
- Fake job interview scams
- Sextortion and other blackmail scams
- Bogus giveaway scams
- Other social engineering scams
Google Chat scams look just like Google Hangouts scams and other messaging app scams.
Fraudsters may use any number of tactics to get what they want, but most schemes follow one of these typical patterns:
1. Romance scams
Romance scams have become one of the greatest dangers of online dating.
Scammers use fake profiles to attract their victims on dating apps or social media sites and then quickly try to build a relationship through “love bombing” (quickly professing their love or sending intimate photos).
Once they have your trust, the scammers try to move your conversation to Google Chat in case their social media or dating site profiles get reported and banned. Eventually, they request gifts, money, or personal information that they can use for identity theft or online extortion.
How to recognize and avoid romance scams over Google Chat:
- Maintain conversations on dating sites or apps until you’re ready to meet up. Dating sites have systems in place to protect you against scammers — such as options to report conversations or block known scam phrases and links. Once you leave the site or app, you forfeit any protection that you might otherwise have.
- If a profile seems too good to be true, do your research. Romance scammers create desirable profiles featuring attractive pictures, reputable professions, and exciting lifestyles. Before getting too involved, Google the person’s name, look up their employer, and reverse-image-search their profile pictures to see if the profile includes stolen information [*].
2. Crypto or other investment scams (i.e. “Pig Butchering”)
In cryptocurrency and investment scams, fraudsters use the promise of “guaranteed” returns to get you to invest in fake financial products.
These scams can start with a romantic relationship or even an “accidental” message meant for someone else. Once scammers think they have your trust and attention, they’ll start talking about how much money they’re making in investments and offer you “special access.”
These are often called “pig butchering” scams, as fraudsters “fatten up” victims by giving them small payouts before convincing them to invest more — and then disappearing with it all.
How to recognize and avoid pig butchering scams over Google Chat:
- Don't invest in anything that you don't fully understand. There’s no such thing as a “guaranteed” investment. If someone promises you’ll make money or if you don’t understand the investment, you’re better off avoiding it.
- Never download an app or visit an investment platform without researching it. Scammers may bring you to a platform they control or have you download an app that includes malware. Research all investment sites ahead of time by using third-party review sites (or forums like Reddit) to see if they’re legitimate. You should also consider protecting your devices with antivirus software.
💡 Related: The 22 Latest Investment Scams To Watch Out For →
3. Fake job interview scams
These scams start with a job offer, either out of the blue or posted on legitimate sites like LinkedIn or Indeed. Scammers find your information and reach out with a dream job offer, either from a desirable employer or involving a high-paying position that requires little work.
Scammers then propose a short Google Chat interview and follow up with a job offer or application that asks for sensitive and financial information. Some scammers may even provide you with a check to cover costs for equipment and training, but that check will bounce and the money you spent will be gone.
How to recognize and avoid job interview scams over Google Chat:
- Research employers and recruiters online. Look up employers and recruiters via LinkedIn, the Better Business Bureau (BBB), and third-party review sites. If companies look legitimate, try contacting them via information listed on their official websites, not via any contact details provided by interviewers.
- Never pay for a work opportunity. Many job scams ask new hires to pay for training, equipment, or other things. If your new boss asks you to pay for anything, you should immediately begin to question their motives. If they send you a check, be wary of a fake check scam and take precautions.
💡 Related: How To Identify Job Scams: 20+ Warning Signs →
4. Sextortion and other blackmail scams
Sextortion and blackmail take place when hackers or scammers get access to private or sensitive information or material. You may have sent private pictures or details to a Google Chat scammer, or a hacker may have gained control of your webcam.
Equipped with potentially damaging or embarrassing material, these scammers ask for money, information, or more private items. If you refuse, they threaten to leak what they have.
How to recognize and avoid sextortion scams over Google Chat:
- Use a nickname or a pseudonym. Avoid using your real name on dating sites. You can also set up a second Google Chat account that doesn't use your personal or work email address. This will make it harder for scammers to identify you.
