Healthy Mind

How To Spot a Scammer and Protect Yourself From Them, According to a Relationship Therapist and Cyber Security Expert

Graphic: Well+Good Creative
As someone who's lost hours of her life this month to The Tinder Swindler and Inventing Anna, scammers have been weighing  heavily on my mind—particularly, how they're able to deftly infiltrate and even ruin the lives of seemingly smart, successful, discerning, and otherwise just "with it" people. It makes me worry that if such a thing can happen to others, could it happen to me? It sure seems like it can, because when I first meet someone, my first thought is not that they're only out for my life savings (and then some) or some other opportunistic venture that might leave my own best interests in the dust. But, according to experts, the secrets to spotting a scam artist (which you'd would be wise to learn) requires you to be mindful of certain manipulative tactics at play.

“It's important for people's well-being to get familiar with the signs of a scammer because, by doing so, they prevent the possibility of being vulnerable and uninformed victims of a scam,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Omar Ruiz, LMFT, owner of Boston-based therapy practice Talk Think Thrive. “When a person is unaware of a scammer, they risk losing their emotions, money, and, most importantly, their identity.”

“When a person is unaware of a scammer, they risk losing their emotions, money, and, most importantly, their identity.” —Omar Ruiz, LMFT

To put some numbers to the risk, cybercrime alone costs victims an estimated $318 billion per year, and according to the Federal Bureau of Intelligence, romance-related scams (à la The Tinder Swindler) cost Americans upwards of $1 billion in 2021.

With all of that in mind, being able to spot the signs of a scam artist—whether for romantic pursuits or not—is clearly beneficial. Read on to learn how to spot a scammer, according to a relationship therapist and a cyber security expert.

7 tips for how to spot a scammer (and protect yourself from them)

1. Immediately wanting to take the conversation offline

If the scam artist in question is someone you met online, they're aware that some dating apps have security measures in place with the aim of preventing scams. If they get you off the app on which you originally connected, they don’t risk getting caught from that monitoring, says Lisa Plaggemier, interim director of the National Cybersecurity Alliance. Furthermore, there's not an easily accessible log of the conversations that way.

Let’s say you encounter someone who seems too eager to get off the app. In this case, you want to try to keep them on there for a while to see how they communicate with you. If they’re open to staying on, it’s a sign that you're likely safe. If there’s pushback, though—especially if the resistance makes you feel uncomfortable—you might want to consider blocking that account to protect yourself from a potential scam artist.

2. Talking about money first chance they get

Whether the relationship in question is platonic or romantic, it’s usually not a good sign if the person starts chatting finances with you, and it's a larger red flag if they ask that you give them funds. “Scammers will prey on the vulnerability of someone's emotions…to easily convince you to give them money,” says Ruiz.

Typically, scam artists use two tactics to do this: The first is passing themselves off as a wealthy individual who is dealing with a dangerous circumstance where they can't access their funds (so they ask for your help and promise to reimburse you). The second is that they pretend to be in extreme financial hardship, and (somehow) only you can help them get back on their feet—even though you just met them. If you notice either of these red flags, you should cease communication as soon as possible.

3. Knowing a lot about you, even before meeting you

“Don't be deceived by how much somebody seems to know about you, or how much you seem to have in common,” says Plaggemier. That said, if you're someone who has posted about your favorite foods, favorite movies, or even misfortunes on a public forum, it can be hard to know if you're dealing with a scam artist or someone who's simply trying to get to know you. “There's so much information about us already out there,” she adds. “[It’s] really easy for somebody to fake a connection point to fake something in common.”

In terms of using this tip for spotting a scammer, it’s a good idea to trust your intuition. If it feels like someone knows too much about you—especially if you’ve never met—you might want to stop talking to that person.

4. A strong (and unnecessary) sense of urgency

Whether they’re asking you to meet, to get on a call, or to send them money, there's usually a sense of urgency that makes spotting scammers a little easier, says Plaggemier. Anything and everything for a scam artist needs to be done right this second—otherwise, their chance of getting caught goes up. You might try to wait them out, but a better strategy may be just ceasing communication altogether.

5. Always traveling

While travel could be part of someone’s work, Ruiz says “a scammer will use the excuse that they are so busy with their ‘business’ or are ‘stuck in another country,’ [so that] they are unable to meet you.” To protect yourself, consider how the interactions make you feel. If you have a gut feeling that this person is too unavailable, trust it (honestly, even if they're not a scammer).

6. Gaslighting you to avoid being caught

Essentially, gaslighting is a manipulative tactic wherein the gaslighter’s aim is to make a victim question their own reality. “Doing this is a form of emotional abuse that allows a scammer to exert a level of power over you and influences you to second-guess yourself,” says Ruiz.

This might mean that you provide your scammer with evidence about them—like photos, videos, or internet searches—and they respond by saying that’s not them, or by asking if you really believe that what you saw, heard, or read is true, Ruiz adds.

7. Requesting personal identifiable information

“When the lies start becoming a bit more extreme—they are in physical danger or are dealing with a life-threatening illness—the scammer will use persuasion to acquire your personal identifiable information, like your passport, social security number, driver's license, or bank account information,” says Ruiz.

When you’re just meeting someone, there’s never really a need for them to have your highly sensitive personal information. If they ask for it, it’d be smart to block that person and report them to the appropriate authorities. And depending on where you met this person, you could report to the local police, the app where you connected, or the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Ultimately, you'll come to a crossroads in your relationships of all sorts where you'll need to decide whether a person is trustworthy or not—and if any of these signs of scammer are present, you might want to think twice before letting them into your life.

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