Quacks and Other People Not To Be Trusted

That damned snake

Ever since the snake tricked Adam and Eve into tasting the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, con artists have slithered through civilizations. They go by different names—and have different M.O.s (modus operandi)—but, they all aim to bamboozle in some way. Let’s look at a lighthearted list of untrustworthy tricksters throughout time.


It’s too bad we don’t hear the harsh cry of a duck to warn us whenever we’re in the presence of a quack, or someone who pretends to have a skill or knowledge they don’t possess.

A quack typically refers to a person who promotes unproven or fraudulent medical practices or home remedies. Quack is short for the now obsolete Dutch word quacksalver, which meant “hawker of salve,” or ointment. Modern-day quacks may also refer to people who twist medical or scientific research to scare or intimidate.


Charlatans are also people who pretend to have skills or knowledge they don’t actually have. But unlike quacks, charlatans don’t just peddle fraudulent medical practices or home remedies. Faith healers and fortune tellers are considered charlatans.

The term charlatan comes from either the Italian word ciarlare, meaning “to chatter or prattle,” or from Cerretano, a resident of Cerreto, Italy: a village known for its quacks.


Mountebank is yet another name for a quack or charlatan. Historically, mountebanks sold fake medicines from a platform in public places by spinning stories about miraculous benefits and cures.Mountebank comes from the Italian phrase monta in banco, meaning “mount on bench.” Mountebank, which can be a noun or a verb, seems like an outdated word. But today, it’s used as a synonym for imposter, a person who practices deception under an assumed character, identity, or name.

Snake-oil salesman

Ah, we’re back to that slimy snake. Snake-oil salesmen have been around for centuries, long before we became politically correct and said salespeople. They were quacks who specifically hawked snake oil, which was considered a cure-all for rheumatism, skin diseases, and other conditions. Of course, the liniment they sold didn’t contain any snake extract.

Today, snake-oil salesman is a popular phrase for politicians on both sides of the aisle. In 2013, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell called his opponent in the Republican primary a “snake-oil salesman.” And, while campaigning for a second term, President Obama referred to the Romney-Ryan tax plan as “trickle-down snake oil.” Hiss.

Self-help gurus

Everyone wants to better themselves, and self-help gurus just want to support those goals, right? Self-help is a $10 billion-a-year industry. While there are psychologists, nutritionists, career counselors, and other people who really can help, many proclaimed self-help gurus just take advantage of people’s vulnerabilities.

How can you spot a self-help guru who’s just after your money? If they promise fast, easy, and effortless tricks to achieve your goals, hide your wallet.

Debt collectors

Credit-card companies and other businesses often hire legitimate debt collectors to pursue past-due accounts. But, con artists often pose as collection agents to trick you into paying money for debts that have been paid, canceled, or don’t exist.

Be wary of debt collectors who threaten you with a lawsuit if you don’t pay immediately or who ask you to pay via a wire transfer or another untraceable method (rather than by a credit card). And, keep a budget! That way you’ll know what’s been paid.


Scammer is slang for a person who perpetrates a scam, or a con game, to make a quick profit, typically with a fraudulent business scheme. Scammers often misrepresent themselves as someone with skill or authority, such as a lawyer or investor.

It used to require skill to be a scammer. The con typically involved personal interaction with the victim, so the scammer had to look and act the part. But, the internet has given free rein to scammers who are limited in their imaginations. Best advice: Don’t click on a web address you don’t recognize, and if it sounds too good to be true, well, you know the saying.


As awful as it is to lose money or have your personal information stolen, falling for a romancer is particularly heartbreaking (and expensive).

A romancer is a type of internet scammer who typically targets women over 50 who are widowed, divorced, or disabled. Similar to a catfish, romancers post fake profiles on dating and classified sites and in chat rooms to lure victims into communicating via email and then by phone. Victims who’ve become emotionally attached usually end up sending them money. The FBI reports that romance scams account for the highest financial losses of all internet scams.

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