How to Identify a Scammer: 8 Red Flags to Watch Out For
With instances of digital fraud skyrocketing, learning how to identify a scammer is becoming an increasingly important life skill in a world of growing connectivity
Whether you’re shopping online or searching for love on a dating app, it bears keeping in mind: Online scams, ranging from bank scams to romance scams to crypto scams, are on the rise. More than 2.8 million people in the United States reported being victims of fraud in 2021, resulting in a combined $5.8 billion in losses, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Learning to practice better online security, including learning how to identify a scammer, will only become more important in the years to come.
“While it’s true that scammers’ and fraudsters’ schemes continue to get more sophisticated, most still fundamentally rely on the idea of social engineering,” says David Thomas, executive director of online programming at the University of Denver. “In other words, they play off human error and rely on convincing you to believe that something made up is actually true. Often, it’s the small slip-ups and little mistakes that give scammers away.”
That’s why it’s important to learn how to identify a scammer. There are several red flags and common themes associated with the vast majority of fraudulent schemes, and the scammers perpetrating them, that you can keep a watchful eye out for as you go.
Online scammers often claim to be contacting you on behalf of businesses, brands or organizations you know and trust. It’s important to remain suspicious of anyone who contacts you claiming to hail from these companies, especially any that purport to be from the Social Security Administration or the Internal Revenue Service.
2. Calls from out of the blue
If a company or government agency unexpectedly call you on the phone, that’s a tip-off that a scammer may be on the other end of the line. Hang up and contact the business or agency directly to find out if the call was legitimate.
3. A sense of urgency
Fraudsters’ claims often wilt under sustained scrutiny, which means that it’s in their best interests to pressure you into taking action before you can think twice. Beware of anyone who attempts to rush or push you into making a decision without first giving you time to verify and thoughtfully consider their requests.
4. Misspelled words or grammatical errors
Scan any emails, messages or online chats you receive for misspellings, grammatical errors, strange subject lines or other discrepancies. Be sure to check the domain of an email address too—for example, instead of Amazon.com, an email may be from Amazon.net, a dead giveaway that the communication isn’t from the online retailing giant. Next, read about Geek Squad scams and how to avoid this form of online fraud.
5. Won’t appear on camera or meet you in person
Fraudsters aren’t above playing with your emotions, which is why romance scams, even military romance scams, are on the rise. Criminals build fake profiles on dating apps to lure you in with the promise of love, sometimes resorting to love bombing—and then try to coerce you into giving gifts or cash. To shut them down, learning how to identify a scammer is crucial. Read these romance scammer stories to know how to identify a scammer and avoid them.
Be alert for red flags like an unwillingness to appear on camera for video chats, meet in person or chat on the phone. If you’re suspicious that your so-called love interest may be impersonating another party, you can do a reverse image search of their profile picture on Google. If you find other names attached to the photo, or it appears on a stock image site, alarm bells should ring.
In essence, your best defense here is a good offense: Ask lots of questions, and don’t feel pressured to act quickly—after all, a normal and healthy relationship is built on trust and two parties being willing to openly share.
6. A price that’s too good to be true
With Facebook Marketplace scams, eBay, Amazon, and Instagram scams on the rise, it’s important to shop smarter and protect your pocketbook. On social networks and fake online retailers that are created specifically to appear to be the real thing, it’s not uncommon to find goods at steep discounts. Trust your instincts, and know that if a price is too good to be true, it’s likely a scam. Even if you receive a receipt, you may never receive the item that you paid for, or if you do, it may greatly differ in form or condition from what you thought you’d paid for. Learn how to protect yourself from fake ads on social media.
One way to combat these scammers is to check for verified and satisfied customer reviews. You’ll also want to research other sellers’ prices to see if the vendor’s deals are in line with market rates, or so far below market standards that they’re widely out of place (a possible red flag). Next, read about these other Facebook scams to avoid.
7. A promise of easy money
Remember: No legitimate financial investment opportunity is sure to ever pay off 100% of the time—and cannot legally be advertised as “guaranteed” income—so be very leery of anyone promising such. Don’t purchase a business, franchise or sales system that asks you to invest in pricey training or equipment upfront.
Also on the rise are job scams that often promise work-from-home opportunities that require minimal time and effort, such as product sales or mystery shopper positions, but require you to purchase costly training, certifications or starter kits in advance. After you hand over the money, chances are you’ll never hear from the company again.
Similarly, remember that a favorite trick of sweepstakes and lottery scammers is to let you know you’ve won a prize but there’s a catch: you need to pay an (illegitimate) fee in advance to collect it.
8. Requests an unusual payment option
It’s not uncommon for romance scammers or someone who’s hacked a friend’s social media account to request that you send money using peer-to-peer payment systems (PayPal, Venmo, Cash App, etc.), gift cards, Western Union, wire transfers or cryptocurrency tokens. Of course, the catch is that these payments can often be challenging to monitor, track and recover, and that sums sent this way can quickly disappear from accounts that they’ve been forwarded onto. Your best defense, if you believe the request is legitimate, is to use a retail or payment platform that offers strong protection for consumers, or route payments through a credit card with similar safeguards.
What to do if you think you’ve been scammed
If you’re ever unsure if another party’s request is legitimate, call or email the company directly at its official phone number or email to verify. If you do fall victim to a scammer, don’t be embarrassed, as the stats show, it happens all too frequently. The most important thing to do is report it to the Federal Trade Commission and your local police.
Next, read about Airbnb scams and how to avoid them.
Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for tips on cleaning, travel and tech, plus humor and fun facts, all week long.
- David Thomas, executive director of online programming at the University of Denver