How to Identify a Scammer

Quick Answer

The following red flags could help tip you off to a scammer:

  1. They claim to be from a person or company you know
  2. There’s an extreme sense of urgency
  3. They request you to give or get something

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Scammers are getting increasingly clever these days, but it's still possible to identify scams and take steps to avoid becoming a victim of fraud. Common scams often have similar red flags, such as a sense of urgency or a request for money, and spotting these signs can help you identify fraud before it happens.

Here are three ways to identify a scammer, along with tips on what to do if you're the victim of a scam.

1. The Person Claims to Be From a Company You Know

In a common scam, a fraudster may contact you posing as an employee of a retail establishment you frequent, the IRS, your employer or other familiar entities and ask you for sensitive information. They may create a fake email address or phone number that looks familiar to you and call, email or text you in an attempt to get you to disclose personal information such as a Social Security number, bank number or password.

These scammers may also attempt to install malware on your computer or device to harvest personal information and passwords, so make sure not to click on any links or download attachments if you have any doubts about the sender.

If you get messages that seem out of the ordinary or inappropriate, check the email header to make sure the sender is who they say they are. If you aren't sure if a phone number or email address is legitimate, contact the organization or company directly rather than replying to their message.

Also, keep in mind that government agencies such as the IRS or the Social Security Administration will contact you through U.S. mail—they will never call you to ask for payments or personal information.

2. There's a Sense of Urgency

Fear is a powerful motivator, so scammers often try to scare people into doing something quickly to fix a situation that in reality doesn't exist. Scammers may try to convince you there is a problem you must solve right away, such as by sending money to a relative who is in jail or providing a credit card number to a supposed utility company preparing to terminate your service.

If someone calls and tells you to "act fast," tell them you will call back—and then go through the proper channels to verify the request. Don't interact with the potential scammer, including simply answering their questions, because doing so could pull you deeper into the scam.

3. There's an Unusual Request for Upfront Payment

A scammer may claim that you need to provide a payment in order to access opportunities like employment or housing. For instance, some apartment leasing scams will ask you to put down a large deposit before you even complete an application or view the property. In one common employment scam, someone will offer guaranteed or easy income if you purchase their program, or they may ask you to pay for equipment before being hired. Lottery scams may claim that you've won some kind of prize, but you need to pay a fee in order to collect it.

A scammer may also ask you to send payments to them in unconventional ways, such as through gift cards, peer-to-peer payments, wire transfer or cryptocurrency. These payments can be difficult to track (and recover), so these types of payment requests are a big red flag.

If you are uneasy about exchanging money, make sure you know the person you are doing business with, or at least have an independent means of verifying their identity and their request.

What to Do if You're the Victim of a Scam

If you've fallen for a scam, here are a few steps you can take to resolve the situation:

  • Contact your bank and credit card companies. If a scam involves your credit card information, your bank and credit companies can immediately cancel your cards and send you new ones. They can also check your recent transactions and flag any fraudulent purchases. Some credit card issuers have a zero-liability guarantee, which means you won't be held responsible for unauthorized charges made with your account. Federal law limits your liability for fraudulent purchases on a credit card to just $50.
  • Reach out to the credit bureaus. If you think someone has gained access to your personally identifiable information, reach out to the three consumer credit bureaus—Experian, TransUnion and Equifax—to restrict access to your credit reports. You can freeze your credit or place a fraud alert on your credit reports to restrict access and protect yourself.
  • Contact law enforcement. Depending on the type of scam, law enforcement may be able to help you, or at least use your experience to help others avoid similar scams. You can contact your local police, or file a report with the Federal Trade Commission's official fraud and identity theft sites.
  • Change your online passwords. If a hacker gets access to one of your passwords, they may be able to access other accounts. Make sure you use unique passwords for all of your accounts so if a hacker somehow knows one, the others remain safe.

The Bottom Line

If you suspect that a scammer may have collected your personal information, make sure you take action to reduce your losses. In addition to the steps above, you might consider subscribing to a free credit monitoring service or identity theft protection service to keep yourself safe from fraud and identity theft.

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