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TikTok Sympathy Scams: What They Are and How to Avoid Them

The new way scammers are trying to go after your money.

Illustration by Callie Lin

At some point during your TikTok scroll, you probably have come across a TikTok asking for shares or donations. The story behind it is gut-wrenching, and you feel compelled to at least send a dollar. Anything for a good cause, right? Except for one thing: a tirade of scammers is now preying on the sympathy you feel in order to get something from you. How do you know what is real?

Online Scams Are Nothing New

Everyone knows and hates scams: those suspicious links that pop up in emails or the annoying voicemails from people trying to reach you about your car’s extended warranty. Most of us just delete them and move on.

However, scammers are getting smarter. They are finding new ways to target their victims, exploiting our interests to make us more susceptible to their scams. For example, they have sold fake tickets for our favorite musicians, costing us our money and our hopes.

The latest move by scammers is preying on our feelings through sympathy scams.

What Are Sympathy Scams?

If you spend enough time on TikTok, you probably have encountered one of these scams. They appear in several different ways, including TikTok LIVEs or posts. The account usually centers around a cause, trying to appear as a crowdfunding scheme. There are often links to some sort of money-sending service.

These accounts target the hearts of viewers. Often, their causes center around people at risk of losing their home or the loss of a beloved pet. The posts feature stories of the most horrific cases or pleas for help. To scroll away without even a share or comment can make some feel heartless. Meanwhile, the scams that do go viral contain hundreds of comments with words like “Boosting” or comments calling for others to interact so that they might help garner more attention.

However, a closer look reveals that such accounts are not telling the truth. Below is a deeper dive into the ways sympathy scammers are targeting viewers.

Stock image of scammer sitting at computer across from woman on her own computer.

TikTok LIVE Scams

TikTok LIVE is a feature for accounts with at least a thousand followers. Once someone is live, other people can join and watch. People also gain the ability to send gifts using TikTok currency, which is bought with real money, to the creators. Over time, creators can make earnings based on these gifts, although this does take patience.

While most sympathy scammers don’t rely on TikTok LIVE, a substantial number still use it. These false creators will build up their accounts and then go live. They share heartbreaking tales and ask for help, which can be highly distressing to viewers. After all, stories of people being evicted are incredibly real and happen every day.

TikTok LIVEs can also go on for as long as the scammer chooses, because they have no time limit. Many scam accounts will leave these broadcasts going for longer periods, sometimes up to eight hours, in hopes of accumulating more gifts.

Recently, a scammer was exposed in a rather dramatic fashion. While on TikTok LIVE the creator, Brinton, begged viewrs for money. Then his mother walked into the room. She explained how she just received a call alerting her to what he was doing. Brinton had made claims that he was being threatened with eviction, which was why he supposedly needed money. However, his mother exposed his lies, much to viewers’ shock.

Credit: TikTok/@boostmeup_pd

TikTok Account Scams

Fake accounts are the most popular method for sympathy scammers to go after victims. These accounts are created for the sole purpose of scamming people. The very identity of the account centers around a false cause. Unlike the TikTok LIVE feature, there is no follower count required to post. Anyone can make an account and start posting immediately.

These accounts also seek to bring people in with sympathy. They typically feature a short video that replays quickly, with text that expresses their requests. There could also be two photos in a slideshow, with the first encouraging the viewer to swipe, and the second displaying a sad image and caption.

The accounts will continue to make similar posts, trying to mix up the images so that they do not seem too staged. However, a close look at the photos, especially of animals, reveals inconsistencies.

One account that goes by @mister.cat2 has asked for help saving their cat from cancer. However, the cats vary throughout the posts. Moreover, the slideshow with an all-white cat is a stolen photo from the actual owner’s cat, who posts TikToks on @ivorypicanosa.

Screenshot of an alleged scam account on TikTok.

It can be difficult to accuse an account of being fake. No one wants to be wrong. However, some situations are obvious in what their true motives are. These accounts pose a risk of scamming others out of their money.

How Does This Happen?

Scams are nothing new to most of us. However, scammers are becoming craftier by the day, thriving on apps like TikTok.

Benjamin Burroughs is an associate professor of emerging media at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Dr. Burroughs weighed in on how sympathy scams function on TikTok:

“TikTok and other short-form video platforms are driven by the algorithmic production of content and culture. Scammers understand that TikTok content moves quickly through users’ feeds and is hard to flag and take down. It is a difficult position for content moderation because there are people who genuinely have crises in their lives and use social media platforms to help fund health problems and emergencies.”

Dr. Benjamin Burroughs

As viewers, we curate our own algorithms. Even if we do not recognize it in the moment, each video that we interact with helps build the algorithm behind our For-You pages. When people consistently comment “boost” on TikToks, they are feeding the algorithm. However, this build-up cannot determine what is real and what is not. Most commenters are just trying to do a good deed, but their well-meaning comments might be putting other viewers risk.

“TikTok also enables first-person narration and short, impactful pleas that prey on the emotions of those not expecting scams to exist. Scammers will also impersonate other TikTokers (you also see this on Facebook with fake profiles) and try to exploit the fans and followers without the original TikTok account knowing–it can get very confusing pretty quickly.”

Dr. Benjamin Burroughs

Impersonation has been a problem for many popular TikTokers. Verification is critical in determining the authenticity of a given account.

“Scammers prey on people’s desires to help and connect with other people but also exploit the ease with which you can circumvent platform regulation. If one scam video is taken down-make another. Account is flagged or taken down–make a new one. IP address is blocked–use a VPN and begin anew.”

Dr. Benjamin Burroughs

TikTok does condemn scams across their platform and assures users they will remove scamming content. They ask users to report all potential scams to keep people safe.

If viewers catch on to a scam and report it, the account usually disappears, taking any money they made with them. The best course of action is to not give them any traction and simply report them to TikTok.

How to Avoid Being Scammed

Avoiding scams can seem quite simple. Some people find it as easy as not clicking a link or declining a shady phone call. However, the process can involve much more.

One good way to avoid scams is to verify the account. Does it look suspicious? Are its posts all the same? Is the account pushing money-sending accounts like Cash App or PayPal?

If you are not using an official site, find something that verifies the authenticity of the cause. For example, some accounts that raise donations for animals will provide pictures of their vet bills and break down the total cost.

Dr. Benjamin Burroughs also offered some advice for TikTok users.

“It’s unfortunate, but my advice for viewers on TikTok is to really be cautious about sending money online. With advances in AI technology and voice impersonation, these kinds of scams are only going to become more sophisticated and even harder to track and regulate. It is important that content platforms step up and try to moderate and protect users and viewers of content as well.”

Dr. Benjamin Burroughs

A key component of avoiding scams is simply being aware. If you decide to donate, be careful about where you are sending your money!

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Written By

Hello! I'm Graci. I love writing, reading, listening to a variety of music, and any cute or strange-looking animal. Currently pursuing my BFA in Creative and Professional Writing.

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