Scamming 101: Part 1 — The Art of the Steal is Ever Evolving

Many historians believe the first recorded instance of a scam occurred in 300 B.C. when a Greek sea merchant named Hegestratos took out an insurance policy on his ship and cargo.

His plan at the time, allegedly, was to keep the cargo, sink an empty ship and pocket the cash. The plan didn’t quite work, though: It ended with him drowning.

But scamming, of course, lives on. It has evolved through the centuries with high-tech advances like the telephone and internet – and unfortunately, crooks these days are more successful than ol’ Hegestratos was.

And if you believe you’re too smart to be a victim, think again. The latest technological advances could fool just about anyone.

Here is a refresher on just some of the ways modern scammers might target you.

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Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

The fundamentals

But first, let’s talk about scamming fundamentals. It turns out there’s some psychology involved. Scammers usually focus on five to 10 deep psychological triggers, according to Dr. Michael Skiba, a scam expert who has written a book (Psychology of Fraud: Integrating Criminological Theory into Counter Fraud Efforts) about the psychology behind fraud.

“Every person is different,” he said, “so a trigger that might work for you might not work for me, or vice versa.”

One trigger, he said, is creating a sense of urgency. For instance: making the would-be victim think their retirement benefits will be suspended if they don’t act quickly.

Another trigger is making the would-be victim think the scammer is some authority figure – the police, the IRS, a bank official, etc.

In Dallas County, one ongoing scam uses those two psychological triggers – urgency and authority. Potential victims get a phone call demanding payment on an unpaid bill or taxes. Generally, the payment request is in the form of a gift card, which is a big red flag.

“No legitimate business is ever going to tell you to go get gift cards and pay for that over the phone or to send them that information,” said Doug Sisk, the public information officer for the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department.

Other scammers will research a would-be victim and call them, pretending to be a loved one in crisis and requesting a wire transfer. Such scams, Sisk said, target elderly residents in particular.

“If these individuals would just follow up with family members and say, ‘Hey, do you know where so-and-so’s at?’ that would save a lot of trouble,” Sisk said.

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Image by Adriano Gadini from Pixabay

Check forgery

Many of you probably still have a checkbook, and unfortunately, that can bring the risk of getting one of those checks forged. This scheme begins with stealing a check that’s part of your outgoing mail – to pay a bill, for example.

From there, they might use your routing and account numbers to create a forged check from scratch. Or they might remove the recipient’s name from the check and replace it with their name or the name of somebody they know. They might even replace the dollar amount with a more significant amount and drain your account in one fell swoop.

“Now, sometimes the bank catches them and doesn’t honor the deposit,” said Nathan Martin, the chief of elder financial fraud at the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s office. “But sometimes, with remote deposits, the person may never even have to go into a bank branch. They just take a picture of the forged check on the phone, and they can deposit it remotely, and you would be surprised how those types of checks will be honored.”

One way to minimize your risk to this type of scheme, Martin said, is setting up automatic payments online. And instead of leaving your outgoing mail in your mailbox, try mailing it directly from the post office.

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Travel scams (and romance scams)

According to Skiba, some of the most prevalent scams he hears about these days involve travel.

Let’s say you want to book a flight online. You do a Google search for an airline and click the top link on the search results page.

It seems harmless so far, but here’s the thing: That link was a paid ad, and while it goes to a professional-looking website that promises a good deal, it could be a fake site run by scammers. And the scam, again, uses that element of urgency, claiming that you’ll get a discount if you book your flight now.

“What they’re doing is they’re looking to either get a payment or, more importantly, your personal information, such as your date of birth, Social Security number, credit card number,” Skiba said.

Dodging this one potential scam can be as simple as going directly to the airline or hotel’s website.

“So if it’s Marriott, go to and type that in the URL,” Skiba said. “Don’t put it in the search. Putting it in the search is going to get you in their environment, their ecosystem.”

He said that one popular site for travelers, Airbnb, carries huge fraud potential. Scammers, for instance, might try to rent out an unavailable house. Others will misrepresent properties regarding amenities such as the number of bedrooms, air conditioning, or parking.

The online safety company Aura has more information on avoiding Airbnb scams.

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Romancing the scam

Other scams, Skiba said, center on romance. For instance, a scammer might use a fake social media profile to win someone’s heart – and then use emotion to target the would-be victim’s bank account.

One red flag to beware of is if they ask for a wire transfer or cryptocurrency. Another red flag is if they say they’re overseas or in a different time zone and can’t meet you. They might claim to be in the military, a traveling doctor, or working on an oil rig.

The first step to avoid being a victim of romance scams, Skiba said, is trying to confirm that the person you’re communicating with is who they say they are. Check their social media profiles.

“Look at their friends and history,” Skiba said. “If it is bland, that’s a flag.”

You might also want to consider doing a reverse search of an image they posted of themselves in their profile. Begin by right clicking the photo and saving it. Then go to Google Images, click the camera icon in the search field, and drag the saved image into it.

If the image is fake, the search will tell you that it’s been used elsewhere – which could indicate that the person pulled it off the Web and passed it off as their own.

Another cause for concern, Skiba said: is any grammar or spelling mistakes on their social media profile.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The future of scamming is here: A.I.

The phone rings, and the caller I.D. says it’s from a loved one.

You answer and hear that familiar voice on the line telling you they’re in crisis. Perhaps it’s because they say they have been arrested or kidnapped. The bottom line is they need a lot of money immediately.

But as convincing as the call might sound, it’s not for real. It’s a variation on that loved-one-in-crisis scam Sisk described earlier, but it uses artificial intelligence (or A.I.) to replicate the sound of a loved one’s voice. The scheme almost fooled an Arizona woman this past spring.

Here’s how it works: The scammer records the voice of the “loved one” for 5 to 10 seconds. “And what they’re doing is they’re using your voice, replicating it, and then calling friends or family,” Skiba explained.

While the advent of A.I. has given criminals a new tool to steal from you, there are a few things you and your loved ones can do to avoid being a victim.

“First off, watch where you leave your voice,” Skiba said. “Like on social media, YouTube. You can grab it anywhere.”

Another way to avoid falling prey to the scheme is: Share a code word with other loved ones that no one else will know. “And that way, if that does happen, you can ask that person, you know, for the code word. And, of course, that’s a surefire way to filter that out.”

We’re all vulnerable.

It’s easy to read stories about scam victims and think, “Yeah, I’d never fall for something like that.” Think again.

Modern scams – even the low-tech ones — are much more convincing than the one that Hegestratos tried to pull off hundreds and hundreds of years ago.

“Everyone’s at risk, basically,” Skiba said. “… It’s not just one segment of the population that might be more gullible.”


Jack Pointer

Jack Pointer is a freelance writer who helped edit The Dallas Morning News in a previous life. He’s also worked for The Chicago Tribune and a news radio station out East. In his spare time, he plays piano and argues with his dog.

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