Scammed!

Written by
Michael Wells

Scammed!

How Your Emotions are used to Manipulate You

Written by
Michael Wells

Scammed!

How Your Emotions are used to Manipulate You

Written by
Michael Wells
SERIES

This article is part of the series 

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QUESTION

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. He was quite worried.

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.

Holy crap. What is this about? Who's suing me, and why? What could I have done wrong? What should I do about this? 

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.

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 your friend. 

54 matches in search results, and 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 scam artists.

And these were just the people that had bothered to search the number, and to leave a comment about the call they received.

I wondered... how many people had called the number before researching it first?

Confirm your suspicions

Alright, clearly this is bullshit.

But I prefer to be thorough in my research. Zero doubt. So what about this case number?

It turns out that Cook County does have a public online case search for civil cases. Google found the page immediately. 

Immediately I could see something was wrong. 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.

I sat back and contemplated all this, feeling both relieved, and pissed off at the same time.

I considered going all James Vetch on them, but eventually decided my energy was better spent writing this article.

Scams are Everywhere

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.

Originally it was...

Your domain name YOURCOMPANY.COM is about to expire! Pay us money to save it before someone else takes it.

Then it was...

Another company is about to register your domain name YOURCOMPANY.CN! They will own the legal rights to your brand. Pay us if you don’t want that to happen.

Where is the .CN domain name, you might ask? China.

But they don’t make that part obvious. 

Lately scams have gotten much more aggressive and harmful.

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 you.

The World is full of Vulnerable People

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.

Or they call me... at all hours... a lot.

To mitigate this, I watch leads coming through for all my clients, and when I encounter a scam pattern, I send a scam-alert email newsletter to my clients. 

My clients get to sleep better, and so do I.

It's interesting to watch this from my "bird's eye" view- because the same scam usually hits several of the websites at the same time. Same message, same threat, just different names and numbers to mix it up.

I find it sad that this is necessary, but this is our modern reality.

The Architecture of a Scam

I've learned a lot from dissecting all these scams... the pattern is always the same.

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 ).
  • Intensify that emotion by making 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;

  • Further 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.
  • Make it seem like you can help them. But only if they act now. 

The moment they bite, pull the rod and see if you can catch them.

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.

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. 

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...

  1. Power - “I am an authority, and I have the power to make your life heaven or hell.”
  2. Presence - “I am talking to you personally, and this problem is urgent and immediate. You must act now.”
  3. 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.

Look after your loved ones

After investigating the voicemail and discovering that it was a scam, I shared this information with my dad. 

He “got it” 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.

Last known photo of Bob.

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?”
This mother cat walked through fire FIVE times to save her kittens from a building fire in Brooklyn, NY.

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 )

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.

Bite back.

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First published on 
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November 13, 2021

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