The Not-So-Secret Language Of Financial Scammers

Financial fraud is an increasingly common occurrence — so how are they still managing to fool us?

It’s news to exactly no one that, in 2024, nearly every aspect of financial life is conducted online: transferring funds, scheduling credit card payments, setting up auto pay for bills. It’s good for seamlessly managing your finances; it’s bad for potentially falling for a scam, done at the hands of increasingly savvy scammers ready to swindle you out of thousands of dollars. 


The common thought is this: But I’m too smart to be defrauded by a total stranger. But the reality is that the tactics scammers use to target their victims, whether over text, email, or phone, are both alarmingly sophisticated…and yet, surprisingly basic. “They make you believe they’re there to help you,” says U.S. Secret Service Assistant Special Agent Charles Leopard, adding that most scammers utilize either scare tactics to influence their victims to wire money, share passwords, or reveal banking information, or they build rapport with them (also known as a “romance scam” in which a good-looking stranger DMs you and after months of banter, suddenly offers to invest your money).

Some scammers will simply send emails en masse to 10,000 or more people, enticing them to click a link to “safeguard their account details” or something similar — aka a “phishing scam” — but they often target specific victims, like the elderly or very wealthy, and put in hours of research before contacting them. (The obvious way to identify an email scam is to see if the sender’s email is legitimate — always double check the correct email format of an agency or brand before clicking anything.) 

“Scammers conduct diligent reconnaissance on their victims,” says Laurie Iacono, associate managing director of cyber risk at Kroll, a financial and risk advisory firm based in New York. “[They study] social media accounts, review open-source information such as professional bios and news articles, and they study their contact lists to understand their friends and acquaintances. Social media users should always be wary of engaging with, adding, or linking to an individual whom they do not know in real life.”


Hearing specific personal details can make someone more likely to trust a scammer and believe they are who they say they are, whether that’s a representative at their bank, a government official, or a financial expert promising them a lucrative investment opportunity. There’s often the promise that they’ll help to either fix something (scenarios ranging from bad, like a financial app not working, to worse, a kidnapped family member) or show a way to make easy money — fast.    

“Scammers [often] pose as ‘trying to help’ customers with technical issues or funds-related issues,” says Dino Dai Zovi, head of security for Cash App. “[They] use [the phrase] ‘how to use Cash App’, or ‘hack’... or they provide ways to get ‘free money.’” 

Know this: A Cash App service representative will never ask a customer for their sign-in code. Iacono adds that the same is true for law enforcement, stating that they would never ask someone for payment upfront to conduct services, nor would they solicit sensitive details such as bank account information or PIN codes. And if anything sounds particularly…bad, like someone claiming that you owe the IRS thousands of dollars and you must pay at this very moment, just take a beat to consider whether this conversation would actually happen this way. “The IRS will never contact you via phone,” says Leopard. “The IRS is always going to contact [you in] writing [through the mail] or in person.”

These types of financial scams may be increasingly common in today’s digital age, and with the AI revolution already in motion the tactics are only going to become more advanced. But if the “representative” who has contacted you sounds too threatening or too friendly, or asks you for any personal or financial information, just delete the email, hang up the phone, and leave the text unread. (Definitely do not provide your account details over the phone.) Instead, call or email the institution in question to speak with a person directly. 

“There [are rarely] opportunities where you're gonna double your money in two months,” Leopard says. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”