It’s the 60s. You’re sitting in a red-walled, smoke-filled boozer, when you hear a conversation that pricks your ears up. The details sound legally dubious, but they flash a watch that looks too nice for the spot you’re in. You decide to learn more.
This is not a new story, but with the introduction of cash-flaunting social media clips, there is a new chapter. It’s called ScamTok.
If you’re yet to visit TikTok’s grift-centred universe, finding it isn’t difficult. Hashtags include: #fraud, #cashout, #scamming, #scammers, #scamtutorial, #scamtock. You get the idea.
Fire the terms into the search bar and you’ll land on clips directing viewers toward scamming methods. Think: frosted glass blurring over juicy deets (the bank balance, codes and credit card numbers), then a plug for a Snapchat or Telegram account to contact, away from the app.
Generally published by accounts with a handful of posts and followers, ScamTok clips cover a range of outcomes. Want to get a COVID pass added to your NHS app? A video soundtracked by UK drill act Central Cee offers to do it in return for £350. Would you like easy money? Another clip, plastered with the text “Welcome to scam tok” advises users to hit the poster up directly.
Of course, online scamming has existed forever, from Reddit’s r/IllegalLifeProTips to YouTube accounts like Hackerz Home. What’s different with TikTok is the scale in which the videos can proliferate, with their cute-looking aesthetics often popping up near other “regular” content.
Chris Stokel-Walker, journalist and author of TikTok Boom, tells VICE that social media platforms have grown too big and “as that’s happened, the platform’s content moderation arms haven't kept up the pace of growth”. That’s why these videos can be so blatant, with their searchable #scam #ready #hashtags on full-display.
A TikTok spokesperson told VICE: “The safety and wellbeing of our community is a top priority. Our Community Guidelines make clear that we do not allow content that promotes or enables criminal activities. Through a combination of technology and human moderation, we remove content that breaches these guidelines. Following an investigation, we banned several accounts for breaking our rules."
But as far as online scamming is concerned, TikTok is merely the world’s viral shopping window – a gateway to where the real business happens.
Usually, cash-hungry users go from TikTok through to Telegram or Snapchat, where they go back-and-forth about buying a scam bible. Rates seen by VICE are $50 for US bibles, with UK bibles clocking in between £40-50.
A US scam bible. Image: VICE
The bibles seen by VICE have dozens of pages packed with info to help budding scammers rake in cash. Think: methods for splashing on someone’s credit card without getting caught, guides to getting “fullz” (aka, someone’s financial info) and instructions on how to get refunds – but keep shiny-new product – from online stores like Amazon, ASOS and JD Sports.
The appeal to TikTok’s younger audience is clear. People want to get home from school or college and use their digital abilities to load up on money without going the usual route of standing on a shop floor for hours, or having to walk home late at night with hair and skin riddled with grease from working at a chippy.
Instead, users can simply sit behind their laptop and run through these guides.
When VICE asked anonymous scammers about their preferred schemes, one person replied: “The refund guides and Depop methods are great for beginners, as they can allow you to get free items – and sell them to make profits.”
Another said: “Depop – it’s easily the most profitable at the moment and comes with two methods.”
They don’t always use their own methods – one told VICE they make more money selling bibles than they do from scamming. However another seller told VICE they make “good money” and were able to “quit a delivery job”.
When TikTok put £13m into educational content on the platform, it probably wasn't intending to become a go-to-hub for young people looking to scam free takeaway pizza or gift card coupons. But it seems that some of its incredibly computer literate audience desperately need or want cash, making them perfectly primed for this incredibly modern method of money-making.
“TikTok really carefully promotes this idea of TikTok as an educational platform,” Stokel-Walker says. “And in some ways, this is education – just probably not the education they really want.”
After VICE contacted TikTok, they removed all videos associated with the #ScamTok hashtag. But given the cat-and-mouse nature of the internet, it’s unlikely #ScamTok will disappear anytime soon. In some cases, it’s a simple hashtag change. For others, they already have a bible in their hand.