What makes a good scam?
Apprisen Financial Advocates, a US nonprofit consumer credit counseling agency based in Columbus, Ohio, has issued guidance on how to spot a scam (see the panel for a summary).
Apprisen describes some common signs to look out for:
1. You’re pressured to “act now!”
2. You’ve won a contest you’ve never heard of.
3. You have to pay a fee to receive your “prize.”
4. Your personal information is requested.
5. The company refuses to provide written information.
6. The company has no physical address, only a P.O. Box.
7. The company insists you pay in cash.
But what is a scam? It’s easy enough to say ‘this is a scam’; but it’s a lot more difficult to define what makes a scam. Even the Oxford Dictionary says a scam is simply ‘a dishonest scheme; a fraud’. But that’s just defining a value judgement by other value judgements. If you’re wondering what on earth I’m going on about, I would suggest that’s because we use the term so indiscriminately we just assume we know what we’re talking about. But do we?
Consider this. Yesterday I opened a new hotmail email account. Hotmail wanted some personal information and didn’t give me a physical address. Is hotmail a scam? Yesterday, the RSPCA knocked on the door asking me to set up a direct debit in its favour and pressured me with horror tales about abandoned and abused animals. It didn’t work because we already do it; but is the RSPCA a scam? Yesterday, in the street, a scruffy looking young man demanded I give him cash in exchange for a publication I didn’t want and threatened that if I didn’t pay up, ‘the dog get’s it’. Is the Big Issue a scam? And in the computer shop, the salesman kept pressuring me to buy now because he wouldn’t be able to hold the price beyond the end of the day.
Everybody is after our money. So is everybody a scammer? Clearly not; but where’s the line? Is a scam taking money for something that isn’t delivered? When I signed up for my broadband, I was promised speeds of up to 20Mb+. Yeah right! So are (all!) broadband providers scammers? Or is a scam the provision of something that simply isn’t worth the price charged? Like a holiday share in Spain? Are they scams? Most people would say ‘yes’; but the law would probably say ‘no’.
What about Apple products? If you believe the adverts, there is nothing better than an iPhone and an iPad. But if you listen to the geeks, they will tell you that those products are not that special or even innovative. And just look at Apple’s profits. Frankly, they verge on the obscene. Certainly the profits mean that the products are being sold at somewhat inflated prices; that is, we are being charged more than the value of the product. So is Steve Jobs a scammer? (Well, I think there are many people who would say ‘yes’; but the law would – unfortunately! – say ‘no’.)
And the government? They pressure us. They avoid giving us a physical address other than government offices we can’t get to. They take our money with false promises. They lie. They cheat. And they don’t deliver. Are they scammers? Of course.
Frankly, I’m not sure that there is any definitive way to separate scams from sharp practices from inflated prices. So I would take a slightly different tack. Don’t buy anything or give anything to anyone who comes to you. If you want something, go look for it. If there’s a disaster or charity; go look for the official channels. Discard ALL emails that ask you for anything. Assume that they’re all scams. You’ll lose a few opportunities – but that’s better than losing your identity and savings.
You may also be interested in The art of social engineering