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Telemarketing scams: What they are and how to avoid them

It's hard to avoid telephone swindlers, no matter how many times you put yourself on a "Do Not Call" list. In the age of email and texting, it remains a reliable way to reach people, and because there is a human voice on the other end, it still succeeds at defrauding people.

Phone scammers may already know a vast amount about you. They get this information from other telemarketers. It is one of the ways they get an "in" with you. But this does not mean that you are anything other than a name on a long, impersonal list to them.

Once they have called you, they will use the same smooth, friendly high-pressure tactics on you that they will use on everyone else on the list; you are not special or unique to them.

A man calls a toll free number to register his telephone number on the national telemarketers do-not-call registry. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A man calls a toll free number to register his telephone number on the national telemarketers do-not-call registry. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

It's important to remember that swindlers do not have the kind of conscience and regard for others' well-being that most of the rest of us have. Legitimate phone salespeople will respect your choice to decline, so you should have no qualms about refusing any offers.

Phone swindlers are very good at making "opportunities" sound legitimate. This is one way that they work past people's defenses. They often use official-sounding language like "high-yield investment opportunity," "prime bank note guarantee," or nearly anything that can be cobbled together from a dictionary.

They also know how to appeal to your human qualities—your sympathy, your desire to be a good person, and your desire to not disappoint others.


Nearly anything can be fraudulently marketed over the phone, but here are some of the biggest ones:

  • Charity appeals, esp. in the aftermath of major natural disasters

  • Investments

  • Prizes, vacations, gifts, or government grants, or anything you have "won" and for which you must pay some kind of fee or tax

  • Work-at-home opportunities

  • Pyramid schemes

  • Timeshares

  • Offers to provide services that can normally be obtained free (like placement on "Do Not Call" lists)

  • Fake technical support people from real companies, like Microsoft, claiming that you have a computer virus and you can be rid of it by going to a certain Website and signing up for a service.

  • Fake IRS agents telling you that you owe taxes and can pay them over the phone (the IRS never contacts people this way).

  • Offers that seem tailor-made to certain ethnic or age groups.

How can you spot one?

Phone-based scams have some or most of the following signs:

  • Fast-talking salesperson who guarantees an unusually high return for little risk.

  • "Free" vacations, prizes, or gifts, for which all you need to do is pay for postage and handling, or taxes.

  • An air of specialness about the "opportunity." Scammers use terms like "special," "once in a lifetime opportunity," "unique," etc.

  • A request for your credit card number or bank account number, or an offer to send a courier to pick up a check written by you.

  • A demand for quick action. Scammers don't want you to think about or verify what they are promising you.

  • A quickly established feeling of rapport.

  • An assurance that the company is solid and no investigation is necessary.

  • No return information about the company. Instead, scammers will use a mail drop or a courier to pick up your money. Scammers typically avoid the U.S. mail system.

  • Stalling those who follow up on the "opportunity."

How to avoid them, and how to respond if you are ensnared

  • Consult a trusted financial advisor or attorney about any offer first. Don't be shy about declining a salesperson who cold-calls you. You are just a number to them, and they won't remember you.

  • For charity calls, find out what percentage of the earnings goes to actually helping people.

  • Don't buy from unfamiliar companies.

  • Request that written material on the offer be mailed to you.

  • Insist on investigating the company and the offer through the Better Business Bureau, the National Consumers League (, or other watchdog groups.

  • Get the salesperson's name, phone number, address, and business license number, and then verify them.

  • Don't pay in advance for any services if offered by cold-callers.

  • Don't let the salesperson send a courier to your home to pick up payment.

  • Never give out your credit card numbers, Social Security number, bank account numbers, date of birth, or card expiration dates to unknown callers.

  • Finally, there is the option to just hang up.

Dive deeper: Pyramid schemes, elder fraud, and more: How to avoid scams

This content was created in partnership with the Financial Fitness Group, a leading e-learning provider of FINRA compliant financial wellness solutions that help improve financial literacy.

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