How to Spot a Scammer

I’m scammed almost every day. Or, if not scammed, at the very least someone tries to scam me. Usually more than once a day. The first time was at the age of 12 playing three card monte in NYC where I lost my watch. Another time when I sent in $80 so I could get rich stuffing envelopes. I have a solid 30 years of scam history behind me.

Here’s another time: Someone stole $12 million. Not just from me but from a lot of people. When I wrote the above article he accepted my Facebook friend request. But then I guess he saw the article and didn’t respond to my email, “hey, wassup?”

I’m going to tell you the secrets of most of the times I’ve been scammed so if you want to be a scammer also, then you can be. I don’t recommend it. People sue you. You have to have a good constitution so you could sleep at night (I would be horrible at it).

A lot of people will yell at you. I would yell at you. It’s no fun when “JAMES FUCKING ALTUCHER” is yelling at you. I wrote it that way so I could sound tough but I’m not really that tough. But if “JAMES FUCKING ALTUCHER” is calling you and wants his money back then you better give it. Because he’s a mean motherfucker.

Qualities of the best scammers.

A)     They almost always tell the truth. They tell more truths than you even need so when it gets right down to sifting through all those truths in order to find the lies its like finding a needle in a haystack. And  they tell so many truths its easy to say yes a lot. “So 2 + 2 = 4, right?” “Yes”. “And we’re all speaking English, right?” “Yes”. “So this time machine might work?” “Yes”.

B)     They have LOTS of great things going on. If you just tag your little boat to their yacht then you are going to be sailing the high seas, for sure. With maids and servants and little umbrellas in the drinks. I mean, if you thought one million was cool, how about one quadrillion. That’s how many good things they have going on. And if you say, “but what about..” they say, “yeah, but, then there’s…” and they tell you ten other things worth a quadrillion. It’s too much. Your heart flutters. Can so much money be possibly mine for the taking? Am I really going to be the guy to bring infinite free energy to China?

C)      Free money.  The way they talk it almost sounds like there’s free money. One guy said, “just go to this lunch and we’ll give you part of the company.” NOBODY wants to give you money for free. Repeat that like a mantra. The next thing I knew, I was scammed. And it’s going to sound ridiculous when I tell you. The guy at the lunch had invented, among other things, a time machine. I’m not joking. We were all eating steak. The guy had five or six inventions.

At the end of his powerpoint: time machine.

I didn’t lose money on that. But a lot of time. If I could use the time machine for just one thing I would get that time back.

By the way, a quality of a good scam: I still believe the time machine part. But the other guys involved were trying to scam me in other ways and it took me about a year to get rid of them.

It reminds me of another invention I was pitched about a year ago. The Star Trek food replicator. No joke. Here’s how it works: these scientists invented an edible material (think: firm tofu) that can be shaped and flavored anyway they want. Combine that with a quality 3D printer that somehow has a method for adding seasoning and coloring to food and suddenly you can order yourself up a nice steak. I passed on that one.  The last thing I need in life is to be responsible for solving all of starvation on the planet.

D)     They ask for advice. The best very best scammers will always ask for your advice. This is their favorite technique. It makes them vulnerable. It flatters your ego. How can they be ripping you off if they also need your advice on the exact thing they are eventually going to rip you off on. It’s almost like they are making you an accomplice in the ripoff. We’re talking the Grade A scammers now. Example: the guy who stole the 12 mm that I mentioned above was always asking my advice on how he could position his hedge fund so he could raise more money. I was really flattered that he was asking me. It made me feel like an expert.

E)      They always have a reason. During a scam, things always go wrong. But that’s ok, they say, because soon, X, Y, and Z will happen. Every month, every day even, there’s a new reason. And the reasons start to get thick with lies mixed with truths so you can’t figure out which is which. It’s too confusing. This has happened in most of my relationships as well.

F)     They say:  “I’m going to make you a very rich man.” Nobody wants to make me a rich man. In fact, most people want to make me a very poor man. I can guarantee some people fantasize at night about how poor they can make me. But if someone tells me they want to make me a rich man I now know enough to run the opposite direction. If someone says to me, “I’m going to make you poor as shit,” I am more likely to invest in them.

G)    They have really good people around them. Like so and so was the Vice-President of the Planet at one point. And this guy over here was the world weightlifting champion. And this one got five PhDs at Harvard+ by the time he was 12. How can you go against a guy who has a superstar team like that. I mean, we’re talking the Vice-President of THE PLANET. And somehow, despite having the rulers of the universe on their team, if they just get some help from JAMES F ALTUCHER, then they will make BILLIONS!

I can go on and on. It’s pathetic the kind of things I’ve hoped would come true and everyone sort of looked at me and said, “did he really believe what we just told him?’

