how does a scam work?Nowadays, it seems like scams are a fundamental part of life. While people know what scams are, they may not always recognize that they’re dealing with a scammer until it’s too late. To help you avoid falling for a scammer, we detailed four tell-tale signs that you’re talking to a scammer.

Signs you’re dealing with a scammer

If you come across any combination of these four things, it’s likely you’re dealing with a scammer.

1. You’re confronted with an enticing offer or demand. This is pretty self-explanatory; it’s the reason why the scammer is purportedly contacting you. In some cases, the scammer is reaching out to you to offer you something – maybe a free cruise, or an easy way to make money – other times the scammer is demanding something of you, like back-owed taxes or unpaid debts. Usually if someone is offering you something that sounds too good to be true, or they’re demanding something of you and threatening ridiculous consequences, like jail time — something IRS phone scammers usually say — it’s probably a scammer, and you should hang up the phone or mark the email as spam.

Remember that the anonymity of email and phone communications help scammers sustain their deceit. As such, you should give someone offering you something that sounds too good to be true over the phone or email the same degree of skepticism that you would give a stranger knocking at the front door. Just as you’d be highly suspicious of a random man at your doorstep claiming to be your long-lost millionaire uncle, you should be suspicious of any phone calls or emails offering you gifts or threatening to punish you out of the blue.

2. You’re asked for something in return for their offer. If someone is claiming that in order to receive their gift or offer, you must give them something (it could be money or your personal information) in return, it’s a scammer. In many cases, there’s nothing particularly outlandish about what scammers ask of their victims. For example, if you believe you’ve won a cruise, it’s just as equally believable that you’d have to give up some personal information in order to claim that prize. Similarly, if you believe the IRS is on the phone threatening legal action, it’s extremely believable that paying them immediately will get you out of hot water. You should be especially suspicious of sharing credit card numbers, social security numbers and bank account information, and red flags should pop up if you’re ever asked to wire money over the phone or via email to claim something. Be aware that scammers are also asking for gift cards as a form of payment, which means anyone asking for such is likely a scammer.

3. There is an emotional aspect to the deal. Scammers are masters at using context and emotional manipulation to hide the absurdity of their statements, which means that they will say or post, as is the case with Facebook like-farming scams, anything to get you to fall for the scam. For example, a scammer pretending to be a tech support representative from Microsoft uses that identity to establish a sense of authority over a less computer literate victim. These scammers also use fear by pointing out numerous “issues” with a victim’s system that could result in problems down the line. The consequence is that the victim will become more likely to defer to the scammer’s judgement, despite the presence of any signs that might normally arouse suspicion – like the scammer saying they’re from Windows (a computer operating system) instead of Microsoft (the company that makes the Windows computer operating system).

You can essentially think of scammers as storytellers who create emotionally charged narratives. Classic scams like the free cruise or the Nigerian scams revolve around making the victim feel special or fortuitous, sort of like you might feel after finding $100 behind the couch. Many people wouldn’t want to question their luck or do anything to jinx things, so to speak. Newer scams, like fake IRS calls and zombie debt scams revolve around making the victim afraid and willing to do anything in their power to simply make the situation disappear. One of the most important things you should consider while speaking to a potential scammer is how they make you feel. If you notice yourself accepting their demands simply because they’re scaring you or getting you very excited, it could be a sign you’re speaking with a con artist.

4. The offer or demand has a time-sensitive deadline. Scammers tend to corner victims by forcing them to take action on the spot. For example, a scammer will tell you that you must pay $500 right now or you’ll lose that free cruise. Although it’s true that real-life has deadlines, most are not “right now” or “by the end of day today.” This time-sensitive technique combined with emotional intensity scammers often craft into their messages make for a particularly powerful psychological motivator. Without the time needed to effectively judge someone’s claims, many people simply give into scammers’ demands on the off chance that they’re telling the truth.

As such, before you act, you should keep in mind that most legitimate representatives will not use this psychological tactic on you. For example, if you do find yourself in conversation with the IRS regarding back-owed taxes, they will discuss payment options with you as opposed to demanding you pay immediately in full. Similarly, no legitimate tech support representative would constantly remind you that your computer’s health is at stake if you don’t follow their every word.

Ultimately, part of protecting yourself from scams is knowing the tricks scammers might use to get you to fall for their scams. Check out our scams blog to learn more about recent scams and how you can protect yourself.