The term Cult is ambiguous. It has various meanings. Here is one explanation provided by Benjamin Zablocki, which is accepted by many organizations like the International Cultic Studies Association:

An ideological organization held together by charismatic relations and demanding total commitment.

But here’s the problem: Based on this definition, the company Apple arguably could be considered a Cult, since customers are forced to use their Operating System and Apple fans tend to be a tad fanatic when you criticize Apple products. But then again, I haven’t heard of anybody being shunned because they bought an Android. So Apple hardly is a destructive Cult (even though it does have somewhat of a cultish following). Destructive Cults is the type of Cult this website is devoted to.

That’s why it’s important that we view above definition solely as a starting point in examining groups that could be destructive Cults. In my work, I have found two checklists to be especially helpful in evaluating groups. If a group meets half of the criteria in one checklist, you can be pretty sure it’s a cultish group. If you’re not sure, double-check using the second list.

Below, you will find both checklists. They are very similar, with the latter being a bit more detailed. Using these checklists, you’ll be able to decide for yourself whether you or people you care for are in a Cult.

Mike Bickle’s Seven Ways to identify a Cult

Mike Bickle is the founder of the International House of Prayer and employs this checklist to recognize the difference between a religious community and a cultish group

  • Opposing critical thinking
  • Isolating members and penalizing them for leaving
  • Emphasizing special doctrines outside scripture
  • Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders
  • Dishonoring the family unit
  • Crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior (versus sexual purity and personal ownership)
  • Separation from the Church

(Source)

Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups by Michael D. Langone, Phd.

Michael D. Langone is a counseling psychologist and the Executive Director of International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA).

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
  • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  • Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
  • The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
  • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
  • The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
  • The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
  • The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before they joined the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
  • The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
  • Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and to radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before they joined the group.
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
  • The group is preoccupied with making money.
  • Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
  • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
  • The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

(Source)

Find out here, how the checklist can be applied to a specific group.