Avoiding Scams and Snake Oil Salesmen

Avoiding ScamsWhile looking for some helpful resources online, I found another example of something that really bugs me, yet keeps cropping up: Hacks. Not hackers; snake oil salesmen.

It seems to be a law of the market that these people will appear for any product, but I really hate how they prey on vulnerable people, who don’t necessarily know any better. I remember seeing this most when my grandmother grew older, and all sorts of companies and organizations amped up their mailings after it became apparent that she wasn’t able to keep track of her money.

Even musicians aren’t immune. I’ve had a couple of experiences with these types. One was a guitar instruction service that, in hindsight, was promising much more than anyone could produce, and the other was a product I bought when I developed debilitating wrist tendonitis. In both cases I was inexperienced, ignorant, and spent a decent amount of money on things that had either zero or negative benefit.

I really don’t want people to either make the same mistakes I did, or support these unctuous people with their hard-earned money, so here’s a bit about how you can identify these kinds of scams, and hopefully avoid them (and hang on to your money).

1. Does it sound too good to be true? Occasionally a product really is that good, but it’s rare. If they claim so, there better be a good reason for it. The marketing was a bit like this when Apple introduced the iPod, but it was backed up by the fact that it really could hold a thousand songs, when all other MP3 players could only hold a few dozen. Beware if they claim their product is great because of a special “system”, or similarly nebulous marketspeak. It should be either an obvious difference (like the iPod’s storage capacity) or at least be backed up by independent research.

2. Can you verify the product’s effectiveness? I bought wrist straps for my tendonitis from a site that was plastered with shining testimonials, including a video by a fast, but sloppy shredder. In reality, it’s easy for an unscrupulous person to either make up testimonials, get them from friends, or pay a little of product endorsements. Google those suckas. They might have infected other areas of the web with their own fake reviews, but chances are you’ll find some people unconnected to the company. Pay attention to the negative comments. Are they reasonable? Are they mentioned by several people? They might even show up on a list of known scammers.

3. Ask an expert. This alone would have saved me in both of my experiences. Talk to someone you know who is knowledgeable and unbiased. If you don’t know anyone that fits that description, you can often find websites where you can ask an expert. I prefer to ask a few “experts”, in case their answers vary.

4. If you can, try it before buying. Can you find one in a store? Does a friend have one? Is there a similar service for free? This is also useful in seeing if you will actually benefit from the purchase, or if you’ll end up forgetting about it shortly after buying it. This isn’t always an available option, but if so…

5. Is there a return or refund policy? A solid return or refund policy is a sign of good will: The company is willing to stand behind their product’s quality, even after you’ve had a chance to try it out. If the refund/return policy is absent or difficult, they might be looking to make a quick buck and leave like a thief in the night.

6. Is the language preying on your insecurities or pointing out what you’re lacking? This is very old sales psychology: Create a problem in a consumer’s mind, then magically solve it with your product. It’s difficult to believe now, but people had full, healthy, happy lives in the decades and centuries before deodorant, makeup, and hair transplant surgery. All three of those products were aggressively marketed by going after people’s insecurities about their attractiveness. Suddenly it seems you will never be liked, loved, respected, or even survive without these things. Gyms, beer, cigarettes, cars, insurance… the list goes on of industries that actively prey on people’s fears and insecurities to get them desperate, vulnerable, and ready to buy.

I recently saw yet another pay-per-online-guitar-lesson site that only talked about how you (the reader) will never ever be a good guitar player because everything you do is wrong. Not only are they making very specific judgments about readers they aren’t even individually aware of, but anyone who teaches by first calling you a failure should be banned from teaching… and maybe tarred and feathered for good measure.

This guitarist’s site even said things like “practicing like your guitar idols do is a classic rookie mistake”, when modeling a successful person is a proven strategy in learning any new skill, including guitar. And then magically, by sending several easy credit card payments to this person, your terrible habits will go away and you’ll transform into a guitar god—problem solved. Ugh. Slimey.

If that guy’s lessons were what he claimed, he could have easily had testimonials and shown links to his students rocking out like he claimed, thanking him at the end. Instead, he just went for beginning and intermediate guitarists’ insecurities. Genuinely good companies don’t need to make you feel awful to want to buy their stuff.

7. Sleep on it. I made both my wayward purchases impulsively, and perhaps I would have thought better after a night of sleep. During sleep your subconscious—the brain’s supercomputer—processes all the information you took in while awake the previous day. Your subconscious is great at crunching numbers and factoring in all of the variables, and helps you make certain judgments better.

Another good reason to sleep on it is that you might be in a state of desperation. I felt that way after injuring my wrist and being unable to play for an unforeseeable amount of time. Obviously not the best state to make a decision in. Besides, if the product or service is really so good, there’s no harm in buying it a day or two later.


Take it all with a grain of salt. Some products or services are absolutely worth buying, and if that’s the case, there should be evidence to back it up. I hope some of this advice will be helpful, and save you a few bucks and few angry forehead wrinkles.