Spot a Scam or Fraud in Progress? Speak Up!

We all play a role in keeping our neighbors and community safe.

Earlier this year, a California woman thought she was making a routine trip to pick up some items at Target. Instead, she ended up calling the police and getting involved in an elder scam case. As she was checking out, she noticed that an elderly man was buying a highly unusual number of iTunes gift cards. Without thinking about the invasion of someone else’s privacy, she asked him point-blank why he needed so many gift cards.

“To get out of trouble with the IRS,” he answered. He’d already purchased around $1,700 worth of the cards before she approached him, but thanks to the woman’s intervention, he avoided buying an additional $500 worth. Her phone call to the police about the possible scam in progress prevented even more loss, and hopefully gave both the victim and the police a better understanding of the crime.

It can be very difficult to speak up in these kinds of situations, especially since scams tend to involve people’s personal finances. And to be honest, if a stranger asked you why you were making a large purchase, how would you respond? Putting yourself out there can be uncomfortable, but it might be a financial lifesaver for a potential victim.

Here are some ways to step in if you suspect a scam:

1. Start at the top

These scams often rely on untraceable, anonymous forms of payment, which is why criminals prefer them. Before you attempt to intervene on a one-on-one level, there’s another way you can help. Cities around the country are proposing ordinances that would require scam alert notices on gift card displays and at wire transfer locations. Reach out to your local city officials about implementing such a regulation where you live.

2. Contact law enforcement

Connect with your local law enforcement agency about hosting scam prevention workshops in your community. Many police departments have Facebook pages or other social media announcements platforms, so connect with them about posting scam alerts on their pages.

3. File complaints to the FTC

Complaints help the FTC and other law enforcement agencies bring scam artists to justice and put an end to unfair and misleading business practices.

4. Contact a store employee

If you do spot a possible scam in progress, don’t hesitate to say something. Tell an employee or a manager what you know and ask them to communicate with the customer if you’re not comfortable.

5. Make conversation

If the situation lends itself, you can even make conversation, telling the stranger about the time your “sister” got scammed when fraudsters had her buy multiple gift cards or send money to an address. If that’s too close to lying for your comfort level, talk about an article you read (this one, for example!). At the very least the listener might be intrigued, and at best you may be stopping a terrible crime in its tracks.

6. Spread the word

The best way to stop a scam is to keep it from ever happening in the first place. That means sharing news about the latest scams and fraud attempts with family and friends, which you can do face-to-face, on social media, and more. Sign up for the Identity Theft Research Center’s TMI Weekly in order to find out more about the latest scams and identity theft news, and then spread the word!


If you think you may be a victim of identity theft, contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530.

Read next: It's Tax Time...5 Quick Tips To Stay Safe Out There

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