The Psychology Behind Scamming

by Jackie Edwards

From winning the lottery and PPI refunds to identity theft and online marriage proposals, we’re all potential targets for fraudsters. Globally, scammers conned unsuspecting victims out of $12.7 billion in 2013 — and that was just with 419 advance fee fraud scams. Scam victims typically lose out financially — often without reimbursement — and suffer significant emotional trauma, making them less likely to come forward due to embarrassment. While scams have become more complex and harder to detect in the modern age, the foundational influence techniques scammers use on their victims remain the same. Become aware of how scams exploit emotions and human nature, and you’re less likely to fall for these psychological techniques.

Exploitation of social norms

From birth, we’re conditioned to have unwavering respect for authority figures. Scammers take advantage of this social norm and therefore often pose as bank employees, government officials, or qualified professionals who appear trustworthy. In a similar vein, scammers try to exploit man’s inherent good nature. You may find it hard to say “no” to a charity asking for donations. Or you may be compelled to send money to help pay for emergency medical or travel expenses — which often plays out in online dating scams.

Scarcity-based incentives

Most of us have fallen prey to tempting “limited-time only” sales when shopping. Retailers and scammers alike rely on scarcity-based incentives: offers that expire soon, offers that are one-time only, or deals that will fall through if you don’t act RIGHT NOW! They conjure a sense of urgency in order to get you to take immediate action. The fear of missing out is primal and you’re more likely to forgo rationality and self-control in the face of it. Scammers want you acting now instead of taking time to asses the situation and likely realizing things don’t add up.

Eliciting of emotion

People who lack control over their emotions are more likely to be persuaded by scammers, a report by the UK Office of Fair Trading reveals. Sometimes these will be positive emotions like the excitement of winning money or online relationships. Alternatively, negative feelings like fear and panic are often elicited via supposed fraudulent bank activity. It’s natural to want to alleviate strong, unpleasant emotions as soon as possible. People will therefore act out of fear and desperation — rather than reason — and respond to the scam in order to feel better in the short run.

So, how do you know who to trust? Never give out personal information or money to anybody — especially on first contact. Delete emails from people you don’t know. Do your own research to verify something — but don’t call numbers or click links you’ve been given. Give yourself time to carefully think about the situation. Does it elicit strong emotions urging you to act? If in doubt, always go with your gut. Finally, if you find yourself the target of a scam, report it and let others know, so they can avoid falling prey to the same or similar scam in the future.

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