AskDefine | Define scam

Dictionary Definition

scam n : a fraudulent business scheme [syn: cozenage] v : deprive of by deceit; "He swindled me out of my inheritance"; "She defrauded the customers who trusted her"; "the cashier gypped me when he gave me too little change" [syn: victimize, swindle, rook, goldbrick, nobble, diddle, bunco, defraud, mulct, gyp, con]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. Fraudulent deal. Business plan intended to defraud.
    That marketing scheme looks like a scam to me.


  1. To defraud or embezzle.
    They tried to scam her out of her savings.

Extensive Definition

A confidence trick or confidence game, more often known as a con, scam, swindle, grift, bunko, flim flam, or scheme, is an attempt to swindle a person or people (known as the "mark" or sometimes "griftee") which involves gaining his or her confidence. (For confidence tricks dealing with information theft or computers see social engineering.)


The first known usage of the term "confidence man" was in 1849; it was used by the press during the trial of William Thompson. Thompson chatted with strangers until he asked if they had the confidence to lend him their watches, whereupon he would walk off with the watch; he was captured when a victim recognized him on the street.

Vulnerability to confidence tricks

Persons of any level of intelligence are vulnerable to deception by experienced con artists. Confidence tricks exploit human weaknesses like greed, dishonesty, vanity, but also virtues like honesty, compassion, or a naïve expectation of good faith on the part of the con artist.
Just as there is no typical profile for swindlers, neither is there one for their victims. Virtually anyone can fall prey to fraudulent crimes. … Certainly victims of high-yield investment frauds may possess a level of greed which exceeds their caution as well as a willingness to believe what they want to believe. However, not all fraud victims are greedy, risk-taking, self-deceptive individuals looking to make a quick dollar. Nor are all fraud victims naive, uneducated, or elderly.
Confidence tricksters often rely on the greed and dishonesty of the mark, who may attempt to out-cheat the con artist, only to discover that he or she has been manipulated into losing from the very beginning. This is such a general principle in confidence tricks that there is a saying among con men that "you can't cheat an honest man."
Nevertheless, some tricks depend on the honesty of the victim. In a common scam, as part of an apparently legitimate transaction, the victim is sent a worthless check, which the victim then deposits. The victim is then urged to forward the apparent value of the check to the trickster as cash, possibly keeping a small portion of the money as a commission, which they may do before discovering the check bounces. Another fashionable scenario (as of 2006) has the victim recruited as a "financial agent" to collect "business debts". Paper checks are not always involved: funds may be transferred electronically from another victim.
Sometimes con men rely on naive individuals who put their confidence in get-rich-quick schemes, such as "too good to be true" investments. It may take years for the wider community to discover that such investment schemes are bogus. By the time they are discovered, many people may have lost their life savings to something in which they have been persuaded to invest.
The confidence trickster often works with one or more accomplices called shills, who help manipulate the mark into accepting the con man's plan. In a traditional confidence trick, the mark is led to believe that he will be able to win money or some other prize by doing some task. The accomplices may pretend to be random strangers who have benefited from successfully performing the task.

Notable con artists

Born in the 18th century

  • Gregor MacGregor (1786-1845) – Scottish conman who tried to attract investment and settlers for a non-existent country of Poyais

Born/active in the 19th century

Born/active in the 20th century

Living people

  • Clifford Irving (1930) – US writer, best known for an "authorized autobiography" of Howard Hughes that turned out to be a hoax
  • Frank Abagnale (1948) – former US con artist, check forger and impostor; his autobiography, Catch Me If You Can, was made into a movie
  • James Arthur Hogue (1959) – US impostor who most famously entered Princeton University by posing as a self-taught orphan
  • Robert Hendy-Freegard (1971) – British con artist who kidnapped people impersonating as an MI5 agent and conned them out of money; he was convicted in 2005
  • Gert Postel (1958) – German medicine con, a simple postman who for decades pretended to be a medical doctor, worked from 1995 for almost 2 years as a psychiatrist in a small province hospital in Saxony

Notable confidence tricks in movies and television

Notable confidence tricks in literature

  • Advance fee fraud (also known as 'Nigerian scam' or '419 scam')
  • Bogus escrow – straightforward confidence trick in which a scammer operates a bogus escrow service
  • Get-rich-quick schemes – plan to acquire high rates of return for a small investment
  • Pyramid scheme – non-sustainable business model that involves the exchange of money primarily for enrolling other people into the scheme, usually without any product or service being delivered
  • Quackery – term used to describe questionable medical practices
  • Romance scam
  • Scam baiting — deliberately seeking out scammers to expose them or waste their time
  • Scams in intellectual property
  • Social engineering - Techniques used to manipulate people into performing actions or divulging confidential information.
  • Spam - Most, if not all spam is nothing more than a scam, such as the "You WON the $1,000,000 Grand Prize", then to "claim" the (non-existent) prize, the scammer needs your personal information which is in turn used to effect all manner of crime against you, including ID Theft.
  • Sting operation - confidence tricks used for the purpose of law enforcement
  • Totse - See the "Bad Ideas" section on the Totse website. It includes scam examples and how to pull them off on unsuspecting people, Wal-Mart, other commercial enterprises; and how to protect yourself from such scams..
  • White-collar crime – crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation
  • White van speakers – scam sales technique in which a salesman makes a buyer believe he is getting a good price on audio merchandise

Further reading


External links

scam in Danish: Bondefanger
scam in German: Bauernfängerei
scam in Spanish: Estafa
scam in Galician: Scam
scam in Ido: Eskroko
scam in Indonesian: Scam
scam in Italian: Scam
scam in Hebrew: תרגיל עוקץ
scam in Dutch: Oplichting
scam in Norwegian: Lurendreieri
scam in Polish: Scam
scam in Swedish: Lurendrejeri

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

ballot-box stuffing, beat, beguile of, bilk, bunco, burn, cardsharping, cheat, cheating, chisel, chouse, chouse out of, cog, cog the dice, con, cozen, cozenage, crib, defraud, diddle, diddling, dishonesty, do in, do out of, dodge, euchre, finagle, fishy transaction, flam, fleece, flimflam, fob, fraud, fraudulence, fraudulency, fudge, gerrymandering, gouge, graft, grift, gull, gyp, gyp joint, have, hocus, hocus-pocus, illicit business, imposition, imposture, mulct, pack the deal, pigeon, practice fraud upon, racket, rook, screw, sell gold bricks, shave, shortchange, stack the cards, stick, sting, swindle, take a dive, thimblerig, throw a fight, victimize
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