SEO Scams and How to Avoid Them

As if there wasn’t enough to worry about online, another scam has become increasingly common and a growing concern for financial institutions. SEO scams hijack your search results and take you to websites that look like familiar (especially financial institutions) sites but are not.

A New Type of Fraud Scheme

Charles Schwab & Company recently notified advisors who work with them that they have seen an increase in Google search results pointing to fraudulent websites that mimicked Schwab’s website. The problem is that these are often the top search results, so people using search websites to get to their financial institutions may not realize they’re being misdirected to fraudsters. That’s why these are called “SEO search scams”: the fraudsters are using the same kinds of Search Engine Optimization settings that marketers use to target customers.

In a nutshell, when website designers want people to find their websites, they try to build in things that search engines look for. This helps their websites rise to the top of search results and makes it easier for people to find the products or content they’re trying to deliver. This is Search Engine Optimization.


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What the scammers have started to do is to build their fake websites in such a way that it tricks the search engines into putting their fraudulent websites at or near the top search results. Sometimes it may even be as simple as the fraudster paying search engines to put their fake website first (“sponsored” results). For example, a search for just “Fidelity” could lead to a website link that looks like Fidelity Investments but isn’t their real website.

How to avoid being scammed

There are a few things you can do to limit the possibility of being misdirected like this. The first is before you click on a link, hover your mouse over the link. On a Windows PC, the REAL website address that you’re being directed to will appear in the bottom left corner of your screen. I see this in email SPAM a lot where the link says something like “Docusign” or “BofA” but actually points to something else entirely. I illustrate how this should work in this image.

Instead of starting with the search bar, you can type the web address in your browser’s address bar. If you type “”, you’re much more likely to get the real website than if you only use one or two words.

One thing I’ve done is to save the websites I visit frequently as favorites. That way I know I’m going to the right website every time. Most browsers allow you to create a toolbar with your favorites so that those websites are just a single click for added convenience.

What the fraudsters are looking for is your login credentials so that they can log into your accounts and steal your money. Their fake website will collect your user ID and password, then tell you that there was an error logging in. The fake website will also provide a fake toll-free number to call for help, which will just leave you talking with the fraudster. If you feel like you’ve been tricked like this, or you’re having trouble logging into a website, don’t call the phone number on the website! Find a statement from the financial institution and call the phone number on the statement.

Protecting your investment accounts

You can still prevent access to your accounts even if someone manages to steal your login credentials by setting up two factor authentication. Two factor authentication may be as simple as getting a code by text message or phone call that you have to enter, or more complicated using an authentication app on your cell phone. It’s an extra step to log onto the website, but this extra layer of security is highly recommended in today’s increasingly internet-based economy.

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About Rick Brooks

Rick Brooks, CFA®, CFP® is a partner of Blankinship & Foster LLC and is the firm’s Chief Investment Officer. He is a lead advisor, counseling clients on all aspects of personal financial management. Rick serves on several boards. He is the Chairman of the Board of Girl Scouts San Diego, and also chairs the San Diego Foundation’s Professional Advisor Council. Rick and his family live in Mission Hills. Rick enjoys spending time with his family, theater, cooking, skiing, gaming and reading.

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