What Is a Scam? Definition, Meaning, & Common Types

August 9, 2023

What is a scam?

A scam is an intentional deception that results in one party unfairly obtaining something, typically money, from another party. The meaning of scam is any fraudulent scheme whose purpose is to take advantage of people. A scam is a trick. 

Scam as a noun: Is digital real estate a scam? 

Scam as an adjective: They received a scam phone call but didn’t fall for it. 

Scam as a verb: That group scams people out of a lot of money. 

An example of a scam is a grandparent receiving a call from an imposter pretending to be their grandchild or relative, asking for money because they are in trouble. 

Synonym of scam: swindle, hustle, con, fraud, bunco

What is scam artist? A scam artist is a person who orchestrates scams, also known as a scammer. 

What is considered scamming?

The element of deceit resulting in one party obtaining something of value from another party makes something a scam. Any scheme whose purpose is to take advantage of people by tricking them into parting with something of value or an unfair transaction would be considered a scam. 

What is the purpose of scamming?

The purpose of scamming is for one party to realize financial gain at the expense of another party. Scamming has a malicious purpose because it entails cheating someone out of something that belongs to them.

Is scamming and stealing the same thing?

Scamming and stealing are not the same thing. Scamming is a fraudulent scheme that convinces someone to part with their property through their own power, whereas stealing refers to the physical movement of property without the knowledge or consent of the owner.

What are 10 common types of scams?

  1. Charity scams
  2. Debt relief service scams
  3. Debt collection scams
  4. Phishing scams
  5. Employment scams
  6. Emergency scams
  7. Imposter scams
  8. Tourist scams
  9. Romance scams
  10. Prize scams

1. What is a charity scam?

A charity scam is a scam that deceives people into thinking they are giving money to a charity for a legitimate cause, when in reality, most of the money is just going into the pocket of the fake charity’s owner. Also known as disaster fraud, charity scams are especially common after high-profile disasters, like terrorist attacks or earthquakes, in an attempt to take advantage of people's emotions and desire to assist those who are suffering.

2. What is a debt relief service scam?

A debt relief service scam is a scam that falsely promises to help lower debt payments by negotiating with an indebted person's creditors or through another means. Also known as debt settlement or credit repair scams, these scams target consumers who have accumulated significant credit and who are desperate for a solution to the financial burden they are facing. This type of scam usually requests upfront cash to help the situation before disappearing once the cash is received, or tricks people into giving away their sensitive personal information which is used for identify theft. There are legit programs and coaches, such as Marcus Barney, that teach you how to repair your credit legitimately to avoid such scams.

3. What is a debt collection scam?

A debt collection scam is a scam that involves a false debt collector attempting to extort money from someone by convincing them that they owe debts that don’t exist. It’s common for actual creditors like credit card or auto loan companies to contact debtors when bills become past due in order to collect the money owed, so it can be easy for false debt collectors to take advantage of people who don’t have their finances organized and get free money out of them.

4. What is a phishing scam?

Phishing scams are internet scams that involve fraudulent emails being sent that appear to be from legitimate sources, like banks or companies, but whose purpose are to convince the receiver to provide their personal information so the scammer can use it for identity theft or hacking more of the user's accounts. According to the Phishing Activity Trends Report by APWG, the occurrence of phishing attacks continues to push record highs, hitting over 4.7 million attacks in 2022.

5. What is an employment scam?

An employment scam is a scam that promises you a job, but is really just after your money and personal information. Also known as job scams, employment scams often target people looking for work-from-home jobs like virtual assistants. According to the United States Federal Trade Commission, employment scammers advertise their false opportunities through the same channels as actual employers, like job sites, social media, newspaper, TV, and over the radio. 

6. What is an emergency scam?

An emergency scam is a fraudulent plea for help from someone pretending to be a family member or friend in order to get you to send them money. Emergency scams involve urgency to get the unsuspecting victim to act quickly and a secretive component so that they don’t consult with other people and discover the scam. According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, emergency scams often also involve an authority figure aspect, like a fake lawyer or police officer, in an attempt to make the scam more convincing and get the victim to act more quickly by scaring them.

7. What is an imposter scam?

An imposter scam is a scam that involves a scam artist posing as someone of authority trying to obtain money or sensitive information from their victims. According to the United States FTC, imposter scam victims lost $2.33 billion in 2021 alone. Phone scams are the most common way imposters reach their victims and they typically pretend to be a government agency like the IRS or Social Security Administration attempting to get the victim's social security number.

8. What is a tourist scam?

A tourist scam is a scam that targets unsuspecting travellers and vacationers in a location they are unfamiliar with. Tourist scams can also be known as travel scams, and some of the most common are merchants overcharging customer orders or taxi drivers not using their meter to fairly calculate the cost of the trip. 

