Scams. They’re everywhere.
They tap into our emotions, our desires, our needs and our wants.
The recent story of the Sydney grandmother who is facing the death penalty in Malaysia after being caught with 1.5kg of crystal methamphetamine, after it seems she was unwittingly scammed into carrying the drug on behalf of a US army soldier, reportedly her fiancé, reminds us that everyone is a potential victim. But the fact that her lawyer says that she is “one of those naive and innocent mules that has been targeted by some unscrupulous people” hides the fact that we we are all susceptible to scams, particularly if we are vulnerable in some way.
It’s just a question of degrees when it comes to vulnerability. If you’ve ever responded to a special at the supermarket then you have been nudged towards a product that you previously hadn’t considered buying. It’s technically not a scam, but the actions of the supermarket marketing departments has modified your behaviour.
The way that scams work, and our vulnerability to them is the same. It’s just degrees of hurt, rather than any absolute.
And anyone who says they can always spot a scam are telling fibs.
It’s absolutely important to be able to function in society to be able trust others. If you think about it every time you get in your car, you trust that everybody will drive on the correct side of the road. It’s not an absolute truth that humans will drive on the left side road (trust me, they refuse to drive on the left in the US); it depends on what the general agreement in society is about this particular convention.
And, education about scams, can only do so much; we are naturally inclined to trust, and it is really in our interests.
The way to try to protect yourself against scams is to try to remove the implicit and emotional aspects of your decision-making. Which is ridiculously hard. We can never be truly rational, which, as I say is a good thing. Responding to our emotional cues helps us to make quick decisions. If you are completely rational, then you are more than likely to be a capuchin monkey…
Slow the process down. Talk to disinterested others. Take their advice. It’s difficult to do, and when you do want to trust, because you are vulnerable, it is virtually impossible.
I’ve been scammed, and bought products that I didn’t need, as well. Although I try to protect myself by making sure there is an opportunity to return the product.
It is a bit harder when you are looking for someone to love you – the key to falling in love is to put your trust in the other person. So, the very act of wanting to be in love leaves you more open to being scammed.
But sometimes being open to risk is a good thing. That’s the problem with trying to be too careful and cynical – you end up a cranky old person, with no friends.
How to spot a potential scam and what will make you more likely to fall for one
- If the offering is important to you, in the here and now, particularly if it has an emotional or social component. For some it could be because you are lonely (dating scam), worried about your kids’ progress at school (maths software), or your financial situation (investment courses).
- The scammer muddies the nature of their relationship with you by making it more social than professional.
- If you want to take control of the relationship with the scammer, they threaten withdrawal, or use emotional techniques to get you to comply with their needs.
- You have a tendency to believe that institutions and brands are mostly trustworthy (counter-intuitively, you may be less of a risk taker).
- You are in a new place or situation that you are not familiar, e.g., in New York in one recent scam, a person would contact hotel guests via their room phone, say they were with the hotel general manager and needed their credit card number again, because it was not recorded correctly at check-in.
- You could be overwhelmed by information that you are not familiar with, or be distracted by other factors, such as lights, noise, smells.
- You are in an environment or situation that makes you anxious.
- You have an existing mental condition that makes you more willing to accept the word of others, e.g., some people on the autism spectrum don’t have the capacity to assess the intentions of others, and tend to trust those who might seem to be doing something for them that looks like a favour.
- The scammer uses a technique of creating a problem or “fear”, then offering a seemingly “sensible” solution (that’s what politicians also do, although I’m not necessarily saying that they are scammers, but the outcome is similar).
And, remind yourself that you are likely to be falling for a scam if you feel uncomfortable about taking about your actions with others.