The Psychology behind Scams

Since coming to work for BBB, I’ve spoken to numerous people who were victims of scams. Most of these schemes involved money – some people were out a hundred or so, others were out thousands of dollars – or identity theft. The people that fall for scams are no different than my friends and me.

Scam Blog Post
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

The emails I receive from Nigerian princes or lotteries promising millions of dollars are deleted, but I’ve hesitated when receiving messages from what appears to be my bank or credit card company. I’ve wanted to click on the email, but I’ve learned to just delete. I’m also tempted to click on ads I see on social media because they are so tailored to my online viewing by marketers. I want to click on friend’s Facebook posts where they ‘liked’ a video that I may want to see. Often though, these clicks can put malware on my computer or take me to websites that aren’t legit. I know that, but it is tempting – even for me. Imagine an elderly person who isn’t online savvy.

Many people find it hard to believe that others have fallen victim to any of the Nigerian email scams. A Microsoft Researcher, Cormac Herley, believes that by sending these types of emails full of misspellings and incorrect language, the scammers are weeding out all but the most gullible ( If a scammer needs to spend time manipulating a victim, he only wants those who are most susceptible to their exploitation. They are looking for the most gullible, not the smartest victims.

Many scammers target seniors in several common schemes. Their investment is normally just the cost of buying lists and installing computer-based phone lines and voice mail. Often, the con artists are operating from out of the country. Lottery, romance (online dating websites), charity, investment, home repair and grandparent scams most often target seniors, but there are many victims not in this demographic.

Scammers use a psychology of manipulation. They gain a victim’s trust by asking personal questions to find emotional triggers that they’ll use to operate their con. First, they may play on a victim’s sympathies: medical bills to be paid for children in the hospital or disaster victims. Second, con artists want victims to make an impulsive decision. There’s normally some sort of time limit (this offer will expire), it’s a limited quantity or only a few people were selected so you must act immediately. Another manipulation is that they often convince their prey not to talk to family members, their banks or others. They may convince the victim that friends and family are lying to them and that the scammer is their only friend. They are in essence separating the victim from his/her support network.

If these methods eventually stop working, scammers may use threats and intimidation. They may tell the victim that they are sending someone to their home or to harm a family member. I spoke to one victim who started pawning his household items once he ran out of cash in order to keep paying the scammer because of threats of physical harm. His family finally put a stop to the scam.

Even short-term schemes use the threat of lawsuits or arrests to con money from victims: a common ploy is to call victims and tell them they’ve missed jury duty or owe parking fines. If payment isn’t made, police will be sent to arrest them. Very little can be done to recapture money that has been wired or put on a green dot card. The recipient is anonymous and can be anywhere in the world – the scammer is untraceable. Cash sent by Western Union or Moneygram to a specific location can actually be picked up at any agent office.

There are steps that can be taken to avoid being scammed:

  • Ignore any unsolicited calls or emails. It’s okay to hang up the phone! Don’t even start a conversation because scammers are good at manipulation. And just delete any emails where you are unsure of the source.
  • Don’t act impulsively. Do not allow anyone to influence you into a decision by giving you a time limit or other restrictions. Do talk to friends and family.
  • Always protect your personal information. Don’t fill out any questionnaires or contest entries online. Never give your credit card, bank account, social security, driver’s license numbers or any other personal information over the phone or online if you didn’t initiate the contact.

Always request written information about the product, service or charity. If you receive an unsolicited call, email or knock at the door, do not be pushed into making a hurried decision.