Monday, November 9, 2015

Saying 'No' can save your life

Do you have difficulty saying no to people?  Especially if they are assertive and forceful?  You are not alone.  I will explain how scammers exploit our inability to say no in more ways than one. 

Some people have difficulty saying firm 'NO' to people that are forceful, whereas some get rebellious when they encounter those with arrogant or forceful personalities.  If you recognise yourself as someone who has difficulty with strong personalities, you may be vulnerable to specific scam techniques, especially when the scam is executed face to face.  Scammers look for victims that are going to comply and often can tell within a few seconds of meeting you, whether you are likely to be a victim.  If you find confrontations uncomfortable and have been known to go along with things that you don't want to do when people assert themselves over you, then you are particularly vulnerable to forceful scam techniques employed by scammers that usually target people door to door.  Often we are brought up to be polite and saying no somehow registered as being rude, especially if we feel that we have wasted someone's time.  This is why double glazing salesmen come to your home for 3 hour demonstration; after 3 hours you are likely to feel guilty you wasted their time, despite the fact you don't owe them anything and it is up to them how long they take demonstrating.  Many people have difficulties saying no for this reason.  So what can you do about it?  First of all, it is good to be aware of individual vulnerability and look for ways of adapting to avoid situations that would lead to compliance with unwanted purchases/deals.  

1. Practice saying 'no, thank you'.  It is perfectly OK to say no to people.  If they are selling something and spent time telling you about it, don't feel guilty as this is their job.  You only need to decide if you want what they are selling.   

2. Understand that this will make you vulnerable to similar things forever and think of ways of getting out of situations that force you to feel uncomfortable.  One of the people I spoke to that had a similar problem told me that he lies to people in such situations, telling them he has no money at present.  You can also say you need someone else to make a decision before going ahead.  For example, you can say; I want to ask my son/daughter, who is a police detective, for an opinion as I always run all decisions past them.  If the salesmen mocks you for wanting to run a decision past someone first, please be aware this is also a persuasion technique and don't give in.  Who cares what a random stranger selling you something thinks of you.  

3. Another thing you can do is to tell them to come back when someone else is with you.  This is not a no, it is more 'not now'.  Genuine salesmen will respect this and come back another time.  Ask them to make a solid appointment or give you the number to call to make an appointment when you arrange with a friend/family member to be present.  

If you think that only people who have difficulty with pushy scammers are vulnerable, think again.  Even if you react to forceful and aggressive people pushing you to do something you don't want to do, you can still be caught out by inability to say no, but it will be more subliminal. 

We tend to comply more when a person before us is affable, likeable or appears to be similar to us.  This is how scammers get our trust quickly.  In the absence of any solid experience with the person in front of us, our brain will make short cuts and concentrates on certain features; attire, politeness and so on.  We all make judgements on daily basis and often these judgments need to be quick, therefore they are based on our previous experience.  For example; if you dealt with a person of a certain religion, race and so on...and you had good experience, it is likely that you will assign that good experience to a whole religion or race until you get a different experience.  Same with people who seem similar to us in some way.  Scammers often impersonate their victims for this reason; they may say they grew up locally, know someone from the country you are from and so on.  They may ask you questions about your life style and tell you they feel the same about certain things you tell them.  All of this will make you like them more and the more you like them, the less able you will be to say no when they make a request for a payment.  So what can you do in such situations? 

1. Understand that saying no to someone who is trying to sell you something is not the same as saying no to someone who helped you many times before and is an established friend.  You don't owe them anything, even if you feel that you do, this is just psychology.  

2. Be extra careful if someone you are dealing with (where large sums of money are involved or where someone asks you for money) seem to be 'your kind of person' or seems to click with you, especially in a short time frame.  This is especially true of romance scammers - they will often be great listeners and the more you tell them about what you need/want, they more they will appear to be just what you are looking for.  You can lie and say you have no money just now.  Or talk it over with friends and family to get a non biased opinion, but also listen to their opinion.  Many people disregard their friends or family's opinion.  As they say... two heads are better than one.  It really is true. 

