This article is part of the series
This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.
Have you ever been scammed?
When we read articles like the one here, it's easy to think of scams as somewhat hilarious pranks that are pulled on gullible people.
If not much was lost, and no one was seriously harmed, we don't think much of it...
It was a bit of good fun, by someone with a wicked sense of humor. The end result? The victim is a bit embarrassed, but they are wiser too.
But today, many scams are far more devious, and harmful.
Yesterday, I got a very concerned email message from my father.
He'd received a voicemail message, which he promptly recorded and forwarded to me.
This was the message.
“Hi this is an urgent message intended for Michael Wells. My name is Mary and your number was just listed here as a family contact for him.
“If you do know this individual can you please relay the phone number so he can contact our legal office back at 866-835-0264. Case number is 132-7681.
“Again please let him know it is in reference to the civil complaint that has been filed against him here in Cook County. Thank you.”
On playing the message, I immediately felt the same concern my dad did.
I haven't lived in Chicago for well over 10 years, but they knew my name and had enough information to find my dad's number... despite the fact that he's moved several times as well.
All of this felt freaky weird.
But after a few hours of mulling this over, I realized that... this just didn’t make sense. As "official" as the voicemail sounded, something wasn't right.
Do your research. It’s worth it.
It was time to play detective.
Before I called them, I wanted to know who I was calling, and what I was calling them about. I had only two pieces of information... a phone number, and a case number.
I started with the phone number
Google is awesome.
I plugged it in, and instantly got 54 matches in search results. This was #1.
I clicked in, and found this post, from just 2 days ago.
Ok... super interesting.
Kyle here seems to think it’s a scam. He was called from the same phone number, and had two more pieces of information as well-
“Avery Law Firm” and “Alexis Parker”.
I Googled again using those names.
And... boom. I hit the motherload.
It happens that the same "company" had been using a different phone number previously, and called a whole lot of people. Reading through the messages immediately convinced me that I was dealing with some very active scam artists.
Then I researched the case number
Clearly this is bullshit.... but I prefer to be thorough in my research.
It turns out that Cook County does has a public online case search for civil cases. Google found the page immediately.
Immediately I could see something was wrong.
The "case number" I was given was 132-7681, but the search engine required a case number that looked very different. They start with a year, and end in a six-digit number like this- 2016-M4-019376.
I couldn’t even search the seven-digit number that was given in the voice message.
I tried, and the system just barfed.
How many people don't bother to research?
As I sat back and contemplated all this, I found myself feeling both relieved, and pissed off at the same time.
How dare they?
And I was simply shocked at the scale of the operation.
Hundreds of people had posted to 800notes.com... but these were only the people that had bothered to search the number, and to leave a comment about the call they received.
I had to wonder...
How many people had called the number without researching it at all?
I'd wager that it was the vast majority.
Scamming is Big Business
Scammers target both consumers and businesses at all levels and in every country.
According to Truecaller...
A staggering $29.8 billion USD was lost to phone scams in America over the past 12 months.
That's just phone scams - only in the US - and only ones where people realized that they were scammed, and reported their losses.
How can there be so many victims?
Part of the problem is the variety. People just don't know what to watch out for.
Today there are so many types of scams, that scam prevention websites struggle to even classify them.
Here are just a few categories;
- Investment scams
- Dating and romance scams
- False billing scams
- Buying or selling scams
- Fake charities
- COVID-19 scams
- Upfront money scams
- Jobs & employment scams
- Threats & extortion scams
- Unexpected money scams, e.g. the Nigerian prince scams
- Online auction scams
- Spoofing scams
- Computer-hacking scams and "service" call scams
- Fake pharmaceutical scams
- Fake message scams- where you get a text message about a missed call, voicemail, delivery, or photo upload, and are asked to click a link... which installs flubot malware.
Scammers are searching for every technological exploit and emotional angle they can find, and this is concerns me because...
Scams are also getting impressively fancy
Scammers know how to exploit both technology and psychology, in order to deceive and manipulate victims.
Here's one of the best examples I've seen of both.
A 2017 scam targeted victims by phone in New Zealand, telling them that one of their family members had been arrested, and that they need to pay the police officer a significant amount of cash.
Vodafone and Spark said scammers were able to manipulate caller ID so that victims believed they were answering a loved one's call.
