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Here is a quick-reference guide to some of the words used to describe the tricks and hoaxes that threaten us every day in our scam dictionary: Internet Scambusters #343

Today’s issue is a bit different. You see, a whole set of terms has grown up around the murky world of deception. There’s easily enough for a scam dictionary!

Some of them are easy to work out — like investment scams and identity theft. Other terms are more obscure in meaning — including the word “scam” itself.

In all cases, you can read more about them at Scambusters, but for those in a hurry, today we offer our scam dictionary rundown of 23 tricks that have their own special names.


Inside Our Scam Dictionary — 23 Terms You Need to Know


Deception is such a big and broad type of crime these days, that here at Scambusters we got to thinking that what everyone needs is a scam dictionary so they quickly understand what law enforcement officials mean when they issue warnings about a particular con trick.

So as a special feature for this week’s issue, we’re providing our own quick reference scam dictionary, highlighting 23 names among the most common types of deception crimes.

Obviously it’s not a complete list since new types of scams appear all the time. And we don’t cover some of the more obvious names that just simply state what they are — like investment scams and the biggest scam of them all — identity theft (visit our Identity Theft Information Center for more on this).

Of course, if you want to know more about these or any particular crime, you can follow the links we’ve provided or simply enter the scam term in our search box.

So, let’s get to it.

  1. 419 scams. Named for the section number of Nigerian state law that covers all manner of con tricks coming from that country — but mostly scams in which you’re told you’ve won a lottery, inherited a fortune or can help smuggle money out of the country. All of which require upfront money from you. For obvious reasons, these are also known as Nigerian scams.
  2. 809/890 scams. You get a voicemail or an email asking you to call a number beginning with either 809 or 890. These connect to the Dominican Republic and you may be charged a small fortune, via your phone bill, for each minute you’re on the line. Check out this article on the 809 scam.
  3. Advance fee. This terms covers all kinds of tricks (including 419 scams mentioned above), where you’re asked to pay a fee upfront before you get your winnings, a loan or some other kind of cash.
  4. Affinity scams. “Affinity” means a close resemblance or connection. When someone you know well — at your church, for instance — recommends a way of making money or buying a bargain, which turns out to be bogus (often they may do this innocently), that’s an affinity scam. More on affinity scams in this article.
  5. Badge charity scams. Tricksters claim to be raising money on behalf of the emergency or armed services (the people who wear badges). Read this article for tips on charity donations.
  6. Bait and switch. These scammers advertise bargains that lure in their victims, who are then told the item is no longer available. They either get a cheap substitute for the same price, or are asked to pay for a much more expensive alternative. Bait and switch tricksters are also at work in the remortgage business, and these scams are even more prevalent in a bad economy.
  7. Black dollar or black money scams. The crook claims to have smuggled a fortune in currency into the country, by dyeing them black. The dye supposedly can be removed with a mystery fluid. The victim is fooled by a phony demo and lured into buying more of the “currency” which is actually just worthless paper.
  8. Cramming. When you buy a service (typically a phone service), the provider bills you for extras you either didn’t order or they don’t provide. Read about cramming (and slamming, mentioned below) here.
  9. Flim flam. The most common form of this crime involves confusing a store cashier by trying to change large denomination notes and swapping money back and forth, until the cashier loses track of the transactions — and a bunch of money.
  10. Key logging. Victims of this crime unknowingly download a program onto their computers that monitors every key they press and sends a record back to the scammer, who then uses the information for crime, usually identity theft. You can find more on key logger programs here.
  11. Money mules. People who launder stolen money, either knowingly or innocently, from the proceeds of crime. See this article about the money mule.
  12. Mystery shoppers. Victims are told they’ve been selected to participate in a store security or customer service operation. The letter often includes a check, which hooks them into the payment forwarding scam (see below). Here’s a useful article about mystery shopping — what’s legit and what scams to watch out for.
  13. Overpayment scams. Similar to payment forwarding scams (see below).
  14. Payment forwarding. A whole set of scams in which victims receive forged checks (e.g., for mystery shopping, house rental or auction sales) and are asked to cash it and forward part of it as a money wire to a third party. After they do, the check bounces. Payment forwarding scams are similar to overpayment scams.
  15. Pigeon drop scam. A “mark” or “pigeon” is convinced to give up a sum of money in order to secure the rights to a larger sum of money, or more valuable object such as (worthless) jewelry. The black dollar scam (see above) is a version of this.
  16. Phishing. There are several variations of this scam which invariably leads to identity theft.- Phishing itself involves a spam email that takes you to a phony website made to look like the real thing, which asks you to key in personal information like passwords and bank details.- Spear-phishing is the same crime targeted at an individual rather than sent out as spam.

    – Whaling — it’s the same but this time the potential victims are “big fish” like company executives.

    Pharming actually takes you to the genuine website which has been hijacked by scammers.

    Learn how to protect yourself from phishing by reading Phishing Scams: How You Can Protect Yourself.

  17. Ponzi scheme. An investment scam that lures victims with the promise of big returns. Part of the money from later investors is paid to early investors to keep them happy. And so on, until the new investment dries up and the scheme collapses. Here’s how to avoid being sucked into a Ponzi scheme.
  18. Ransomware. A program you unwittingly download onto your computer that then scrambles all your data and won’t unscramble it until you pay a fee.
  19. Scareware. Usually a pop-up that appears on your screen with a hoax warning that your computer’s been infected with a virus, and demanding you buy a program to remove it.
  20. Skimming. Mostly, this refers to a process for capturing information from ATM and credit cards. A device is used (often sneakily installed on ATMs and store card machines) to record the information and pass it to the crooks. There’s another type of skimming — check it out in this article.
  21. Slamming. Victims are tricked into changing their phone or energy utility provider. Often the service starts out cheaper but the price quickly goes up.
  22. Spyware. Any computer program or part of a program that tracks your actions and reports them back to a scammer for the purposes of crime. See also “key logging” above.
  23. Spam. Its official name — Unsolicited Bulk Email (UBE) — says what it really is. Usually peddling questionable things like “miracle” medical treatments, designer label knock-offs and financial schemes.

Variations include SpaSMS (spam sent in cell phone text messages) and Spim (sent via Instant Messenger programs).

Sick of spam? Find out what you can do about it in our article: 7 Tips to Help You Reduce or Stop Spam.

Interestingly, although many of these terms are relatively new, the word “scam” itself has been around for decades, though no one seems quite sure where it came from.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word originated in the US and was first recorded in print in “Time” magazine in 1963 with the quote: “My boss was scammin’ from the public and I was scammin’ from him.”

The article also referred to the same person saying: “He worked as a carny huckster…It was a full scam.”

And there’s the clue. According to the Wall Street Journal, “scam” was actually a “carny” or “carnival” term meaning to “fleece the public.” So now you know!

And now that you know the lingo, maybe you can help others too — by passing on our scam dictionary. We hope it helps people understand some the tricks and cons out there.

That’s all for today — we’ll see you next week.