- Cover your webcam when not in use. Covering your webcam ensures that hackers can't see you even if they have remote access to your device. This added security step can also help you call a scammer's bluff if they claim to have private videos from your webcam.
5. Bogus giveaway scams
In this scam, victims receive a Google Chat message claiming that they have won a prize, such as money, a car, or free services like Netflix or Amazon Prime. Scammers often pose as government representatives or use official-sounding organization names, such as the National Sweepstakes Bureau [*].
If you engage with the message, fraudsters either ask for your personal or financial information or claim that you need to pay taxes and fees to release your “prize.”
How to recognize and avoid giveaway scams over Google Chat:
- Don’t believe you won a contest that you never entered. While the allure of a prize can be blinding, you should ignore claims that you’ve won contests that you haven’t officially entered. The most convincing scams include messages purporting to be from places you know — such as your car dealership, local lottery, or Publisher’s Clearing House. If in doubt, contact the alleged source directly.
- Never pay for a prize. These scams typically require payment of some sort, such as tax payments, processing fees, or money to increase your odds of winning. If any communication about a contest asks for money, it's almost always a scam.
💡 Related: The 10 Biggest Instagram Scams Happening Right Now →
6. Other social engineering scams
Nearly every other Google Chat scam falls under the category of social engineering — meaning they’re designed to “hack” you by impersonating someone you know.
Scammers may pose as a coworker or new employee on Google Chat to pry information from you. They may spoof work emails and send you phishing messages or use deceitful pretext to gain your trust, such as pretending to be a system administrator.
How to recognize and avoid social engineering scams over Google Chat:
- Verify the identity of anyone you haven't met in person. Social engineering scams prey on people who rush decisions. Before sending money or information, research the person contacting you. No reputable organization asks for private information on Google Chat.
- Don't click on any links. On desktop devices, hover over any link to see where it’s taking you. Safe Browsing tools can also warn you if you’re being taken to a fake website or inadvertently downloading malware.
Did You Fall for a Google Chat Scam Message? Do This!
- Get past the self-blame. Don’t blame yourself if you fall victim to a scam, as cybercriminals can be highly intelligent and manipulative. Instead, act quickly to minimize the damage.
- Cut off contact. While it's important to stop talking with the scammer, don't let the person know you're on to them until you collect evidence of the crime — such as screenshots of conversations and information about the scammer’s account.
- Block and report the scammer. You should block and report the scammer on all platforms, including Google Chat, Gmail.com, and any apps or sites on which the scam originated.
- Check and secure your accounts. If you think you might have given up your login information, update your passwords with stronger and more unique options. Start with your Google accounts and then move on to other high-value accounts (banking, social media, etc.).
- Scan your device for malware. If you clicked on any links or logged in to a strange site or app, use an antivirus software to scan your devices for malware or harmful programs. You might also disconnect devices from your Wi-Fi.
- Monitor your accounts. Look through your online, credit card, and bank accounts for signs of theft or fraud. If applicable, you should also inform your friends and family that you may have been hacked.
- Freeze your credit (if applicable). If you notice something suspicious, or fear your banking information was exposed, you should freeze your credit with all three credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
- File an official report with the FTC. You can file an official identity theft report with the FTC at IdentityTheft.gov. An FTC report is essential for disputing fraudulent charges and closing accounts. You may also want to file a fraud report with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) or contact your local law enforcement.
How To Protect Yourself Against Google Chat Scams
While Google Chat is relatively new, the scams and tactics used on them are not. They follow the same recipe as Telegram scams, WhatsApp scams, Discord scams, and attacks on all social media platforms.
To stay safe and avoid Google Chat scams, make sure you’re following best practices for cyber hygiene, including:
- Use secure and unique passwords, and store them in a secure password manager.
- Enable two-factor authentication (2FA) on all of your accounts.
- Don’t engage with anyone who contacts you out of the blue.
- Do your due diligence about people you meet online — ask plenty of questions and Google their names and profile photos.
- Never share passwords or sensitive information — including your phone number — with people you meet online.
- Be cautious if anyone refuses or is unable to use video chat services.
- Never send money or gift cards to people you don’t know.
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