It seems every day scammers come up with new ways to swindle you out of your money. But while scams change and evolve over time, the underlying manipulative tactics scammers use remain constant. Understanding these tactics in advance can help you recognize and resist a scam when you encounter one.

A study funded by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation examined hundreds of undercover audiotapes of scammers pitching investment “deals.” The tapes found that scammers use techniques similar to “hard sell” marketing approaches legitimate businesses employ. But it can be one thing to walk away from a pushy salesperson, quite another to avoid falling into a trap you weren't even prepared to suspect. Little wonder scam victims often say, “I don’t know what I was thinking” or “She really caught me off guard.”

The fact is, good scammers are masters of persuasion and they know exactly how to play with your emotions.

“Three motivating factors can get people into trouble: fear, greed, and generosity,” warns Howard Schwartz, Executive Communications Director for the Connecticut Better Business Bureau. “We’re among the most generous people on earth and we want to help”—which makes us natural targets for the grandparent scam or the natural disaster scam

Fear causes us to instinctively prepare to pay up when we think we’re being dunned for unpaid taxes in the IRS scam. Conversely, who doesn’t want a windfall—which is why we fall for sweepstakes scams.

Forewarned is forearmed. These are three of the most common ways scammers lure victims into their net:

Three Sneaky Strategies

  • Creating a connection. A scammer’s first task is to gain your trust so you will not question his motivations. Scammers look for hot-button issues they can use to create a connection. They’ll ask benign questions about your health, your family, your political views, or your hobbies. They may have already checked you out on social media to find revealing traits, such as the fact that you’re single or a military veteran, then use that information for the “sales pitch.”

  • Establishing credibility. Scammers use lots of techniques to make themselves look legit. They may claim to be from a real business or organization—say, the Internal Revenue Service if they’re pushing the IRS scam, or a government agency purporting to award you a grant. They may “spoof” a real phone number to fool your Caller ID or hand over a fake business card. If they’re contacting you by email, they may use a phony website that looks similar to the real one—, for example. The scammer’s goal is to look and sound so convincing that you don’t bother to check out his real credentials.

  • Playing on your emotions. Scammers leverage your emotions to get you to make a quick decision before you have time to think. The lottery scam preys on the desire to get rich quickly and easily, the grandparent scam plays on the natural instinct to help a relative who’s supposedly in trouble, and the natural disaster scam exploits our generosity for people in need. 

Scammers also use a technique called reciprocity, warns the Better Business Bureau. The scammer extends a small favor to convince you she is a good person—and to make you feel obligated to return a bigger favor. For example, she may say, “I’ll give you a 50 percent break on my commission if you buy now.” She’ll torque your friendly feelings to overcome your doubts—“How can you think I’d ever want to scam you?”—or to discourage you from researching her offer. 

Scammers are constantly changing their tactics. But understanding the science behind their techniques will help protect you and your loved ones from becoming a victim.