How to Recognize a Scam Before It’s Too Late

Tips on recognizing a scamUnfortunately, sometimes it’s relatively easy to fall for a scam — and even easier to feel stupid if it happens, which makes it harder to stop the scammers because people don’t want to come forward. I was the victim of one myself once, and although I didn’t lose much money it still wasn’t fun.

Scams are so prevalent that the FTC puts out scam alerts to inform consumers. How can you avoid being scammed? Well, most good scams have certain identifying features. Avoid them by keeping an eye out for them.

Here are 9 hallmarks of a scam.

1. The offer is unsolicited

This happens when you weren’t out seeking a certain service or product, but someone has gone out of their way to try to get you to say yes to whatever they’re offering. This might come in the form of letters, phone calls, emails, strangers at the door, and even friends passing along deals they’ve heard about.

Often these types of offers come in broken or rambling English from someone in a distant place, but sometimes they are slick and polished. Scammy offers are more likely to appear after a disaster or publicized good fortune, but they can happen at other times too.

2. The offer seems plausible and urgent

You have a need, and the (again, usually unsolicited) offer seems both plausible and urgent. “Maybe that guy really could fix my dented car door,” you think. “He looks like he knows what he’s doing. But he’s only available right. now. I better hurry up and decide…”

Or you might see an ad that reads something like this: “$20,000 in Unemployment Grants. Millions Available. Never Repay!” You’ve HEARD of grants, and you just can’t find a job. Maybe it would be worth checking out, you think. (Or maybe NOT!) Especially if the “awesome deal” requires you to fork out money/gifts, provide your credit card number, or sign documents you don’t understand.

3. The scam engages your emotions

When you first check into an offer that’s likely a scam, you’ll probably feel smart at first. That’s because you’ll believe you’re getting a good deal, avoiding something negative, or helping out a nice person.

In other words, scams 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.)

4. It tempts you enough to override good sense

Scams often seem like the perfect 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 WANT it to be true. This tendency to convince ourselves otherwise makes the scammer’s job easier.

5. The scammer wants cash in advance (usually as much as possible of it)

Unless you’re talking about a tradesperson that you’ve chosen yourself after getting multiple unsolicited quotes and checking references, wanting cash in advance before doing work is a huge red flag.

So if someone requires cold hard cash from you, a cashier’s check, a money order, or access to your bank account. Run! 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 for info on one common scam.)

6. The person won’t take no for an answer

If your first instinct is to refuse an offer, the scammer will 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. There’s a reason the “deal” sounds almost-unbelievable.

7. The scammer offers “proof” of various sorts, or a “guarantee”

While you certainly should be able to prove that real offers work, and there are plenty of legitimate guarantees, in the case of scam the proof and guarantee are used to push you away from your suspicions and into the buy. This is especially true in the case of big scams and swindles aimed at people with access to a lot of money.

Of course, in the case of a scam this proof is manufactured using accomplices or unsuspecting targets, and any guarantee is worthless.

For example, it would be easy for someone to SAY you’ll get $500 for passing along this post to five others (you won’t), and it would be equally easy to offer proof that you will actually receive the $500 by giving $500 to one person after they passed along the post and then giving YOU the name of that happy person to check with. But that sort of manufactured proof is worthless and no proof at all. (See Confessions of a Con Artist for the tactics one veteran scammer used.)

Another tactic is for the scammer to 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. (Which is what happened to me.)

8. You’re elderly, uninformed, or desperate

Yup, this tip is about you. Being vulnerable makes you ripe for scamming. And since no one wants to think of themselves as elderly, uninformed, or desperate, we’re ALL easy marks from time to time. Don’t believe that could describe you?

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 or twice in their life?

But admitting all that? That’s a different story. It’s what makes people an easy mark. So if you’re feeling vulnerable or pressured, watch out.

9. The offer sounds 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.

Still unsure?

If you think something may be a scam, you can check sites like, the FBI, and with your local government or police. Don’t forget to have documents looked over by a reputable lawyer of your choosing, either.

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.

Have you ever been the victim of a scam? Or do you know someone that was? What happened?


  • I think I’m pretty scam savvy but never say never I guess. I hate the way they prey on the elderly and vulnerable. Another blogger I follow had this (almost) happen to her grandparents. Thankfully the grandparents started asking some questions and the whole thing got disrupted.

  • Richard Buse

    Thanks so much for sharing this. Individuals who initiate these sort of scams are very good at what they do, and they target so many elderly individuals and others who are only guilty of trusting others.

  • Nancy Williams

    This days the scammers has became more desperate and operating in more smarter way to get their target. I am completely agree with Richard that they mainly target elderly individuals and others who has the tendency to believe others easily. My neighbor Mr Thomson, now he is almost 70 was faced a pension scam last year and lost almost all his savings.