With a recession (likely) coming in, I bet you $20 that the chances of you getting scammed are going to go through the roof. No joke. Click here to take that bet! All jokes aside, scams and economic downturns go together like a horse and carriage. And there’s no shortage of scams and fraud going round. The numbers don’t lie, this is a global crisis and a massive problem.
Thing is, most people think scams are incredibly obvious. Everyone remembers the ‘Nigerian Prince’ who somehow, for some reason, needs to store $10 million and needs you, a complete rando, to do it for him. Super obvious, of course. Issue is, when this scam was going round, it really wasn’t that obvious to a lot of people. This scam is old – it’s a real OG of scams. And when I say old, I mean it predates the internet! “The most famous predecessor of the 419 fraud is a swindling scheme called The Spanish Prisoner, which kicked off in the 19th century. A con artist, allegedly a war prisoner in Spain, would send a letter to a potential victim asking for help to retrieve the prisoner’s vast riches hidden in their home country. In return, the prisoner offers a share of their wealth if the victim agrees to send some money upfront for bail or bribes to the prison guards.
Following historical events, Spanish prisoners evolved into French or Russian prisoners, and swindlers became more inventive with their stories. One popular scam included a request for financial aid to pay for the cleaning supplies so that the robbers could clean the bills they stole from bank and stained with ink in an attempt not to be caught. At the end of the 20th century, when the internet was still in its early stages, Nigeria became one of the biggest hubs for online fraud. People started to receive emails from allegedly wronged and robbed Nigerian nobility, who told tragic tales and asked for financial aid, promising great wealth in return. This fraudulent scheme circulated so widely that it soon became a cliché, giving a new name to the not-so-new advance fee scam.” Now obviously, the average con artist has upgraded themselves to the internet and is no longer writing you letters with tales of woe. No, they are sending emails, push notifications, WhatsApp messages and the like! They are technologically savvy. And what’s more, it’s incredibly behaviourally informed.
No one knows more about how to target people than scammers. I kid you not, some of them must have behavioural science PhDs. The things they tend to get right many a government and/or business absolutely sucks at – their levels of mass customization are impressive. Now you’re probably thinking: “Merle, you can’t possibly be serious. I keep getting random messages of people I don’t know, with suspicious links, addressing me by the wrong name. I’d never fall for that!” And fair play to you, they’re not all winners. But I’ve got a theory about that too, and it still encompasses targeting.
For the ‘low level’ scams, what you need to make them work is still to be able to target correctly. But what you’re targeting is not a demographic trait or even a behavioural traits – it’s psychometric; it’s gullibility. You need someone who’s going to look past the initial 5 red (and blatantly obvious) red flags. Because there’s so many more to come… This is not ‘stupidity’ on the scammers part. This is behavioural design! And calling people who fall for these types of scams stupid isn’t helping anyone either. What it’s doing is stigmatizing people who simply have a high trust in people (which my pessimistic ass thinks is a lovely trait) and lower levels of digital literacy. And that’s not a crime. Stigma never helps. And these people are victims and should be treated and supported as such. Australia has the ScamWatch for example, that you can contact if you, or someone you know, has fallen victim to a scam.
Now let’s look at ‘higher level’ scams. These have gotten personalization down to a level that I find scary. The one I have always been impressed by is when the scammers, somehow (I’m not a tech wizz okay) can impersonate someone else, especially via platform such as WhatsApp. A while back there was a super frequent one in the Netherlands and it rampaged in Australia as well. It was the ‘Hi mum I’ve lost my phone’ scam. By August 2022 that cost Australians $2.6 million (!!!). How does this one work? Well it kinda does what it says on the tin. The scammer will claim they have lost or damaged their phone and are making contact from a new number. Once they have developed a rapport with their target, the scammer will ask for personal information such as photos for their social media profile or money to help urgently pay a bill, contractor or replace the phone. They’ve got personalization locked down to a t. Now I’m not saying they don’t get it wrong, but that’s playing with the parental heart strings!
All of the scams above are kind off one off or shorter-term scams. But this goes so much deeper. And of course, there’s reason for that. Because if we’re talking larger sums of money, more ‘time investment’ will be needed by the scammer. Think of the relationship or the investment scam. You can’t just ask someone who doesn’t love you (yet) for thousands of dollars to finally ‘be together’. But these scams are a bit different, because they require a much deeper level of commitment and trust. Which is what we will be discussing next week. So become a member of Money on the Mind and make sure you get notified as soon as I post. And my content is free. So if ‘I’ ever ask for a payment, you bet it’s a scam!