How To Spot And Protect Yourself From Scams

Written by Laura Sands and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

It is important to learn how to spot and protect yourself from scams. Such are often presented in a variety of different ways, but all have a common goal. That goal, of course, is usually cash money or something of comparable value, such as land or access to a personal credit profile. Those who mastermind deceptive strategies to obtain these goals, often do so by gaining a person’s confidence and trust to such a degree that their target will ignore red flags until it’s too late. By educating yourself on the nature of certain scams, you will learn how to more easily recognize them early on and shield yourself against becoming a victim, also known as a mark.

Who Is a Scammer?

You may have an image in your mind of what a scam artist looks like. In fact, most scammers are counting on you to have such an image in mind, which is why they work hard to present themselves as the exact opposite of that image. Not only might scam artists look completely different than how you’d imagine, most are successful because they look, talk, and sound like a respected member of society, which is exactly how they gain the confidence of the people they are targeting.

For example, those who specialize in scams known as “affinity fraud” find success in that they are able to convince targets they are very much like them. In these cases, scamsters may pose as ordinary people from the same religious, ethnic, or socio-economic class as their victims. This is a deliberate ploy used to win a person or a group’s trust.

One of many examples of affinity fraud involves a man known as Robert Gomez and his friend James Nichols. Gomez regularly attended a church in Los Angeles while posing as the heir to a recently deceased millionaire. This con artist convinced parishioners that his dearly departed adopted father wanted his collection of several thousand late model cars sold to fellow Christians at insanely discounted prices. Word spread from the original church Gomez attended to other churches across the country. All in all, the scammer collected close to $20 million dollars from people who never received the automobiles they paid for because the man was not the heir of a benevolent millionaire and the fleet of cars never even existed.

Other fairly recent scammers caught in the act include:
  • Brandi Weaver-Gates – The 2015 Miss Pennsylvania U.S. International was sentenced in 2016 to two to four years in prison and ordered to repay the $30,000 she scammed people out of by pretending to have cancer and holding fundraisers for her nonexistent treatment.
  • Steven B. Heinz – As a longtime member of the Mormon faith, Mr. Heinz used his church affiliation to defraud fellow members, as well as friends and members of his own family, out of millions of dollars. As an investment broker in the state of Utah, Heinz solicited and received investments totaling more than $3.5 million dollars. Of that amount, he admitted to using at least $1 million on his own personal spending.

Whether scam artists end up being the CEO next door, a fellow church member, a large corporation, or a seemingly ill person in need of charity, scammers can take on any appearance. By understanding that a scam artist doesn’t have a “particular look”, you are already on the path to successfully avoiding their deception.

What Do Scammers Want?

Scam artists want money and while a lot want it in immediate cash, others specialize in scams that are a little more elaborate, take longer to implement, and that sometimes net more profit. In addition to cash on the spot, scammers work to deceive others for:

  • Investment capital
  • Access to a person’s credit profile
  • Land and real estate
  • Jewelry
  • Passwords granting access to personal wealth

Who Do Scammers Target?

Scam artists are known to target the elderly, children, and other vulnerable people who may not have the mental acumen to detect their deception. They do not solely focus on these people, though. Intelligent adults ranging from the working class to others who’ve built immense personal wealth can easily be targeted by a scammer. In fact, it is the very people who think they cannot be scammed who often are. It would be wise to, therefore, never think of yourself as one being immune to a scammer’s target and, instead, always employ caution and a healthy dose of suspicion while protecting yourself in situations where a scam could take place.

Often, scammers even zero in on a target’s hunger to increase his own wealth. A scammer may pretend to be less intelligent while bolstering a mark’s confidence. It is only after the scam has been completed that a target figures out the scammer was feigning ignorance in order to take advantage of a situation.

Just because some may look for easy targets or marks, it should never be assumed that a scammer will not prey upon more astute people. Anyone who has something a scammer wants can be targeted for deception. Being aware of this can make the difference between you becoming a victim or you avoiding a scammer’s elaborate plans to take your money.

Common Scams and How to Avoid Them

Identity Theft

This scam involves impersonating another person in order to use their credit, withdraw funds, or profit in some other way from an individual’s good name. To do so, a scammer uses information such as a person’s full name, date of birth, social security number, home address, tax information, paycheck stubs, and other identifiable records.

To avoid identity theft:

  • Securely store this information where strangers cannot easily access it
  • Create difficult passwords for online accounts
  • Do not use the same password for multiple accounts
  • Change your most important passwords every couple of months
  • Never release your personal information to anyone without being certain they are authorized to view such information
Phishing Scams

Should anyone contact you by telephone, text message, or email claiming they are from the IRS, your Internet provider, or other official agency and that your personal information is needed on the spot, refuse to give it to them. Upon initiating your own contact with the outfit they supposedly represent, you will more than likely find out that person does not exist and there was no official reason for you to be contacted. Scammers may also create phony, but familiar looking, websites using trusted names and logos to encourage a sense of security when filling out online forms or corresponding with their site. This method of obtaining your personal information is known as phishing.

To avoid phishing schemes:

  • Opt for two-factor identification on authentic sites you use for banking and bill payments, whenever possible
  • If you ever doubt a site’s authenticity, never call the telephone number listed on that site, but contact the number listed for them in a trusted directory, instead
  • Do not share any personal information about yourself if you have any doubts whatsoever about a site’s authenticity
  • Do not click on any suspicious web links

Variations of phishing schemes include scammers who may contact you by email or text message requiring you to call via a telephone number they supply or who encourage you to simply reply with your personal information in order to verify your identity. Never trust these forms of contact!

Investment Schemes

Honest, hard-working people are taken advantage of through phony investment schemes every day. Often, scammers will pose as industry professionals in order to gain people’s trust enough so that they will invest with them. Still, others may actually be well-respected professionals willing to take advantage of people for profit. Scammers will sometimes even contact strangers by email with an elaborate investment plan that promises huge profits if the target gets in on the “ground floor” by depositing funds right away.

Some of the most common characteristics of investment scams include:

  • Promises of enormous wealth
  • An urgency to invest now, before it’s “too late”
  • Extravagant bonuses, such as a luxury vacation, for early investors
  • The opportunity should be kept a secret and is only being offered to an elite few
  • The opportunity sounds too good to be true
  • The investment is a once in a lifetime opportunity

All of these characteristics may be present or only a few. Most who’ve been swindled by an investment scheme later admit to ignoring red flags and gut feelings that something just wasn’t quite right. When something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

What To Do If You’ve Been Scammed

Visit our article archives for more information on identity theft, as well as charity, personal, corporate, computer, or internet scams. Never be ashamed to admit if you’ve been taken in by a scammer. Instead, immediately contact your local authorities to report this crime to them in an effort to help protect the rest of the public from scam artists.

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