Thursday, March 27, 2014

Why reporting scams can feel like being scammed twice

Being a victim of a scam is an unpleasant experience. When people realise that they have been scammed, feelings of shame and hurt can be overwhelming.  In fact, in one of the interviews I conducted with victims of scams, a victim told me that although she felt anger at the time it happened, afterwards this anger turned into feelings of shame and failure, a strong feeling that she cannot look after herself, that she is not competent enough… Of course, every scam and every person is different and therefore the experience is different for everyone.  Some people are able to shrug it off as an experience to learn from but for some, being scammed can be life changing.  This also vastly depends on how much you have lost.  It is easy to shrug off few pounds but not so easy if you lost your life savings to an investment scam.

There are many agencies that deal with victims of crime and although scams are criminal acts, they are not treated the same as some other criminal activities.  People are urged to report scams to the police or the relevant agencies and there is no shortage of agencies that you can contact if you have been a victim of a scam. Crimestoppers, ActionFraud, your local Trading standards, Office of Fair Trading and so on, and of course, the police themselves. These agencies are doing all they can, especially with the number of scams growing, but many victims feel they did not get any support at all.

Commissioned by the government, a large-scale study looking into the system of support for victims of fraud was done by the researchers at the University of Portsmouth. Large part of the study entailed interviewing victims themselves, in order to find out what they think of the help they receive.  Many victims have reported patchy service, little advice, especially when it comes to how not to become a victim again.  Of course there are plenty of warnings out there, not to respond to suspicious emails, not to open attachments from people we don’t know and not to send money to strangers… however humans are and always will be, curious by nature.  Office of Fair Trading report (2009) found that certain people engage in scams over and over, despite being good decision makers in other areas of their lives, so perhaps there is something else that drives people to ignore simple advice regarding scams.

Problem is not just the patchy victim support, perhaps the biggest problem is the fact that many scam victims never see justice or recoup their funds.  With any other crime, once you report it to the police, you expect the police to find the perpetrator and punish them accordingly.  Scams are different.  Government will only prosecute fraud that they deem is in the public interest, or in other words, large enough. Most scams fall under civil law, which means that the victim is left to find a way of getting their own justice by pursuing the matter in the civil court. Many cannot afford this even if they know their scammer and many scammers, therefore, go unpunished.

The study by the same researchers has also found that victims who get the most support are the ones who have been chosen to testify in court.  They are provided with an assigned case worker and are supported through the experience. Victims of identity fraud seem to also fare better than most victims,  due to the fact that banks have dedicated fraud departments dealing with the victim directly and most identity fraud victims get adequate advice and money they lost back relatively quickly.

For many other victims who have been unlucky enough to be scammed, there is a bleak outcome.  The burden of proof is on them rather than on the scammer and many have no money for legal advice and/or court fees for the case they may want to bring against their scammer.  Many of those interviewed for that study also reported not being given much advice on how not to become a victim of a scam again.  The reasons people engage in scams are complex.  Scams themselves are designed to evoke different reaction in people. It is important to try to understand the underlying reasons why people find any particular scam interesting, in order to help them avoid scams in the future.  So far, there is little support like this for victims of scams.  Although the authorities are investing more effort trying to understand different factors that underlie scams and people’s responses to them, apart from general advice given everywhere online, there is little else in form of advice that some victims can relate to.  For example, looking into different ways scammers motivate their victims or which personality characteristics may be influential in making someone more susceptible to certain scams, might prove to be an invaluable tool in educating potential or repeated victims how to change their behaviour.  At present there is not much research into these factors or resources to help most of the victims and this is perhaps why scammers can get away with murder.

Button, M., Tapley, J., & Lewis, C. (2013). The ‘fraud justice network’and the infra-structure of support for individual fraud victims in England and Wales.Criminology and Criminal Justice, 13(1), 37-61.

