older adult female talking on phone

How to Recognize and Avoid a Scam

Scam: (n) a fraudulent or deceptive act or operation. (v) (1) to deceive and defraud. (v) (2) to obtain something, such as money, by a scam.   –Merriam-Webster.com

Such dictionary definitions don’t begin to capture the emotional pain of realizing one has fallen for the exploitative lies also called “swindles” and “con games”—“con” being short for “confidence,” because scammers manipulate others into trusting them. They are pros at sounding legitimate, even when they request payment in the form of gift cards or something else that can’t be cancelled or traced.

Sadly, they often focus on seniors, people with intellectual disabilities, and other demographics with reputations for taking others at their word. And those are often the people who can least afford the financial loss, or the complexities of pursuing justice.

older adult man holding credit card while talking on the phone

Forewarned is forearmed, so here are our best tips on recognizing and avoiding scams.

Characteristics of Scams

  • They offer something that’s too good to be true: quick and easy financial windfalls, “miracle cures” with no scientific or medical support, love at first sight.
  • They approach their targets directly—not through standard direct-marketing channels, but person to person.
  • They promise 100% guaranteed results.
  • They try to push you into immediate action, before you can think about an offer or double-check its legitimacy.
  • They say or imply that delaying action will either mean that you miss the one chance of a lifetime, or that something terrible will happen. (A favorite scam tactic is posing as authorities who want immediate payment lest you be arrested on criminal charges. No legitimate official initiates contact outside of postal mail or a face-to-face visit, nor will they demand different forms of payment than government-backed currency.)

How to Keep from Being Fooled

  • Stay up to date on what’s “trending” in scams.
  • Don’t answer, or even open, messages from unknown sources.
  • If you get a text or email allegedly from a business you patronize, verify where it was actually sent from. Anyone can put a major corporation’s name in a “From” field or subject line.
  • Take it as a red flag if someone tries to rush you into a decision. Cut them off if need be, and (if you think the offer might be legitimate) find another channel to explore it further.
  • Give virtual approaches the “in real life” test: ask yourself, “How would I react if someone made this request to my face?”
  • If you’re still not sure, ask a counselor or trusted friend for advice.
  • With email, social media, or official-sounding phone calls, it can be easy to commit yourself with a click and regret it later. Consider reserving a set time of day to answer all messages, when you’ll have time to think about them individually rather than rushing through. And put your phone on “Do Not Disturb” so unidentified calls will go to voice mail.
  • Mobile payment apps can also make it too easy to respond on impulse. Add a bit of “think time” by setting your app to require login before each use. Try to send money only when you expect or personally initiate the exchange; and, before you do send anything, double-check that it’s addressed to the right location.
  • Tread with special care if your family has just received an autism or medical diagnosis, or other news that heralds a major life adjustment. The initial shock and transition period are when it’s easiest to believe some offer of a “miracle cure.” Consider letting a trusted friend screen your messages until life stabilizes.
lady holding phone looking at camera

If a Scam Does Happen

Even if you know all the above, there’s no 100 percent guarantee against ever falling for a scam—anyone can get caught in a moment of weakness, including cocky types who consider themselves “too smart to fall for any of that flim-flam.” (Another hint for not getting scammed is to avoid such overconfident attitudes!)

If it does happen, don’t let embarrassment hold you back from reporting it to the proper authorities. And never beat yourself up for being “stupid” or “gullible.” Chalk it up to a lesson learned, and go on with life. One last tip for being less “scammable” is to stay a lifelong learner!


Much of the material in this article draws on notes taken by Alejandra Gonzalez, BridgingApps Digital Navigator, at the 2023 Net Inclusion conference, specifically the “Teaching Security and Privacy Inclusively” workshop. Recordings from this year’s conference are available from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance on YouTube, along with a video of last year’s TSPI program.

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