The worst scams are when nobody did anything wrong. But they got your hopes up. They told you a number that seemed only slightly higher than you could’ve hoped for.  Beautiful visions were spun. And things were looking good. The girl was still lying in the bed the next day. And dreams were coming true. It’s hard to know which stars in the sky will turn into black holes. And which ones will open up worm holes into entire new universes.

Any other ways to spot a scammer?

  • Scammers have a “beard.” God, fame, looks, charms.

    I have mailed extensively with 419ers. They’ll say every prayer and kill every member of their family to see you pay a demurrage charge.

    • Funny. I had “looks” on my list but took it out. But you’re right. Why do you email with the 419ers? Sport?

      • It’s a great creative outlet for me. I have to think on my feet and I can be anyone and do anything as long as I type it out convincingly.

  • I think the first time I was scammed I was also around 12 or 13. I bought a PDF off Ebay about how I could make money on the internet. All the PDF said was to resell the PDF to other people.

    Great advice.

    Another way to spot a scammer: Everything is about the future. It’s always about how “big” they’re going to build something. How if they can just get a little help from you, they’ll be able to exponentially grow. They perpetually focus on the future without building anything of substance in the present which makes for an empty past.

    • 90% of the Internet is like that PDF. 

    • Gina

      I once heard of a scam about a guaranteed roach killer. It was a hammer and a board with “place roach here and hit with hammer” written on it. That warranty would be void in Florida, unless the instructions told to you whack it, chase it, whack it again, repeat.

  • They avoid spotters. Once a “high yield roll” scamsters wanted to meet a friend (a financially illiterate one) and I suggested I come to the meeting as a reality-check, being someone with 20+ years of experience in the markets. When they heard I was coming over as well, their car supposedly broke down and they were unable to attend the meeting… Always, always tell that you are bringing in a police officer /CPA/corporate finance lawyer with you.

  • They smile too much. They are always too enthusiastic. They never seem to have a bad day. They are always wating for a cell phone call from someone “important.” They always have a plane to catch (that day, that night, that week). They know your name before you are introduced. They leave right before the bill is delivered to the table…….

    • Romolo DiFonzo

      Scammers have to be nice, pleasant and well dressed & spoken in order to impress you and get your $$$.  I can tell you that the biggest fraudsters I’ve come across are the nicest, best dressed, well spoken and are always jetting off to some far away meeting.

  • They try to frighten you.

    Not all scammers do this, but all people who try to frighten you are *always* trying to scam you.  They know that fear stops the human brain cold, and the last thing they want you doing is using your brain.

    • Good point. That’s somewhat of a negotiating tactic as well.

  • Ning Xu

    A lot of people will start to offer you the opportunity to make you poor as shit tomorrow

  • Anonymous

    They set the hook by trying to take the offer away from you. People fear loss and if they think they are losing something, they grab for it.

    • Roy

      I agree with this one too….

      alot of these manipulative types do this….they may say something like this….

      “oh so maybe you dont want success bad enough then”


      “oh so i guess you dont want to be rich and buy a big mansion”

  • Agree on the smile thing – anyone who smiles at me while they are talking is an instant pass no matter how stellar the opportunity.

  • Ningxunx

    And I feel like I was a scammer as I asked you advice when you signed the book for me last week

  • A subset of G) – they always seem to have a respectable investor (“If they’re in, how can I go wrong??”).

  • TripleB

    Their business card says “Managing Director, Investment Banking”.

  • I got my first Nigerian spam in the early 70s.  On airmail paper, in an airmail envelope, with real stamps, mailed from Lagos.  I don’t recall the details I was offered, but having just retired from teaching internet for the last 20 years of my career, I’ve often wished I’d saved it to show students that it didn’t take the internet to provide a forum for scammers overseas.  

  • They are usually very charismatic.  Their personal stories are so unbelievable tragic that honest people wouldn’t dare question. They pick up all the tabs early in the scam. And the only person that has work with them for more than one year is their lawyer.

  • Ian Reide

    “Snakes in Suits” by Babiak and Hare discusses psychopaths in the workplace and in the world. Many scammers are these people. They ruin lives and destroy careers. They are fundamentally different from normal people.

  • But is there anyone who is not a scammer of some sort?

    No one, absolutely no one sells themself as they really are and their product is never presented as it really is. No matter how good the truth is, it always has to be taken up a notch.

    Does a Big Mac ever really look that good in real life? 

    Any element of mis-truth, if it separates you from your time or money is a scam. Granted, some are more egregious than others, but the objectives are always the same.

    My favorite scams are the time share variety. Somehow, despite all of the common knowledge that they’re bad investments, they are still able to convince people that they’re not.Sure there’s a tangible product but they convince you to pay far more for it than it is worth.

