Why Do Scams Continue to Work?

February 2016

Scams have been around for generations. Scammers are all around us, using various different methods, with the same goal – to steal other people’s money. Scams are continually evolving, as scammers continuously come up with new ways to "deceive and thieve." Even though each new variety of scam brings in widely publicized warnings and descriptions, 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 taking 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.

Credibility. Scammers want you to believe that they are legitimate. They try to establish legitimacy and eliminate the need for you to 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 another government entity. The name of their business may be similar to a real business. If they contact you by phone, they will disguise the Caller ID. In person, they may hand you a fake business card or present other believable credentials. Online, their website name and look may be similar to a legitimate site.

Trust. Scammers want you to trust them. To do this, they tend to be 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. Some scammers may also gather information about you from social media, which they then use in their attempts to scam you. Scammers can be hard to detect and may target you in a place you least expect, such as a group you may belong to. This is their way of taking advantage of the natural inclination to believe people we know.

Strategies Used by Scammers

  • Convince you that they are legitimate.
  • Get you to trust them.
  • Play on your emotions.

Emotions. Scammers play on your emotions. Often times they try to take advantage of various emotions that often make us want to respond quickly. Here are four examples of 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 these types of threats.

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.

Steps to Take To Avoid Scams

The truth is, scams aren’t going to go away. It is important to understand this fact, but know that there are ways to protect ourselves. The following are tips recommended to help you avoid becoming a victim of scams.

Take your time. Don't get pushed into making a quick decision. Rushing into action 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, etc.) 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. Give no information and hang up.

You won the lottery! No, you didn't. You can't win a lottery or sweepstakes without entering. All keep in mind, you should never have to pay a fee to collect a prize and that it is 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. If you receive a scam offer, you have the ability to file a complaint, which can result in getting some of these scammers off the street and out of business. Complaints can be filed with FTC at www.FTC.gov.


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


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