I get this question a lot. Usually about something based in the publishing arena. In DMs, IMs, and emails. As a professional author and editor, I suppose it’s because they believe I’m the person in the know; the expert. Or, at least, the person the asker thinks would know. About 30% of the time, I have some inkling of the legitimacy of the contest/work/publisher/etc… base on experience. Most of the time I don’t.
Here’s what I do to find out.
I google Them. Multiple ways.
I google “Is X a scam?” and I read through the answers. Most times, this will immediately pop up any problems. This often leads you to articles on Preditors and Editors or to the Better Business Bureau. Here, you will see complaints and other bad experiences.
Second. You can skip the general question and search on [“Preditors and Editors” + X]. Or [BBB + X]. Those will hone in on specific types of responses—business and personal experiences. Is this particularly interesting in the publishing arena.
The third way is to google something like “Company X reviews” and see what people who have used their services think. However, beware, not all reviews are created the same. If there’s nothing but a couple of five star glowing reviews but P&E has information that says otherwise, probably not legit reviews. One thing I have learned in the publishing industry is that you will not please everyone. Book preference is subjective. The reviews will reflect this.
Also, when it comes to reviews, beware of groups with an ax to grind reviewing a new book/service. If a book/service comes out and immediately has 100 1-star reviews with very little in the way of actual critique of the book or a bunch of personal attacks on the person providing the service, you can bet someone kicked over a reddit nest of some stripe. That it’s a concerted effort to tank the book, service, person and not a legitimate review of X.
Finally, I look to the professional writing organizations who might know something about the thing in question. SFWA, HWA, IAMTW, MWA, RWA… etc. Search those websites for information.
If you google X, Y, or Z and find nothing, or almost nothing about them, that is as much a red flag as bad reviews. You want to know who sponsors the thing, who owns the company, what the chain of ownership is. If a publisher or contest company is owned by a person or company known to be bad news, it’s a good bet that “X” is a scam. If the chain of ownership is hidden, it’s a clue.
Over all, it’s best if you do your own research before you go to your expert friend to ask “Is X a scam?” That way, you can expand on the question. Present conflicting information. To ask for clarification. 90% of the time, you’ll find the answer for yourself. Then you can decide if you want to confirm your answer with your expert friend or not.