By Doriel Abrahams, Head of U.S. Analytics
Did you take up a new hobby during the pandemic? I finally picked up the guitar that had been lying there since high school. Many new hobbies have become cherished parts of people’s routines, adding extra richness and variety to life. Unfortunately, there was a group that chose to take up fraud as a diversion during the pandemic — and for many of them, it’s become part of their post-pandemic lives, as well.
In the U.S., government programs designed to provide stability and support for businesses during the pandemic were set up with speed rather than security, making them extremely attractive for fraud.
One estimate suggests that PPP fraud (money stolen by leveraging the Paycheck Protection Program) came to about $80 billion. Added to that, there was about $90 billion believed to have been stolen from the Covid unemployment relief program, and perhaps an additional $80 billion from a separate Covid disaster relief program. It’s easy to see why NBC News refers to this as the “biggest fraud in a generation.”
When Good Buyers Go Bad
The biggest fraud in a generation was perpetrated, in part, by professional fraudsters, as you would expect. These are the same bad actors I’ve seen for years through my work as a fraud analyst. The structure of the relief programs was an invitation fraudsters couldn’t turn down.
With pre-pandemic habits returning to some semblance of normalcy, fraudsters are now back to their regular fraudulent work — in some cases, having even invested in and expanded their operations using stolen funds.
However, a lot of the money was taken by ordinary people — the type of people I would have labeled “good customers.” During the pandemic, these amateur fraudsters were introduced to just how easy and tempting it could be to steal money online. Many people were experiencing economic uncertainty and stress, and defrauding the relief schemes was often as easy as filling in a form online, perhaps with a few faked documents to add perceived credibility.
The post-pandemic world also includes financial uncertainty for many people, and the ubiquity of online interactions hasn’t lessened. In addition, many who entered fraud through the Covid relief door experienced no adverse consequences. It was almost inevitable that many of them would continue. And, especially in the U.S. specifically, many of them have.
That said, while we did see that trend coming, we didn’t foresee a 35% increase in fraud committed by “non-professional” fraudsters from 2021 to 2022. And with that large of an increase in amateur fraud, it’s worth understanding more about the trend and what it might mean for digital commerce.
What Are Amateur Fraudsters Trying to Steal?
Amateur fraudsters who made the news due to their pandemic relief pilfering stole items like Teslas, Lamborghinis, diamonds, gold coins, luxury watches, expensive furniture, and designer clothing.
That makes for a good story, but it doesn’t make for good theft; those sorts of purchases make you very visible as a potential thief. The amateurs you want to worry about are the ones who didn’t get caught and didn’t make an “amateur mistake.” They’re the ones who are targeting online stores now.
These amateur fraudsters’ conservative behavior has continued; they often aim for valuable items. That makes them potentially painful because if they get through your protections, the cost of those items increases quickly.
We’re seeing two main types of amateur fraudsters: the “upgrade my lifestyle” kind, which steals things they obviously want for themselves, and the “making money on the side” kind, who are in it for profit. There’s some overlap between these two types, but most fall more obviously into one category.
“Upgrade My Lifestyle” Fraudsters
This kind of fraudster goes after things you might want yourself or be able to imagine friends or family members wanting, such as:
- New electronic gadgets
- Food delivery, especially for pricier takeout or groceries
- Expensive jewelry, like watches
- Name brand apparel and toys
“Money on the Side” Fraudsters
This kind of fraudster is a little more professional because, like professional fraudsters, they target goods they know they can sell. Where professional fraudsters know resale markets well and often specialize in relatively niche but lucrative goods, amateurs go for things that it’s clear a lot of people want, and that can be resold in many places, such as:
- Cell phones
- Hot fashion items
- Earbud headphones
- Trendy sneakers
The Amateur Approach to Online Theft
It’s important to emphasize that this isn’t friendly fraud. These amateur fraudsters aren’t buying and issuing a chargeback; they use stolen credit card numbers or other payment methods. This indicates that they’ve gone a little further down the dark path than during the Covid relief days; they’ve done some research and found places to purchase stolen payment data.
Having said that, they’re still amateurs. They may try simple tricks like creating new email addresses, perhaps even trying to match the name on the stolen card, but they’ll still be using their own address. They also may use a proxy or VPN. But more often than not, they simply visit a site using the same device they’ve been using for years and attempt fraud immediately, using a different card.
Interestingly, this amateurish behavior can sometimes make them difficult to spot. The fact that they’re not attempting to hide makes it more challenging to determine whether or not they’re attempting fraud or acting in an unusual but legitimate way.
Complicating the Picture
Complicating things further, amateur fraudsters don’t usually drop their “good customer” persona when they start engaging in fraud. They continue buying things online, using their legitimate information and payment data, and sometimes, they dip into fraud on the side.
The ratio of good shopping to fraudulent attempts varies tremendously from person to person. Some amateur fraudsters are almost always good customers but turn to fraud on rare occasions when they want something more than they can afford or during expensive times like the holiday season. Their fraud attempts might be less than 5% of all their online shopping sessions.
Others have embraced fraud as a part of their approach to online shopping, and as much as 60% of their online shopping sessions might be fraudulent.
This presents online merchants with a dilemma: How do you decide whether to let this particular person, known as an occasional fraudster, make this purchase?
As an analyst, this is the kind of challenge I love. I’m fortunate to be at a company with highly sophisticated machine-learning technology and an extensive digital commerce network. Looking across the network over the last year, it’s possible to see who has crossed over to the dark side and to what extent.
If you have thoughts about this or other methods you use to decide which transactions to approve and which to decline when it comes to the rising tide of amateur fraudsters, I’d love to discuss it with you! Let’s connect on LinkedIn.
In the meantime, we’ll keep an eye on these fraudsters. Some of them are bound to get more professional about their approach, and we’ll be watching them as they evolve.
Forter is the Trust Platform for digital commerce. We make accurate, instant assessments of trustworthiness across every step of the buying journey. Our ability to isolate fraud and protect consumers is why Nordstrom, Sephora, Instacart, Adobe, Priceline, and other leaders across industries have trusted us to process more than $500 billion in transactions. Click here to learn more.