Impostor Scams: Who’s Really Contacting You?

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Rebecca Harpster
Golden Gate Better Business Bureau

It’s easy to pretend to be someone that you’re not on the Internet or over the phone, and it can be difficult to tell who’s real and who’s faking it. Scammers depend on this confusion to trick unwitting consumers in to giving away their money or personal information.

According to the 2017 Better Business Bureau (BBB) Scam Tracker Annual Risk Report, “‘impersonation’ is a very common tactic used by scammers. It’s where the scammer pretends to be a legitimate business that is well known and trusted by the consumer… While all scammers pretend to be some sort of legitimate operation by definition, this particular tactic is where the scammer pretends to be a known, trusted entity.”

Here are the most common legitimate organizations that were used for impersonation in 2017, according to BBB’s Risk Report:

  • The government. The IRS was the #1 most impersonated organization of 2017. Although the number of tax collection scams reported to BBB Scam Tracker decreased more than 60% from 2016 to 2017, they were still the third most reported scam in 2017 with more than 3,000 reports. The U.S. Government in general was the #2 most impersonated organization. Scammers often claim you’re eligible for a free government grant and just need to pay upfront taxes to claim it. They may also pretend to be connected to Medicare and ask for personal information. Government grant scams were the #10 riskiest scam to consumers in 2017, according to the BBB Risk Index. Learn more at and
  • Better Business Bureau. That’s right, BBB was the #3 most impersonated organization! Many of these scams target small businesses. Scammers call to collect unpaid “dues” or email dangerous links or attachments that they claim are related to “complaints”. According to a March 2018 BBB press release on this subject, “while a BBB office may contact a business for a variety of reasons, you should never give personal or financial information over the phone during an unsolicited call from someone you do not know… End the call and call back through the number in your records or the number on the organization’s website.”
  • Publisher’s Clearing House. The #4 most impersonated organization is known to give away a lot of money. Scammers take advantage of this, and claim that you’ve won millions of dollars. Similar to a government grant scam, you just need to pay an upfront fee to receive your winnings. Sweepstakes/lottery/prize scams were the fourth most reported scam to BBB Scam Tracker in 2017. Learn more at
  • Computer companies. In 2017 the #5 most impersonated legitimate organization was Microsoft and #6 was Apple. According to a BBB study released in December 2017, tech support scammers will buy sponsored links on search engine results pages, cold call and email consumers, and cause alerts to pop-up on computer screens. The end-game is the same: the scammer claims that they can help you with a serious computer problem for a price. You’ll be asked to pay money and provide remote access to your computer. Learn more about the #7 most risky scam to consumers (according to the BBB Risk Index) at
  • Travel brands. The next most impersonated organizations in 2017 were Marriott (#7) and TripAdvisor (#8). Scammers call consumers and pretend to be well-known travel organizations. They offer “deals” on trips, claim you’ve won free vacations, and solicit your personal and financial information. According to BBB’s Risk Report, the travel/vacation scam was the #8 riskiest and #4 most reported scam in 2017. More information can be found at
  • Social media companies and banks. A scammer emails you claiming that there’s an issue with your online social media or banking account and prompts you to click on a link to fix it. This link will bring you to a look-a-like phishing sign-in page. If you enter your log-in information the scammer will also have access to your online account. The names of many of the organizations that comprise the remainder of the top 15 list are used in this way: Facebook (#10), Bank of America (#12), PayPal (#13), and Capital One (#14). Phishing scams were the #1 most reported scam to BBB Scam Tracker in 2017 – learn how to recognize and avoid them at

You can check out the full list of the most impersonated legitimate organizations at Make sure to report all scams to BBB Scam Tracker at

You can reach your BBB at or (510) 844-2000, or by visiting