[ skam ]
/ skæm /


a confidence game or other fraudulent scheme, especially for making a quick profit; swindle.

verb (used with object), scammed, scam·ming.

to cheat or defraud with a scam.



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Origin of scam

1960–65; originally carnival argot; of obscure origin


scammer, noun


scam , scan Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020


What does scam mean?

A scam is a deceptive scheme or trick used to cheat someone out of something, especially money.

Scam is also a verb meaning to cheat someone in such a way.

Example: Banks will never call you asking for your credit card number or social security number over the phone. If someone calls and asks for information like that, it’s a scam.

Where does scam come from?

Fittingly, the exact origin of scam is unknown. The first records of the word come from the 1960s, and it was originally and is still primarily used in the United States. It’s thought to have come from the slang of carnival workers (who are of course known for rigging games so they can’t be won), but little else is known about its origin.

You know those emails you get from a guy who just needs you to send him the very small sum of $5,000 so he can set you up with a million-dollar inheritance from a foreign prince? Those are scams. (Hopefully you knew that.) A scam is a trick to get something out of you, usually money. It’s also called a swindle or a confidence game, which refers to the fact that the scammer has to gain your confidence before scamming you. (Confidence is also the basis of con in con artist, which is a synonym for scammer and scam artist.) Scams can be big or small, but the common element is that the person being scammed never gets what they’re promised (like that inheritance from the prince), unless it’s a really good scam, in which they’ll send you a little bit of money to make you think the whole thing is legit. (Hint: it’s never legit.) Scam is sometimes used in phrases that refer to the medium the scammer uses for the scheme, such as email scam or phone scam. Some specific scams become so popular that they get their own name, such as pyramid scheme and Ponzi scheme.

Sometimes, people use the word scam in a more general way to refer to something that they think is rigged or deeply unfair, as in College textbooks are such a scam—they make you buy new ones that are exactly the same as the old ones.

Did you know ... ?

What are some other forms related to scam?

  • scammer (noun)

What are some synonyms for scam?

What are some words that share a root or word element with scam

What are some words that often get used in discussing scam?


How is scam used in real life?

Scam is an informal word often used to refer to the kind of fraudulent schemes seen in spam emails, but it can also be applied to bigger or more sophisticated swindles, like pyramid schemes.



Try using scam!

Is scam used correctly in the following sentence?

It’s terrible to see people losing their life savings to phone scams.

Example sentences from the Web for scam

British Dictionary definitions for scam

/ (skæm) slang /


a stratagem for gain; a swindle

verb scams, scamming or scammed

(tr) to swindle (someone) by means of a trick
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012