From a safe distance, scammers’ stories are often clearly absurd. A guy logs into a dating website, and within the first week, he meets a woman who is perfect for him in every way, down to the last detail, including looking just like his fantasy dates. A woman’s boyfriend is active duty in the United States military, but he needs her to send him cash to pay a fee. The guy on the phone called your neighbor at random to tell him he won hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the processing fees couldn’t be deducted from that amount before it was sent.
“If they’re stupid enough to fall for that, they deserve it,” someone in your crowd smugly declares upon hearing them. Before you agree with that statement, remember that scams can have a devastating impact. People have lost their entire life savings, gone to jail, severed ties with family and lifelong friends, lost jobs, and been hospitalized with serious health issues stemming from being scammed. Even if the person is the dopiest, ditziest, most foolish, and flat out stupidest person you have ever heard of, do they honestly deserve to have their life destroyed simply because they believed something other people could see was a scam?
And as much comfort as it brings us to think otherwise, being scammed is not always simply a matter of being stupid enough to fall for the absurd.
Scammers are becoming much more sophisticated
The Dr. Phil show would have us believe that all scam victims are divorced or widowed, grandmotherly type women who have never used the internet before, and haven’t had anyone flirt with them since the spouse they just lost first asked them out sixty years ago. And these are indeed the people the scammers who are still using the original romance scam scripts are targeting. But those are far from the only scams out there, and most of them have developed a great deal over the years.
Scammers today are capable of replicating store websites so well the target has no visual or social cues that the site is a fake. They can spoof facebook accounts to make it appear that a lifelong friend is sending you that offer online. Relationship scammers are well aware that most people are on to the classic scammer story, and are willing to make adjustments. They might tell their victims an almost true story, cobble together parts of stolen life stories from blogs or facebook posts, or borrow the life story of a friend.
Hoaxes and scams play on our emotions, not our intellect.
One of the reasons it is so easy to be smug when we are not the victim of the scam is that our emotions were not involved as the situation unfolded. We may be angry when we hear of the scam later, and feel sorrow and empathy for the victim when they share their story with us, but our emotions were never wrapped up in the situation that led to the scam.
We were not the ones who thought that deal on a product we only dreamed of owning was a great blessing. It was not us who sat online all night talking to our “new best friend” or “that girl we were dating online” who turned out to only be there to get gifts from random people under false pretenses. It was not us who had a surge of fear when awakened in the middle of the night by a call that sounded like our child or grandchild.
The truth is, none of us, no matter how sophisticated, how street smart, or how level-headed and reasonable we may be, thinks at our clearest once something happens that causes an intense emotional response. You may not have fallen for the scam you’re hearing about, but you would fall for one if someone managed to engage your emotions to the level that this other person’s scammer managed to engage theirs.
Scammers may target anyone initially, but they put their efforts into people with vulnerabilities that make them want to believe in the scam.
The politically correct thing to say about scam victims is that absolutely anyone could be scammed. The truth is that scam victims tend to have some type of vulnerability that makes them susceptible to being scammed. But there is a ring of truth in what we’re supposed to say, because the list of vulnerabilities is varied enough to include almost everybody.
Scammers may indeed play on intellectual impairments. They will target people with developmental disabilities, and people whose cognitive function is impaired due to dementia. If someone truly is unsophisticated or lacks street smarts, that will be used as a tool.
Scammers will also work on those who have developed as expected and are in perfect health, but are lonely and need to think someone is out there for them. They will take advantage of the person whose focus is not on ferreting out red flags because they are dealing with grief, job loss, divorce, financial difficulties, or family stress. Anybody going through something painful is going to be more susceptible to a scam, simply because they have a strong need to see something good in the world at the time.
None of this is to suggest that you should not speak up if you can see a red flag somebody else can’t see. The fact that you aren’t emotionally involved in the situation, and are not experiencing the vulnerabilities that is keeping your friend open to the scam can be used to their advantage. Just make sure to approach them with the attitude of “I am seeing some warning signs that you are missing right now,” rather than condemning or insulting them for not catching those signs right away.
by Jess Szabo originally published on Artist Cafe Utica www.artistcafeutica.com