Lea, S., Fischer, P., & Evans, K. (2009). The psychology of scams: Provoking and committing errors of judgement. report for the Office of Fair Trading, available online at www. oft. gov. uk/shared_oft/reports/consumer_protection/oft1070. pdf.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

First rule of scamming: The reciprocity rule

In the olden days when scammers relied on selling you something, an overpriced double glazing or a miracle product, they were usually easily spotted due to their fake smiles, polished suits and a skill, not unlike that of a python, of being able to squeeze every last penny out of you.  They were ruthless, arrogant, forceful, and it was easier to spot the warning signs of being scammed.  We have all heard scary stories about window salesmen who refused to leave your home hours after they have given you a quote for the new windows and you told them you would like them to leave at least 50 times.  But what people don’t realize is that modern scammers have evolved. They are no longer forceful or arrogant and they are seldom selling anything but hope.  Hope of a large investment on your pension savings, hope of finding your one true love, hope of a miracle oil that will help your loved one battle cancer when their oncologist has run out of hope or hope of buying a time share apartment that will bring you nothing less but a secure income in old age.
Scammers have become slick, smart, calculated, embracing innovation and using psychology to get the victims to comply.  

For example, research into dating scams found that scammers invest hours upon hours of communication with their victims. Sometimes lasting several months and sometimes very intense communication, which helps to cultivate an interpersonal relationship between a victim and a scammer, which is hard to override.  The more the victim communicates with the scammer, the easier it becomes for the scammer to get what they want in the end.  And before the blame is placed on the victims being gullible, let me explain how this exchange might work.  

As children we were brought up to share, be nice and return favours.  These are simple societal rules that help us nurture relationships we have with others.  When a stranger asks us to give them money out of the blue, we have no problem saying no.  But when a friend asks, especially if they have done us favours in the past, we will feel obliged to help them.  This is called reciprocity rule. It is ingrained in us. Those that don’t observe this rule are thought of as selfish or uncivilised.  Reciprocity rule is a strong evolutionary tool which helped us survive, form bonds, keep friends… but it is also a powerful tool for a scammer.

Scammers, and this is especially true of dating scams in which women are victims, often send small presents to their victims, flowers, perfume, small tokens of love. This ensures that somewhere down the line, the victim feels bad about not helping the scammer.  In dating scams, the usual technique is for scammers to claim to be in different countries as doctors or soldiers. When they eventually ask for money for an operation or the plane ticket or a solicitor or some other worthy cause, the lengthy communication, the attention, the gifts that the victim received will make them feel obliged to help the scammer even if they feel uncomfortable about it.

If you have ever been on holiday in Egypt or Turkey for example, you would have experienced this rule being used. This is why in every shop you are offered tea and a friendly chat.  After 40 minutes of sipping mint tea and talking about yourself, it is hard not to buy that expensive, exotic rug…
This is because we have been pre programmed to return kindness. And since we have nothing to give the shopkeeper but money, most of us will buy something before we leave… at double the price, at least.

In fact, this technique is used all the time, everywhere and not just by scammers.  Everyone knows to avoid those islands that are set up in shopping centers, selling bath salts, nail buffers, body creams or sun tan lotions, curling irons or a miraculous back pain problem solving device. Why? Because if you are lured into the demonstration and you have the money to spend, you will feel bad walking away without buying at least a bar of soap. Reciprocity works. I even used it on my mum as a child. If I wanted to ask for privileges I would do so after tidying my room and giving her a guided tour of neatly folded articles of clothing, books and toys.

So if you get a gift from a stranger or a new friend you met online, however small, ask yourself, or even better, ask them: what have I deserved to get this? If there are no valid answers, make a point of not paying it back. 

Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and practice (Vol. 4). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Whitty, M. T. (2013). The Scammers Persuasive Techniques Model Development of a Stage Model to Explain the Online Dating Romance Scam. British Journal of Criminology, 53(4), 665-684.

Illustration: Dubravko Kastrapeli

Are you being scammed?

Scams are part of everyday life.  Your inbox holds the key to making a sweet partnership with the Nigerian prince, lottery you won without buying a ticket or a spiritual healer that can, for a fee, change your destiny and transform you into anything you wish.  Many of us have had our identity stolen at least.  That feeling of dread when you see your credit card statement and you cannot remember buying that awesome hi-fi system, a new mobile phone and Eurostar tickets to Paris… Scams have a long history.  Do you remember the unlucky coyote in the cartoon, who would order various devices from the Acme catalogue, full of hope only to have them fall short in some way... and we laughed as children at his inability to catch the roadrunner totally missing the shoddy practices employed by Acme.  Do you remember Emperor’s new clothes?  No you don’t, because he wasn’t wearing any… he was scammed.  Perhaps these stories are told because they have always been a part of human existence.

