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

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