Mind Games: The Psychology of Scamming

by Chris Bjorklund
The best way to avoid a scam is to be hypercritical when making significant financial decisions.

The best way to avoid a scam is to be hypercritical when making significant financial decisions.

Several weeks ago, I received a phone call from a representative who told me we had failed to pay for our newspaper subscription since September. He said I could pay the past due amount by credit card along with another three months in advance: a total of $400. I was so embarrassed about being late on the bill that I almost fell for the scam. Just a few days later, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a full-page ad warning subscribers that this particular company wasn’t authorized to offer renewals (almost double the usual amount) and to ignore the calls and notices sent by mail.

When I think back to that original phone solicitation, I remember that the caller spoke with authority and confidence, and emphasized the importance of paying up quickly. He gave me his employee ID as well as the Chronicle’s phone number as added assurance that this was a legitimate call. He was extremely clever in how he managed my skepticism.

Experts who’ve studied the psychology of scamming say it’s not just the foolish or the poorly educated who are vulnerable to cons. Intelligent and experienced consumers may become victims if they have certain personality traits. Research shows that among other characteristics, potential victims tend to trust authority, have a lack of self-control and act in a consistent way.

So, it’s not surprising that any of us may fall victim to a con artist. According to neuroscientists, we simply aren’t hardwired to see through twisted and devious schemes. While we can usually differentiate between honesty and dishonesty, we have a much more difficult time when a fraud is cleverly disguised.

They say the best way to protect yourself from making bad decisions is by intentionally turning on your hypercritical attitude before making any significant financial decisions, and making it a habit to step away and take a deep breath before completing a purchase. Ask yourself: does this make complete sense? Is their request reasonable? Can I independently verify the veracity of what they’re saying? Or, instead of relying completely on your brain, consult with your “gut.”