Why do people fall for scams?
Scams are as old as the human condition. Research has suggested that might be due to a biological explanation, but psychologists have been studying people’s responses to scams and potential scams — and the results offer insights that may help prevent people from falling victim.
People want to believe. One British study measured a “baseline” of susceptibility to scams and found that as many as 48% of research subjects felt they could benefit from a generic test scam they were presented with. Even if the scam required people to pay a fee in order to participate, people would still fall for it. 20% of people said they would send in $100 for a promise of more money.
Fraudsters use scary and legal-sounding text to intimidate would-be victims. Governments and attorneys are moving away from strict legalese and toward a more plain use of language. Over-the-top use of legalese is a good sign that the person who sent something to you is not a lawyer or government entity.
“Contents are time-sensitive.” It takes nothing to print a big “TIME SENSITIVE” tag on postal mail, or to put it in the subject of an email. Savvy consumers know that the only people who use the phrase “time sensitive” are salespeople, but there are enough non-savvy people to keep scam artists using this phrase.
Scam artists prey on the weak. People who have trouble with numbers, lonely people, and elderly people make up a disproportionate share of scam victims.
People overestimate their ability to pull out of the scam. The classic “Nigerian prince” scam is a perfect illustration of this; the money transfer takes place via wire, which is instant and irreversible. In contrast, programs like PayPal and Venmo do allow the transaction to be reversed — this is not true with Zelle transactions, which are irreversible.
If scam artists interact with you, you will be placed on a “suckers” list. That will begin a torrent of multiple scams being sent to you everyday. And while you may be able to filter these messages out, many people do not have that knowledge.
As despicable as they are, scam artists are a fact of life. Hopefully this list will help you identify some people in your life who are vulnerable — and cause you to reflect on your own vulnerabilities.