How Crooks Use Distraction Scams to Trick and Rob You

The four main types of scams that aim to divert your attention while thieves take your money and valuables: Internet Scambusters #336

Diverting your attention with bogus incidents or fake questions and conversations is one of the oldest tricks in the book — we call it distraction scams.

In this week’s issue, we show the four main approaches crooks use to deceive you — working singly, with an accomplice, or with a whole crowd, and even using Internet pages.

Time to get going…


How Crooks Use Distraction Scams to Trick and Rob You


Distraction scams — they’re one of the oldest and most common tricks around. One way or another, the victim’s attention is sidetracked while the con artist or his/her accomplice pulls off a theft.

Oldest? Well, you could probably go back to pre-history to find tricksters using this ruse, even if it was just to drive a hunted animal into a trap. But here’s a real, personal example straight from the history books of more than 200 years ago:

One of our Scambusters, Keith, is also a keen family history researcher. While delving into the history of an ancestor who owned a jewelry store in 19th century London, he came across a court report of how his relative was robbed of an expensive French watch.

Two men came into the store and while one feigned interest in buying a pair of earrings, asking to see several trays of the items, the other removed the watch from its display stand and walked out.

As it happens, the thief was caught when he tried to pawn the watch. There was a trial and the thief was convicted. He was hanged for his crime!

Nowadays, the punishment is not nearly so severe (!) — but you could argue that this only makes it more tempting for the scammers, heightening the need for us to learn the lessons of history and be on the lookout for distraction scammers. (And just to be clear, we don’t advocate hanging.) 🙂

Usually, but not always, they operate with an accomplice and many of their tricks are plied on the streets of vacation resorts, where unwary and, often, tired travelers fall victim.

(For more on travel and vacation scams, see these three Scambusters issues on travel scams.)

Summer Travelers: Avoid These Common Travel Scams

How to Avoid Travel Scams When Vacationing Overseas

Airport Travel Scams: Watch Out For These Airport Tricksters

Here are some of the most common distraction scams to watch out for:

Solo Distraction Scams

It’s perfectly possible for an individual to distract you and rob you at the same time.

For instance, there’s the flim-flam used on store cashiers, where so much money is swapped back and forth that the cashier loses track of what’s happening and ends up handing over too much change.

Or the thief may simply distract you with conversation, by spilling a drink on you or your table, or pointing to something a distance away, while he lifts your wallet.

And let’s not forget the old street-card trick, sometimes known as “Find the Lady” where three cards are shuffled around and you are asked to identify the Queen. The con-artist keeps an entertaining conversation going so your attention becomes distracted while he switches them around.

Accomplice Distraction Scams

There are so many of these tricks, it’s impossible to list them all, but here are the key ones to beware of:

  • Theft from your home. Scammers use all sorts of ruses to get into your house, like claiming to be researchers or utility workers. While one questions you or asks you to check, say, the flow from a faucet, the other rifles through your property and possessions.They may do nothing more than preoccupy you at the front door or ask you to inspect an external part of your house, while the accomplice slips around the back, into your house.A variation is to call at your door, faking an emergency and seeking your help. Sometimes these scammers may be accompanied by a child, enough to convince you to come out of the house, leaving your door open.
  • A street encounter. They may drop coins and you, naturally, help to pick them up, or ask for directions producing a map for you to use, taking your attention away from your possessions.
  • In the store or the mall, a person in front of you on an escalator stops at the top. You bump into them, while the accomplice, who is behind you, commits the theft.
  • The visual stunner. This time, one of the pair may be exceptionally attractive, snappily dressed or scantily clad — something that’s going to put your focus on them and not on what their accomplice is doing.
  • The fake drowning. On the beach, you see someone apparently struggling in the water. You rush to their aid and when you return, the possessions you left behind, like your iPod and camera, are gone.

Crowd Distraction Scams

This is a favorite in vacation resorts where a group of people surround you on the pretext of begging. Often they are kids and sometimes will carry a large piece of fabric or card which they may press against you.

The idea is that their sheer number will disorient you, while the press of bodies and cardboard will distract your attention and conceal the hands that are rifling through your pockets or dipping into your purse.

A similar approach is used by groups of adults who crowd into a store, arguing or chattering, all moving in different directions or surrounding a particular area where valuable items are displayed.

Sometimes, a fight seems to break out — enough to divert your attention away from minding your wallet or purse.

Online Distraction Scams

Yes, you can even be a distraction scam victim on the Internet. This happens when you’re visiting an unsafe site and you’re preoccupied by an item you’re looking at or reading – usually a fake, dramatic story or photo.

Unwittingly, at some stage, you either clicked on or moused over part of the page which activates malicious code — a download to your PC of a virus or spyware.

You’re so busy looking elsewhere you don’t notice your hard drive whirring as the program downloads and installs.

How to Avoid Distraction Scams

In all cases, vigilance and protection are the watchwords for avoiding distraction scams. Keep your eyes focused on what’s going around you, whether you’re in a Mumbai street or surfing the Net.

Make your cash and valuables as inaccessible as possible — and, of course, use Internet security software to protect you while surfing.

Tip: If you use the Firefox web browser, you can download and install a free program that stops malicious script from activating when you mouse over it.

And remember, sometimes thieves are just prowling around waiting for you to be distracted by the sheer hubbub of what’s going on around you – especially in airports and stations, at malls and sports games.

Of course, not all distractions have malicious intent. When you think of it, it’s how magicians and illusionists make a living. But at least you know then that the wool is being pulled over your eyes, even if you’re not quite sure how. That’s entertainment. And we’re all for that.

That’s a wrap for this issue. Wishing you a great week!