How to Detect a Grifter, Scam Artist, or Con Artist

Scam artists are smart but you can outwit them.

Grifter, swindler, con artist, scammer, or cheat—whatever the name, they're out to take advantage of you. If you think you've been "had" or are being pressured by a con artist, consider evaluating the situation using the suggestions below.

Red Flags: Common Tricks Used by Con Artists

Con artists and swindlers are master wordsmiths who excel in convincing you to do something you likely had no intention of doing. They may use some key phrases when talking with you or communicating with you in writing that are often clues that should make you wary:

  • Today only! What's the rush and where's the fire? True, some legitimate opportunities may be fleeting (the price of gold may actually be higher tomorrow, or someone else will come to the car lot and purchase this beauty before you can make up your mind), but never give in to the pressure to make a fast decision because the deal is supposedly disappearing tomorrow.
  • Cash only. How convenient. You get to take my money and I have no recourse. Reputable vendors, dealers, and business people do not operate on a cash-only basis for big-ticket items.
  • Get-rich-quick schemes. Most likely the only person getting rich quickly is the person scamming you. If the person promises you "something for nothing," it's too good to be true.
  • Leftover material. Leftover from what? Just as likely careful.
  • It's for charity. Scammers love to prey on people's big hearts and generous wallets in the name of charity or a disaster relief fund. Always verify the charity or relief fund on your own before donating. If the person is legitimate, they should be able to give you a company name and website that you can verify.

Red Flags: Common Tactics Used by Con Artists

Con artists, whether in person, over the phone, online, or even in snail mail, will do their best to rush you into a decision and possibly even isolate you from others who could influence your decisions. Here's how they do it (be particularly vigilant when the contact was initiated by the con artist, not you):

  • Expect them to be friendly and courteous.
  • Be aware of down-and-out storytellers.
  • Be concerned if they encourage haste or say there is no reason not to trust them.
  • Take note if they offer you a phenomenal price because "I just happened" to be in your area.
  • Be careful when you are told "everyone else" who invested made money or that making a profit is "guaranteed."

Red Flags: Common Schemes Used by Con Artists

Con artists thrive by fitting in and making themselves appear to be something they are not. This can be particularly true of scams that come to you in the mail, by email, or by telephone. Scams will often appear at first glance to be not only legitimate but also from a reputable source, like a government agency or your bank. Keep in mind:

  • Bank impersonators. Your bank will never send you an email telling you something is wrong with your account or your password, or that you need to update your information (nor will they send you a link to click). If you get an email that looks like it's from a bank, go to the bank's website on your own (not by clicking a link) and contact their customer service department.
  • Government or other business impersonators. It is not legal for companies to send mail that looks like it is coming from an official source (or any other source, for that matter). Read anything you receive very carefully, and search for some of the key phrases noted above or even typos.

Be Skeptical. Ask Questions. Take Your Time.

Approach every interaction that you did not initiate with a good, healthy dose of skepticism. Assume the other person is lying to you or hiding the truth until you are convinced based on facts—not promises or emotions—that they are not.

  • Ask for the offer and its terms in writing, on letterhead.
  • Ask for the background, track record, and experience of the people behind the deal.
  • Ask to see a balance sheet or for bank references before making an investment.
  • Ask for the name of the person you are talking to, a call-back phone number, and an email address. Ask how they are paid by the company they represent (salary or commission).

If the person you are working with is not comfortable answering any of these questions or providing you with information in writing, you are probably dealing with a scammer.

Put yourself on high alert if the person you are dealing with tries to downplay risks or deflect your questions.

Find Resources and Get Assistance

If you're worried a deal is too good to be true, follow your gut—as it probably is.

Research. Do some research. Most states offer resources and information on possible scams through their attorney general's offices or consumer protection agencies. You can also find information on how to avoid a scam at the FTC's website.

Consult an attorney. Before you get involved in any project, deal, or investment—and especially before you send any money—consult an attorney (or just tell the person you plan to contact an attorney and see what happens). A lawyer can help you unemotionally evaluate the possible risks and benefits of any proposal or offer someone makes to you. An attorney will protect your interests and can help you avoid being fleeced.

Report a crime. If you feel that you've been the victim of a scammer, contact your local police department or state attorney general's office to report a crime. Scam artists violate state and federal fraud laws. The sooner they can be apprehended, the fewer people they can victimize.

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