    The reason that I like them is that you can make a career out of the “free 2 day/3 night excursions”  by just staying for the 90 minute presentation and then being resolute.” You get to scam the scammer by never having any intention of actually buying one of those god-foresaken deals, but you’re more than happy to have a few days on their dime.

    When we were much younger we enjoyed doing that, then inexplicably, my wife came to believe that her time was too valuable for the 90 minute presentations. The irony was that I was the one working and didn’t consider my time to be too valuable in exchange for the travel and lodging.

    Scamming is a It’s a zero sum game, but the flow of funds seems to go in only a single direction. I just think that the best way to approach scammers to to create an equilibrium in the flow of assets.

    • S34ndad

      There is sizzle and there is steak. It’s one thing to emphasize the sizzle. It’s a scam when there isn’t a steak.

      • Gina

        Unless that “steak” is the one sizzling on your plate at a free lunch. Be prepared to hear how you won’t have ZERO ZERO NO NONE AT ALL risk, BIG bonus, LARGE returns, and NEVER EVER EVER pay a dime in taxes. We need a big TANSTAAFL campaign in Florida.

    • “Sure there’s a tangible product but they convince you to pay far more for it than it is worth.”

      The broker I bought my business from told me over lunch one day “the worth of something is what people will pay for it”. I was only 32 at the time and not quite as dumb as a box of rocks.

      • Great point.

        That’s an axiomatic example of an axiom.

        And who decided that axioms are always true despite being unprovable? Duh. Obviously the gut that wants to sell you the goods. The fact that an axiom is supposed to be “self-evident” makes you feel like a moron if you don’t see “the obvious”

        That’s all part of the design of that scam. Yes, it’s true that something is only worth what someone is willing to pay, but that’s in the case where supply exceeds demand.

        In the case where demand exceeds supply there’s no rational basis for price. Instead price is set by some combination of greed, fear and fear of missing out.

  • Marketsurfer

    A tell tale sign of a scammer is if he calls you “buddy”. If nyone e er calls you “buddy” or “my friend”. Run!

  • dawn

    How do you NOT come across as a scammer? Say I have a business idea (I do) and I truly want to benefit my clients (I do) and I want to make money at my idea (I do, but there are other reasons behind this idea that benefit me outside of money)? In addition to James’ post, I’m reading all the readers’ comments.

    • Anonymous

      Put your own money into it. Put your name on the door/business card. Provide value. Work hard and answer all questions.

  • Nick Kravitz

    There are some funny stories of reversing the scam, (scam baiting)

  • Gina

    TANSTAAFL – Robert Heinlein, 1966

    • Sean

      What about supply side tax cuts?  Thought I heard they pay for themselves?

  • Roy

    haha….dude you are on fire this week with your posts!

    btw…I am going to make you a very rich man…

  • S34ndad

    Punctuation and grammar. I got a phishing email from (suppossedly) Chase Bank. It started “Dear Chase Account” then no colon or comma before the body of the email. I didn’t need to read any further. The small details like this often provide the redflags that what are suposed to be important official documents are just bullcrap.

    If there is any pushback to putting it in writing, I’d also run.

    Another thing I’ve seen is the use of “loose numbers”. Like when someone says they made 8 to 10 million last year. You know whether you made 8 or 9 or 10 million. It’s like saying you have 3 to 4 kids, you know whether it is 3 or 4.

    • Even if it said Dear chase account a bank would use your name, avoiding all emails which say dear customer should be avoided. 

  • M1k_3

    Isn’t it as simple as, if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is?

  • Gina

    Paying money up front. 

    Make millions, just pay $80 to read the blog of JAMES F%&*#$&% ALTUCHER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!I myself was scooped up in a sweepstakes “win” of a “free” cruise.             (hangs head in shame)

  • We pay well.
    If I hear this again, I will run without looking backwards

  • Rob 
    Jack Reed has this B.S. detection checklist. Applies to most scam artists. I’d would like my money back from that company that sold the x-ray vision glasses to me from that Marvel comic!

  • Meatbone9

    The worst scammers are those that work for the scammers, but don’t know they are being scammed by the scammers as well!

  • Funny, I read through all the comments and I just keep being reminded of the Republican Presidential debates.

    • Anonymous

      I bet you $10,000 that… er wait… nevermind. :)

    • Pete

      That is odd.  After reading the article I could only think of obama and all of his speeches.

  • Anonymous

    There are no scams. Only varying degrees of delusion. Some delusion is healthy, in that you have to believe things are possible to make them come to fruition. Some delusion is unhealthy, like believing anyone, anywhere can actually do anything for you. Calling out a scam is a scapegoat. You didn’t do due diligence. You didn’t check references, you didn’t find a friend who had already experienced it, you didn’t find out if it was technically possible to travel through time. It’s on you. People get scam-happy when they leap before they look. Do your homework. 