One couple targeted realized they were being scammed, and contacted police, leading to a newspaper article... and the harassment didn't end there.
But... who really gets hit?
It's just stupid people, right?
I grew up hearing the phrase...
A fool and his money are soon parted.
On some level, it's easy to believe that the people who fall pray to scams kind of deserved it. Because... scammers can't be that good at manipulation... right? Certainly, you wouldn't fall for that scam... right?
I want to change your opinion on that.
In 2021 in the US, here's the breakdown of scam victims. Look carefully. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.
Businesses are targeted, too
My technology company Sygnal builds computer systems- including a good number of public websites. We have about 50 websites that we’re currently managing for clients, and we see spam come through them all the time.
Lately, the number, and intensity of scams has increased as well.
This is one that appeared recently...
Your website has COPYRIGHTED IMAGES on it that belong to us. You are liable for up to $130,000 penalty. Click this link to see proof of the copyright violation.
This particular scam is especially dangerous- it asks you to click a link- but that link is an executable program that installs a virus.
And now they own your computer.
My business clients are on the whole very smart people- but they are not technologically adept. When someone throws confusing technical jargon and vague-but-substantial business risk at them, they’re more likely to whip out a credit card than let it go unanswered.
The Vigilante Response
Today, this has become such a significant social issue, that there is an emerging market for people who make a living just out of harassing the scammers.
You may have seen the TED talks of comedian James Vetch, who enjoys stringing scammers along for weeks or months, wasting their time... but others are taking a far more direct and aggressive approach.
On YouTube, Scammer Payback has nearly 3 million subscribers. Kitboga has 2.5 million, and Scambaiter has nearly 1.5 million. All three do a great job of showing how scams and scammers operate, and people love watching the payback too.
But unless you're a professional hacker, and have decided to take the risks connected with this kind of career, you may want to rethink pursuing your own vigilante justice.
The Architecture of a Scam
I've seen enough scams to notice a consistent pattern.
Present the bait;
- Create an opportunity, or a threat, which provokes intense emotion - typically desire ( a strong desire to go towards something ), or fear ( a strong desire to go away from something ).
- Make it seem real. Names, places, numbers, dates, addresses...
- Give them a specific action to take, something easy - click a link, call a number, send an email.
Wiggle it about;
- Intensify that emotion by making it seem immediate. Use words like “urgent, immediate, act now...”. Agitate them, and don’t give them time to think.
- Provoke panic by leveraging their deepest fears - such as parents wanting to protect their children - or their deepest desires - for love, or a life of comfort and security.
- Make it urgent. Pretend you're their friend, and can help them. But only if they act now.
The moment they bite, pull the rod and see if you can hook them, hard.
This part is usually done through email conversations, phone calls, or online dating chats.
It’s essential to recognize the emotion behind manipulation. If you are suddenly feeling intense fear, or desire... before you do anything, stop and ask yourself why.
Is it real? Or is someone manipulating you?
Intense emotion has the effect of dulling our rational mind. Cortisol directly inhibits rational thought, and we have all experienced how “love is blind.”
Scams are Marketing, Dr. Evil-style
Marketers know a lot about how to manipulate your emotions... in fact they study it constantly. Large marketing companies even use MRI machines to determine what triggers different emotions in your mind.
Think about that. Does that concern you? Because it probably should.
These companies have tons of money to throw at research, and a massive financial incentive to use it. There is a huge payout if they can learn how to crack that walnut between your ears.
Likely, they know as much as most psychologists about human emotion- and they have zero ethics on how to use it against you.
A quick search on neuromarketing, and I hit this- one of the best depictions I have ever seen of basic human emotion.
That's right, most marketers probably know more about your brain than you do.
Meanwhile, scammers are operating outside of the law, and as such, they have no laws impeding them. They use this same knowledge with no conscience, and no mercy.
It’s the difference between a programmer and a hacker.... a demolitions expert and a terrorist... a medical doctor and a Nazi scientist.
Scammers are the Nazi scientists of marketing.
Let me put it this way.
Marketing is the science of making money, by convincing people to hand it to you. Scamming is the science of stealing money, by convincing people to hand it to you.
Look after your loved ones
After investigating the voicemail and discovering that it was a scam, I shared this information with my dad.
He understood instantly, and without pause, he immediately asked me...
