Scams have been around for generations. Stealing other people's money has always been their goal. To do that, scams are continually evolving and scammers constantly come up with new ways to "deceive and thieve." Even though each new variety of scam brings results in widely publicized warnings and descriptions, why do people still fall for them? Scammers are master manipulators and know how to use several basic strategies to trigger your emotions and trick you into a quick action. No matter the scam, knowing these basic strategies can help you do a better job of recognizing any scam, whether it arrives by email, text, phone, snail mail or in person.

No matter the scam, knowing these basic strategies can help you do a better job of recognizing any scam, whether it arrives by email, text, phone, snail mail or in person.
  • Credibility. Scammers want you to believe that they are legitimate. They use many ways to quickly convince you of that "fact" so that you won't check them out. Depending on the type of scam they are running, they may pose as a representative of a real business, charity, organization, the IRS or other government entity. The name of their business may be similar to a real business. If they contact you by phone, they will spoof the Caller ID. In person, they may hand you a fake business card or present other believable "credentials." Online, their website name may be similar to a legitimate site or it may look like one.

  • Trust. Scammers want you to trust them. So they are usually courteous, pleasant and friendly. For instance, they may try to get to know you by asking general questions about you, your family and your interests. They may also have found out information about you from social media. They then use that information to scam you. Some may belong to a group to which you belong and take advantage of the natural inclination to believe people we know.

  • Emotions. Scammers play on your emotions. Various scams take advantage of various emotions that tend to make us want to respond quickly. Here are four ever popular scams designed to trigger emotional responses.

    • "You've won the lottery!" Emotional response: Excitement and joy. Who doesn't like to win? Who wouldn't want "free" money?
    • "Help victims of this disaster today!" Emotional response: Sympathy and empathy. Natural disasters and other tragedies in which people are hurt bring out our sympathy, community feeling, and desire to do something to help.
    • A "relative" calls, "I'm in trouble and need money!" Emotional response: Fear for someone you love, followed by a panicked desire to help.
    • "You owe money to the IRS, pay now or you'll be arrested!" Emotional response: Fear and panic. People forget that the IRS and FBI never make contact first by phone or make such threats as a first contact.
  • Reciprocity. In this technique, the scammer does you a small favor hoping that you will feel obligated to reciprocate with a larger favor. For example, the scammer may offer you a 50% discount if you buy immediately.

Using these techniques, the scammer's goal is to get you to make a quick decision without checking it out. So knowing this goal and slowing down are the first steps in avoiding scams.

Steps to Take To Avoid Scams

Scams aren't going to go away. Following these tips will help you avoid becoming a victim.

  • Take your time. Don't get pushed into making a quick decision. Rushing is what a scammer wants you to do.

  • Do your research. Look for information about the deal, offer, charity, etc. Use independent sources for your research not the links and materials provided. Always do your research, even if the recommendation comes from someone you know.

  • Don't share your information. Never provide any account information by email. Do not provide any account information over the phone unless you initiated the phone call. Don't click on links or call phone numbers in unsolicited emails. Use a reliable source to obtain the link or phone number.

  • Secure devices. Protect all of your devices (laptop, desktop, tablet, phone) by applying software updates and using security software.

  • Use strong passwords. Create strong passwords that use upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. Several free password generators are available online and as add-ons for browsers. Use a unique password for every site that stores any of your personal or financial information.

  • Hang up the telephone. Calling a phone number is still a favorite method for scammers. If a scammer reaches you, just hang up.

  • Don't react to threats. Threatening arrest or legal action if you don't pay up immediately is a favorite ploy of the tax scams. Hang up. Give no information.

  • You won the lottery! No, you didn't. You can't win a lottery or sweepstakes without entering. You should never have to pay a fee to collect a prize. It's illegal to purchase lottery tickets by phone or mail or to enter a foreign lottery.

  • Free! Watch out and check it out. Beware of "free" offers. You may end up paying with personal information instead of money. Read all the small print (and "terms of agreement") in the offer. Do an Internet search on the offer to see what others have experienced.

File a Complaint to Fight Back

Knowing how scams work and how to slow down and protect yourself can help you avoid scams. You can also take a step toward putting some of the crooks out of business by filing a complaint. If you receive a scam offer by any means, file a complaint with the FTC at


These sites are excellent resources to use for checking out current scams.

Scam Alerts from the FTC

Tax Scams/Consumer Alerts from the IRS

BBB Scam Stopper

BBB Scam Tracker

Scams & Rip-Offs from Clark Howard