    What is true is that there is a fine line between persuasion and manipulation. Nothing on earth happens without persuasion. It’s the act of coaxing people into doing what they want to do, but when you want them to do it. Manipulation on the other hand, is the act of pretending to persuade, but having your own selfish desires as the intended outcome. Neither should be mistaken for the other. 

  • Anonymous

    Anything that links to a page where the root website name is different from the company. Best to browse to the site yourself than follow a link in an email. Also, emails should never ask for your password or personal information. 

    Fake websites are designed to look more and more like the legitimate site. Worse, the world of site certificates has been compromised.

    • Anonymous

      The most clever SPAM I have seen lately is a text email, purportedly from a techie in the company, telling a person their inbox is full.  It looks legit, so people don’t think to check the sender on those types of emails before following the instructions. 

      (The biggest safely valve here is that most ignore IT until their PICNIC phone call. This is one of my brother-in-law’s favorite Dilbert strips.

  • 1) Low-grade scammers (e.g. from Nigeria) usually refuse to talk over the phone.
    They also like to start their emails with “Sir”.
    S34ndad is right – poor grammar is another sign of potential scam.
    Asking to send them money over Western Union, Money Gram, etc. is usually sign of scam.
    2) If it seems to good to be true then it probably is a scam.

  • Mark

    James, I notice that when I’m in a meeting with a scammer who surrounds himself with quality people, they tend to shut up, swallow hard, and get shifty eyes when the lies start. I think they don’t want to hear the truth, want to believe their judgment is good. They’re supportive on the truth and would rather ignore the lies. Maybe after the meeting they ask what the hell the scammer meant when he said “millions of customers” or “there’s only ten percent left so get in now” or “your car will be ready by 5 pm today.”

  • Paideia

    James, I know you know that Star Trek Food Replicator isn’t all that far fetched!
    At least not at MIT:
    ~ Mark

  • Gonzalo Gandia

    I’ve been scammed quite a few times in the last few years. The scammers are exactly the way you describe. Now they tell me the money will get back to me soon. That money ain’t ever comin´back…

  • I have a very well tuned “scam artist” radar. My father was a life long scammer and relatively good at it. He had NO conscience. He once even duped Dennis Kucinich into holding a press conference over “predatory lending” with him even though my father had obtained his large business loan fraudulently.  20 years ago as a young man I would watch him skip from sucker to sucker collecting sums of money here and there from $50 to $100 grand for various “deals”, “Inventions”, etc. et al

    Anyone could be a mark…it’s amazing what someone with a bit of intelligence and no conscience can do. He duped doctors, lawyers(yes, really!), businessmen(one a very large real estate developer), politicians(see above), CPA’s and a host of other people that really should have known better.

    The funny thing is he still had a core small business…when he applied himself to it he was actually quite good at it. Reflecting on things myself now 20-25 years later and owning my own business I can see things a bit more clearly. As good as a salesperson my father was he never understood his own shortcomings(impulse control, especially on cash management).

    I think the cons were just a way to spend whatever he wanted whenever….sometimes I think he started to believe his own lies!

    Anyway, nice write up James. You’re mostly on point on how to spot them..all I could do is “add” to your post…not deduct.

  • When you feel it in your gut that something just is not right…

  • I was suggested this website by my cousin. I’m not sure whether this post is written by him as no one else know such detailed about my difficulty. You’re wonderful! Thanks! 

  • Conventional Wisdumb

    Anyone who says: “You can trust me.” should be avoided at all costs.

  • Best advice I ever heard on not being scammed came from Warren Buffet [paraphrasing] “Any time someone asked me for money to invest in their good idea, I told them to give me their money because I had a better idea”.

    George … The Greek … From Canada

  • This scam might have worked, if I hadn’t just seen a very similar movie: 

  • Earl Baker

    You spot the scammer by spotting the greedy bastard inside yourself. Because every con needs a mark who thinks he’s about to get something for nothing and it doesn’t hurt if he’s willing to do something crooked along the way to make it happen as well.  You don’t need to spot scammers if you let go of the larceny in your own heart.  Their appeal will not be of any interest to you at that point.

  • Mildred Love48

    “For of this sort are they which creep
    into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with
    divers lusts, Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of
    the truth.  Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood
    Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds,
    reprobate concerning the faith.” ~ II Timothy 3:

  • Dave

    Hilarious, thank you. Especially the part “and at the end: time machine,” also “make me poor as shit.” Almost woke my neighbor

  • Alisha P

    I listen to my gut. Im so sensitive to peoples energy i can feel its a scam. Like i feel the disbelife being posted with this article today .