Almost everyone has heard of Nigerian, also called, 419 scams. They are often seen as ridiculous and usually involve some high-ranking African bank official or, if you are lucky, a prince or a king that desperately needs help to get his millions out of the country and is asking for your help. You can share the millions by sending a small admin fee, which is usually not small and this will allow the money to be deposited into your bank account. Fake documents are usually drawn to represent the agreement to share the money.   Despite the elaborate and highly unlikely stories that go along with these scams, the figure given by The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) report in 2006 was 70 000 people in UK alone, who have fallen prey to this type of scam.

Nigerian scams have been around for a long time. Before the invention of the Internet, people received letters containing scenarios like this, and with the invention of the fax machine and the telephone, it became even easier to reach victims. But it is only since the invention of the Internet, that targeting a large number of potential victims has become virtually cost free to the scammer.  Sending an email is free and it can be done by a computer program generating random emails.  However, although an initial email is relatively cost free, any subsequent communication with the victim implies a cost to a scammer, especially if you want to get the victim to comply with the request for money. Asking for money too soon may alienate potential victims, therefore building interpersonal relationship with the victim is important. But this takes time and effort.  Despite the prevalent publicity that anything coming from Nigeria into your inbox should be deleted without reading, Nigerian scams are still around and thriving.   Internet security experts have hypothesised that Nigerian scams are now used as fishing expeditions to snare the most vulnerable and gullible victims, whose details are then sold for profit to other scammers and these victims are then sent various other scams. Targeting the right person ensures that the cost to the scammer is kept to a minimum.

Scams also take many forms and almost everyone has, at one point or another, been a victim of fraud or a scam.  Dating scams, clairvoyant scams, miracle cures, investment scams, get rich and self-help workshops that cost thousands of pounds, bogus lotteries, fake auctions, phishing scams and so on.  Although there are obvious vulnerable groups that fall prey to scams, such as elderly people or those with impaired cognitive function, it is important to be aware that anyone can get scammed. Even without active participation with the scammer, people can still get scammed without their knowledge, through fake cash point machines or by their identities being stolen.  Many scammers make websites that look identical to the real ones, so even when they don’t come to you, you may, inadvertently come to them.
Although omnipresent, security warnings are simply not enough to protect us from harm when it comes to scams. The lists of ‘don’ts’ rarely take into an account that scams are becoming more sophisticated.  For example, dating scams are executed over a period of time.  The scammer invests time and effort to build an interpersonal relationship with the victim, frequently giving some elaborate excuse why the meeting cannot take place, such as them being a soldier or a volunteer doctor in another country.  When they ask for money, it is not for them, but rather for the plane ticket so they can finally meet the victim. The victim may have some reservations, but by this time they may also have strong feelings due to lengthy conversations with the scammer, making it harder to say no and victims only realise they have been scammed months down the line, often after they have been victimised repeatedly.  Some scams, such as investment scams, purposely drown victims in useless paperwork that needs to be signed so eventually the victim may end up signing something they did not properly read, giving the scammer the power of attorney to rob them.

What is shocking is that majority of scams will never be prosecuted because they are classed as civil action. This means it is up to the victim to pursue the legal proceedings against the scammer. This is the last thing you want to hear after being robbed and it certainly isn’t something a burglary victim is told, so why is it acceptable that scams are not taken as seriously as other crimes? Often victims do not get offered much support unless they go to court. In order for the case to reach the courts, the governmental agencies must decide if the scam/fraud is in the public interest. For many victims, this is not what happens. Sadly, many victims are simply left with only the bitter memories, blaming themselves without any real understanding how scams work and whom they particularly target.

Button, M., Tapley, J., & Lewis, C. (2013). The ‘fraud justice network’ and the infra-structure of support for individual fraud victims in England and Wales. Criminology and Criminal Justice13(1), 37-61.
Herley, C. (2012). Why do Nigerian Scammers say they are from Nigeria? Microsof research,  In WEIS.
Office of Fair Trading (OFT) (2006). Research on Impact of Mass Marketed Scams.