When someone loses money to a scam their first reaction is usually shame. “How could I have been so stupid?” they ask themselves.
Experts who study scams and the people who operate them say victims generally have as much intelligence as anyone else. Scammers, they say, are skilled at psychological manipulation.
“They’re glib, they’re persuasive,” Michael Cohen, vice president of Global Operations at MyChargeBack, told ConsumerAffairs. “They know human psychology like the backs of their hands, and as a result, they know how to plant an idea subliminally in your consciousness and later on how to subliminally remind you of it. They know when they have to peddle softly and when it’s time to move in for the kill. In short, scammers are professionals."
Cohen, who has dealt with many credit card scams over the years, says scammers are particularly good at talking victims into abandoning any initial objections, overcoming their hesitations.
“That’s why scam victims fall victim,” he said. “Not because they’re especially naive or gullible or foolish, but because they were mesmerized into it against their will and better judgment. Victims are never at fault, and they should never be blamed.”
They know how to push your buttons
Los Angeles attorney Tre Lovell also has experience dealing with scam victims, including doctors and other lawyers. Scammers, he says, are quick to assess their potential victims and learn how to push their buttons.
“Scammers I've met tend to be extremely charismatic and great salespeople, believable and likable, Lovell told us. “I had a case with 140 victims who lost $30 million collectively, after investing in condos in the Caribbean. I knew the sales guy knew what he was saying wasn't accurate, I knew he was a scammer, but I almost wanted to have a drink with him because he was so likable.”
So, who are these guys who are so intuitive about human behavior? Martina Dove, a Seattle psychologist who specializes in scam techniques, persuasion and vulnerabilities associated with fraud victimization, says there has been little research on common scammers. Let’s face it, these guys are criminals who are not likely to make themselves available to researchers.
Dove told us that scammers tend to fit into different categories. Some operate simple phishing scams targeting millions of people at random. Others are more sophisticated and skillfully target their victims. Under the right circumstances, anyone can fall victim.
“It is easy to look at scam situations that happened to someone else with a rational approach, and think this would not happen to us,” she said. “But scams can be highly emotionally-charged situations that evoke fear, panic, excitement, sexual desire, etc. Under those emotions, we don't think clearly.”
Knowing the red flags is your best defense
Not thinking clearly is what a scammer is counting on. So the best protection you have against this kind of attack is knowing the telltale signs of a scam – something they all have in common. Here are four:
Unsolicited contact: The victim never initiates contact with a scammer, it is always the other way around. It could be an unexpected phone call, email or text. The scammer could show up at your doorstep. So always be leery of any unexpected contact from someone you don’t know and take anything they say with a healthy dose of skepticism.
A sense of urgency: Whatever situation the scammer has presented or created, the victim is told that action is required immediately. In real situations, that is almost never the case. In scams, the victim must act immediately to get something they want or to prevent something bad from happening. When you are presented with this kind of urgency from someone contacting you out of the blue, it is always a scam.
Secrecy: When a scammer is manipulating their victim to do something they will often tell them not to tell anyone what they are doing. That’s because a friend or family member, who has not heard the scammer’s mesmerizing spiel, will question what the victim is doing. At any point, when you are being asked to do something in secret you can be sure it is a scam.
Strange method of payment: Of all the common red flags, this should be the most indicative of a scam. The object of every scam is to steal money, but the money must be taken in a way that is untraceable and unretrievable. Scammers can’t take credit cards because all cards have fraud protection. Therefore the money has to be wired, or transferred using a peer-to-peer payment app, cryptocurrency, or using gift cards. Any legitimate entity will accept a check or credit card.
Knowing these four red flags can keep you out of trouble. No matter how persuasive someone might be, no matter how much fear they generate when any one of these red flags starts waving it is time to stop the communication.