How To Recognize A Scam

Unfortunately it’s relatively easy to fall for a scam under certain circumstances, and it’s even easier to feel stupid if it happens. Just the other day I tried to use an internet coupon that had been given to me, and I felt really stupid when the store told me it was a fake. Afterward my thoughts ran like this: Why would it be a fake? Who benefits from that? Was the store just trying to get me to come in with the coupon and then claim that it’s a fake? I’m so embarrassed, they probably thought I was trying to cheat them…

Most good scams have certain hallmarks:

• They are unsolicited. (Letters, phone calls, emails, strangers at the door, and even friends passing along deals they’ve heard about.) Often in broken or rambling English from someone in a distant place, but sometimes slick and polished.

• They seem plausible and urgent. Maybe that guy really could fix my car — he looks like he knows what he’s doing. But he’s only available right. now. I better hurry up and decide… Or this one: $20,000 in Unemployment Grants. Millions Available. Never Repay! You’ve HEARD of grants, and you just can’t find a job. Hmmm…

• They engage your emotions. They make you feel smart at first because you think you’ll be getting a good deal, avoiding something negative, or helping out a nice person. In other words, they appeal to a sense of greed (which no one wants to admit having), fear (which everyone wants to avoid), or care & concern for others (which causes us to feel good about ourselves.)

• They tempt you. They seem like the solution to a problem or the promise of something better. (Your house painted at a discount, right now, or your savings increased after just a few simple steps.) You’ll likely feel some doubt when you encounter a scam, but you overrule your doubt because you convince yourself otherwise. You WANT it to be true, which makes the scammer’s job easier.

• They want money. They require cold hard cash from you, a cashier’s check, a money order, or access to your bank account. Scammers are not stupid. They want money up front, because they have no intention of doing whatever it was they said they would do. They will also often offer to send YOU money, in exchange for you sending a portion of it back. (See cashier’s check fraud.)

• They don’t take no for an answer. If your first instinct is to refuse, they’ll often come up with a better offer. And then a better one, and a better one, until you begin to think it’s worth a shot. It’s not.

• They offer “proof” of various sorts, or a “guarantee”. Of course, this proof is manufactured using accomplices or unsuspecting targets, and any guarantee is worthless. For example, it would be easy for me to SAY that you’ll get $5 for passing along this post to five others, and equally easy for me to offer proof that you will actually receive the $5 by giving $5 to one person after they passed along the post and then giving you the name of that person to check. But that sort of manufactured proof is worthless and no proof at all. Or they will do a very small part of the job to your satisfaction as proof of their abilities, and then explain that the rest will “take longer” but that they need the money now for whatever plausible-sounding reason.

• They target the elderly, uninformed, or desperate. And since no one wants to think of themselves as elderly, uninformed, or desperate, we’re easy marks. We’re all going to get old someday, if we aren’t already. No one knows everything about everything, which means there are at least some areas that we’re all uninformed in. And who hasn’t felt desperate at least once in their life? But admitting all that? That’s a different story.

• They sound too good to be true, but you really want it to be true. You know the saying, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is? Change that to “if it sounds too good to be true, it IS” and you’ll likely avoid most scams. It’s the “probably” that trips many people up.

If you think something may be a scam, you can check sites like, the FBI, and with your local government or police. REAL offers won’t disappear after a little fact-checking, so you have nothing to lose by taking the time to investigate with the authorities, and everything to gain. You can avoid most scams entirely by simply saying no to all unsolicited offers.

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