9. What is a romance scam?

A romance scam is when a criminal adopts a fake online identity to establish trust with their victims so they can steal money. Romance scams are extremely common in the internet age because it’s easy to pretend to be someone you're not. In fact, there were over 70,000 reports of romance scams in 2022 alone, with over $1.3 billion in reported losses, according to the US Federal Trade Commission. These scams commonly occur through fake profiles on dating sites like Tinder or through social media sites like Instagram.

10. What is a prize scam?

A prize scam is a scam that targets victims by enticing them with a fake prize to get them to hand over some money or their bank account details. Also known as sweepstakes or lottery scams, prize scams were the most reported type of scam in 2021, according to Fraud.com.

Is scamming illegal?

Scamming is a serious crime that can result in substantial penalties, like fines and jail time. Scamming is illegal according to 18 U.S. Code § 1341 - Frauds and swindles. The summary of the law states that anyone participating in one of these fraudulent schemes can be fined and charged with up to 20 years in prison. If the scam involves a presidentially declared major disaster or affects a financial institution, the scammer can be charged with up to $1,000,000 in fines and up to 30 years in prison.

What type of scamming is illegal?

All types of scamming are illegal. However, scams often need to actually work and cause someone harm for them to be considered illegal. For example, according to cybersecurity expert Joseph Steinberg in an interview with Yahoo Life, the act of sending a single phishing attempt email isn’t explicitly prohibited under federal law. Typically, prosecutors charge phishing email scammers with the legitimate criminal charge of wire fraud.

Who is most at risk of falling victim to a scam?

Anyone can fall for a scam. Scams can occur anywhere and take a wide variety of forms, so they affect a wide variety of people. Even so, scams do affect some groups of people for than others. Adults between the ages of 18 and 59 are most likely to get scammed, according to the FTC. In fact, they are 34% more likely than adults aged 60+ to get scammed. Adults in the 18 to 59 age range reported getting scammed through online shopping after seeing a social media ad as most common, indicating a potential link between time spent on the internet and the potential for getting scammed.

How to avoid a scam?

  • Stay up-to-date with the latest scams so you are aware of what to look out for
  • Verify the authenticity of agencies and businesses that contact you by making sure they have official websites
  • Never give out your personal details or financial information, like contact information or online banking information, to someone you haven’t met face-to-face
  • Be weary when you receive a social media message from a stranger
  • Refrain from getting pressured into acting without thought, like sending immediate payment through money transfer 
  • Only make online purchases through official secure websites that have “HTTPS” in the URL
  • Use a secure and traceable payment method to pay online, like credit card, and avoid using a prepaid gift card, cash, or cryptocurrency
  • Check the caller id during calls and only pick up for phone numbers you recognize
  • Don’t click on any links from a suspicious email

Scam Risk and Scam Alert are two online resources for verifying and avoiding current scams. 

How to identify a scammer? 

  • The person expresses a great deal of urgency out of the blue
  • The person claims to know a person or be from a company you're familiar with
  • The person requests that you give them something now in exchange for something they will give you at a later date

Scammers like Chester Zoda from this Digital Doctor Income Review can be difficult to identify. However, the internet is a powerful tool that you can often use for research to discover if you're dealing with a scammer. 

What happens if you've been scammed? 

If you’ve been scammed, the scammer either has your sensitive personal details that they may try to use to steal money from you or they already have your money because you gave it to them. The best option if you’ve already been scammed is to report the scam to an appropriate government agency. You can use the scam report tool on the USA gov website to determine which official government organization you should report your particular scam to, usually the FTC. If you’re getting scammed in a foreign country, you’ll have to assess which official channels you can report to in that country. For example, you can report online scams to Action Fraud if you’ve been scammed in the UK.

How do you catch a scammer?

  • Report their scam activity to an applicable government agency or local law enforcement
  • Hire a private investigator with expertise in uncovering scams
  • Use search engines like Google to research any information you have about the scammer, like email addresses, phone numbers, business names, etc.
  • Perform a Whois domain search to uncover the website registration information in an online scam
  • Obtain and trace their IP address to see their physical address coordinates
  • Use social media to find any relevant information about the scammer and those that they have affected

How to make a scammer scared?

  • Make a commotion to attract attention to in-person scams
  • Tell them you’re discussing their proposition with others to make them think there are more people getting involved that could see through their scam
  • Use any information you have about their true identity in the conversation so they know you have some of their details and could potentially find them later


Fraudsters cost American consumers a whopping $8.8 billion in 2022, a number that number continues to rise each year. The employment scam is one of the most common scam methods that scam artists are using these days to take advantage of the demand for online income. Even so, there are many legitimate opportunities you can use to make thousands of dollars a month online, like local lead generation. A local lead generation agency is a business that builds websites to attract customers for local businesses. If you suspect something is a scam, it’s important to do in-depth research to determine its authenticity if it’s something that you're interested in, or just avoid it altogether if you’re not interested.

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