“Who was the target here?”
Boom! Brilliant. That’s my dad.
I suspect both of us were the target, actually.
Scammers don't really care, if they hook someone who is willing to pay to make a "problem" go away, they'll happily take your money.
I'm counting my blessings
More than anything, it bothers me significantly that the scammers contacted my father, with threats towards me.
If you understand the nature of love, it is a strong desire to protect those we care most about.
Fortunately, my dad is very smart, and he knows I can handle myself.
But how many parents, with the absolute best of intentions, would quietly try to protect their kids?
How many parents would answer that caller with...
“How much can I pay for this problem to go away?”
And then wire transfer everything they own.
When the ones we love are threatened, we will kill, or sacrifice ourselves, to protect them.
That what love is.
A word of advice
All of us have a responsibility to look after our loved ones. Many people in older generations aren’t nearly as astute as my dad.
How many grandmas have been caught up in some scammer’s nefarious web of lies?
Make sure you talk about this with everyone in your family before it happens to them. Parents. Grandparents. Aunts and Uncles. Brothers and Sisters, and your own kids as well.
You may just save them a lifetime of grief and regret.
Know your scams
it’s most important to know the pattern of a scam- that way you’ll recognize new ones. You'll feel it before you understand it, like I did.
"It feels like someone is trying to manipulate me..."
However, here are five of the most common consumer-facing scams to watch out for;
Love / Romance scams ( opportunity )
- Usually targeted on dating websites & apps.
- Person “catfishes” you, often these are Nigerian scammers.
- They can spend months building a relationship.
- Suddenly there is a crisis, where they desperately need money.
In 2018, Americans reported losing $143 million in romance schemes- more than any other type of fraud reported to the Federal Trade Commission.
Unexpected money scams ( opportunity )
Unexpected money scams involve someone overseas offering you a share in a large sum of money or a payment on the condition you help them to transfer money out of their country.
Yes I'm talking about you Nigerian Prince Mumbagwhe.
Finance scams ( opportunity )
Check your spam folder in any email system, you’ll find it full of "hot stock tips" and "insider trading secrets."
There are a hundreds of them. Clearly, someone is clicking on them.
Drug / medical scams ( opportunity )
You've all seen "make your penis larger" and "last longer in bed." Just take this pill and your sex life will be 10x better.
Now I'm seeing ads for cognitive supplements as well. Increase your IQ. Decrease your stress. I've seen botox ads. I've even seen spam for cheap versions of normally-expensive drugs, like heart medications.
How dangerous would that be, eh?
You will be sued scams ( threat )
Like the one I received yesterday, these scams seek to provoke fear.
Historically threat-scams are more frequently targeted at businesses, but that appears to be changing. Watch out for these too.
Have you been scammed?
In an informal poll, 75% of BROJO's members indicated that they have been scammed at some point in their life.
If you, or anyone you know, have ever been the victim of a scam, it is important not to be ashamed. Very simply, we're all human, and we're all controlled by our emotions, far more than we realize.
The important lesson here is that a master manipulator knows where your puppet strings are, and exactly how to pull them.
Scammers are pros at manipulation. They manipulate people full time, and with no conscience, no boundaries, and no rules. They've had years to sharpen their targeting, script, technique, and timing for maximum effect.
Take the initiative to learn how your emotions work, and how they can be used to manipulate you... so that no one can manipulate you again.
If you've been bitten, don't despair.
This article is part of the series
This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.
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Some additional reading;
The New Science of Customer Emotions [ HBR ]
The Influence Of Emotions Induced By Marketing Is Even Bigger Than You Think
More than a feeling: Emotional contagion effects in persuasive communication [ APA PsycNet ]
The Role of Charisma
In Olivia Cabane’s book The Charisma Myth, she identifies the three primary characteristics of charisma as power, presence, and warmth. I find it interesting to observe that all three of these are involved in a scam’s design and messaging as well.
A scammer's message nearly always includes these 3 parts...
- Power - “I am an authority, and I have the power to make your life heaven or hell.”
- Presence - “I am talking to you personally, and this problem is urgent and immediate. You must act now.”
- Warmth - “Trust me. If you do as I say, I can save your ass, or make you rich. If you ignore me, you’re screwed.”
No wonder they’re so convincing, eh? They hit us right in the charisma sweet spot.
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