Please, Don’t get emotional: to scam you, crooks have figured out how to bypass your thinking brain
By Doug Shadel
*I found this article in the recent issue of AARP Magazine and thought is was very helpful and useful. There are A LOT of scams going on today because of the COVID-19 and you have to watch yourself more than ever.
I credit Mr. Shadel for this article and give him full credit for the information. I want to thank him for all the insights.
I recently testified as an expert witness in a criminal trial involving an 80 year old woman who lost her entire life savings in a scam. The victim had received a credible looking letter saying she had won $2.8 million in a Spanish lottery. She responded as the letter instructed and was contacted by a personable young man from Jamaica, who confirmed the wonderful news but told her there were a few fees she had to pay before collecting her winnings. In time convinced her to transfer more than one million to win a big prize that, of course, didn’t exist.
When I arrived the night before my testimony, the prosecutor told me that a surprising number of potential jurors had made clear they thought the victim in these types of fraud cases bears some of the responsibility for falling for the crime. With all the warnings in the news about fraud, a target should be “smart enough” to know better, several said while being questioned. My task was to help counter that thinking among the selected jurors, by describing the clever persuasion tactics that scammers use to defraud people and why it is the perpetrator, not the victim, who bears responsibility for the crime.
The prosecutor’s heads up left me in a huff. This all too common blame the victim attitude not only demonstrates a lack of compassion for fraud victims but also a dangerous lack of understanding of how cons work. Put simply, scams are 90% about emotion and 10% about intellect. Which is why “smart” people get defrauded all the time. Among the victims my AARP colleagues and I have interviewed of late are college professors, senior partners in law firms, PhD’s in psychology and even retired judges.
Swindlers are winning the day because they know exactly how to turn off your intellect and put you in an emotional, irrational state of mind (and keep you there). Yet many of us still believe we can “think” our way out of the clutches of an expert scammer.
There is a large body of research in psychology known as affective forecasting; it shows, among other things how humans are horrible at predicting how strong emotions affect our behavior. This lack of self-awareness creates a false notion that you can handle yourself logically in most situations. But generally, this isn’t so.
Con artists know this so fro decades they’ve told us their number on objective is to get the target into a heightened emotional state they refer to as ether. As one convicted swindler told us, just before reporting to prison, “I liked to keep my victims up in the altitude of ether, because if they ever dropped down into the valley of logic, I’d have lost them.”
Ether can cause the thinking part of the brain (the neocortex) to be literally swamped by the emotional part (the amygdala). Think about the first time you fell in love. All you could do was dream about the beloved other, right? Were you thinking clearly? Did you make any dumb mistakes during this period? Now recall a time when someone you love died unexpectedly or you were suddenly fired from a job. Such negative events can also distort your ability to process information clearly. With the thinking part of the brain short-circuited, intelligence no longer matters much.
One of the most commonly used tactics to get victims under the ether is known as phantom riches. A phantom is something you desperately want, though almost never get, like a sudden gift of $2.8 million or the arrival of your dream partner on a dating website. Scammers dangle that phantom in front of victims and made them believe that their dream has finally come true.
This is precisely why there has been an explosion of romance scams over the past few years. Fraudsters flock to dating websites and describe this as “fishing in a barrel” because of all the lonely men and women desperate to find their sole mate online. I recall interviewing a couple of years ago, a romance scammer who lives in Lagos, Nigeria. I asked him, “How many of the people you targeted online were lonely?” “Every single one of them,” he said.
How do we defend against such blatant manipulations of our emotions? I love the ancient Greek story of The Odyssey, particularly the scene in which the hero, Odysseus, is heading home after the Trojan War and comes upon the Sirens. No one who hears their seductive singing can resist approaching them but all sailors who do so wreck their ships and die.
Odysseus (also called Ulysses) wants to experience the should of the Sirens and survive. So he tells his men to plug their ears and tie him to his ship’s mast to prevent him from impulsively swimming to his death. From this Greek myth comes the modern term “Ulysses pact.” It is a written agreement, usually relating to advance medical directives, that binds patients to a future course of action so they can’t make an ill-advised emotional decision later.
Perhaps we need a Ulysses pact for consumers when it comes to sales pitches and random phone calls. Consider it the money pact: Never make a financial decision at the time you hear the pitch. Always wait 24 to 48 hours. Once your emotions subside, the neocortex’s thinking power kicks in again and you have more than a fighting chance of making the right decision.
*Get notified about the latest scams and receive tips on how to protect yourself at aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork.
Here’s why that’s false:
Weapons of Mass Deception: Scammers use tactics such these to turn off your rational brain and get you to act based on your emotions instead:
*Phantom riches: swindlers dangle an offer of something you deeply want but rarely get-a sweepstakes win for example or a no risk investment with huge returns or your dream lover suddenly appearing.
*Fear: it’s one of the strongest drivers of emotion. Threats of an IRS audit, a prison stay, a total computer meltdown or a grandchild in trouble can spark instant, emotion-driven misjudgments.
*Intimidation: dialings your number 50 or 60 times a day, claiming they know where, even threatening to do bodily harm-scammers today know no boundaries.
*Scarcity: this is the notion that if something is rare, it must be valuable. Con artists pitch three kinds of scarcity: product (only a few exist), time (offer expires at midnight) and winners (only 1 in 5 million win this).
*Source Credibility: scammers will do all they can to convince you they are FBI agents, police, IRS agents or representatives of well-known financial institutions, to wrap the cloak of authority around their operation.
*Commitment: most people have an innate desire to do what they day they will. So swindlers get you to make a commitment, such as to follow instructions exactly. Later, when you resist, they will accuse you of going back on your word.
*Reciprocity: if I do something for you, it is natural for you to return the favor. Scammers use this cultural norm by granting victims a small favor (often borrowed from the retail world, like free shipping or waived fees) and then asking for a much bigger one in return.
**Please everyone, it is easy to fall for these and please use your best judgement. If it is too good to be true, then it is exactly.
Thank you again Mr. Shadel for this wonderful article I want to share with BergenCountyCaregiver.com readers all over the world.