Scams 101: How to Spot a Con Artist

6 years ago

Tell people you’re writing a book on scams and everyone has an opinion. A typical response is, “You’d have to be pretty dumb to fall for one, right?” Well actually, no. Con artists don’t have time to administer IQ tests.

Credit Image: B Rosen on Flickr

But this idea, that only the stupid get conned, is a persistent myth. The truth is that people don’t fall for scams because they’re stupid or naive or weak. They fall for them because they’re human.

Imagine this scenario. You’re the mother of a deployed soldier. Late at night the phone rings with terrible news. Your son has been injured and must be airlifted to a hospital. He’s unconscious, his dog tags are missing, and to complete the paperwork, they require his birth date and Social Security number. What do you do?

Maybe you’re at home with the kids and the doorbell rings. It’s a couple of college students raising money for the orchestra’s summer tour of Europe. They’re selling toys and books to donate to a children’s shelter. Care to make a small donation?

Or you’re at the store and a man offers to fix the dent in your car while you shop. He points to his partner already at work on another car. The company checks out when you Google it on your smartphone. There’s a discount for cash and an ATM in the store lobby.

No one thinks it can happen to them, but Americans are 40 times more likely to be defrauded than to have their cars stolen or their homes burgled. Cons thrive because although our technology has advanced light years, as human beings we have changed very little since the dawn of time. We are the weak link. Our emotions can be manipulated, in many cases quite easily. Advertisers know it. Politicians know it. Con artists certainly know it.

Everyone has aspirations, hopes and dreams. When someone comes along with a shortcut to wealth, happiness or success, we want to believe. Sometimes we’re greedy. Something for nothing sounds like a good deal.

We are compassionate. A hard luck or underdog story will always get our attention.

Fear is a great motivator. Threats of legal action or fines can be convincing. Fear can also be used to exploit our strong bonds of friendship and family. If we think our loved ones are in danger or hurt, we will act first and ask questions later.

All the traits that make us unique and complex can open us up to risk. So, short of becoming robots, how do we defend ourselves? The quick answer is to develop an internal scam sense, a heightened awareness. My motto is, always doubt, check it out. Don’t act immediately. Ask questions. Verify identities and stories independently. Scams can’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny.

Familiarize yourself with what a scam looks and sounds like. All scams will contain a carrot or a stick – a reward for action or punishment for inaction. Every scam, big or small, will incorporate an “ask,” a request for money, personal details, or both.

And -— this is a tough one for many people -— be very stingy with your personal information. More is less. More information, less secure. Information is to con artists what combinations are to safecrackers.

The point is not to be paranoid, but to exercise caution. When we get in our cars, we buckle our seatbelts, not because we expect to get into an accident, but because we want to be prepared ... and protected.

In the words of a Chinese proverb, “carefulness can go everywhere.” Don’t leave home without it.


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