3.  A truly nice salesman will always be as friendly the next day or next week.  Make a rule to never do anything in the moment.  Come back tomorrow or arrange another meeting if you really want the product.  Use the time to think about the product/investment away from the person selling it.  When you separate the two, you may realise that you liked the product because you actually liked the person selling it.  

And always, use the time away to check the facts in every possible way before you commit to parting with your money. 

I am currently running a scam vulnerability study. If you have been affected by a scam, please help me by filling a survey. The research aims to develop a measure of vulnerability to fraud.  University of Portsmouth research, ethics committee approved. 


Sunday, October 25, 2015

Why 'limit' a good thing? Limited and one time offers explained

Have you ever found yourself enticed by a limited or one time offer?  This is a persuasion technique that salesmen often use to entice us to buy stuff we really could do with not buying but I will explain how this also works for scammers.

One time or limited time offers are usually discounted and therefore present a 'good deal' but if they didn't have 'limited time' attached to them, we could go about our business and not buy it, the reasoning being that you can always come back tomorrow and buy it, or next week, or next get the drift.  But once there is a time limit attached to it, it becomes a bit more pressing, as we need to make a decision about buying straight away, or at least in the short time frame.   By the mere fact that there is a time limit on it, the thing in question becomes scarce (or at least scarce at that price) and scarcity will entice you further.   We are hard wired to go crazy when we think something is scarce.  This is ingrained in us and it is an evolutionary tool that helps survival of the species.   In the olden days food was scarce and people ate lots when there was a chance to eat and starved when there was nothing to eat. In the modern age, this is no longer a concern but the instinct to grab something that is scarce with both hands is still prevalent.  And scammers and sleazy salesmen exploit this. 

What limited time offers do is put a rush on our decision making.   You could go home and think about it but then you might miss the offer.  When we are strapped for time our decision making process suffers because our brain makes shortcuts.  Instead of evaluating the deal, the quality of the item, the use, the daily need for it... we focus on the time limit and the good price, sometimes also on the person selling it to make our decision. The more likeable you find the salesmen, the more likely are you to think favourably of the product.  This fact is true of any sale but it is particularly true in situations when you are put in the position where you need to decide on the spot.  And they are trained to remind you of all the 'good' things about the product and forget the 'bad'.   And let's face it, how many times have you found that a one time offer you went for is back next weekend or next month or is available all the time? 

So next time you come across a limited time offer, just remember that this is a technique used to trigger our primal behaviour, which will then override any reasoning regarding the product.  Just knowing this may allow you to walk away until you thought about it.  Sometimes even saying to the person who is selling the product; "Let me think about it while I complete my shopping" will be enough for you to detach from the situation and think about it rationally.  You can then always come back to it if you still think it is a good idea. 

Have you been affected by a scam? I am currently researching what makes us vulnerable to scams. Please help me by filling the survey - CLICK HERE

Saturday, October 3, 2015

How scam safe is social media?

Almost anyone I know has a Facebook account and why not, it is a great way to keep in touch with friends, share ideas, pictures, achievements and so on. But how safe is social media nowadays?  People using websites such as Twitter tend to share less personal information than those who frequently use Facebook and scammers exploit that fact.  What many people don't realise is that every bit of information is extremely valuable to scammers.  There is a popular belief that scammers are just after your passwords, pin numbers and bank account details.  This is not always so.  Scammers now trade personal details and any personal detail is of value, however small.  Marital status, number of children, date of birth, where you work, your likes and dislikes and so on...they are all valuable.  Let's explore why; if you randomly get an offer that is nothing to do with what you enjoy or have a weakness towards, it is very likely that you will gloss over it without properly reading it and discard it.  But if you get an offer that presents you with something you are passionate about, your attention will be directed towards it and it is more likely that you will feel excited about it.  This will, in turn, lead to less information processing.  The fact that we are so bombarded by offers through email means that it takes a special offer to get our attention and scammers now know this and are not afraid to put some work into getting to know you in order to scam you with what you are likely to go for. 

Many people think that Facebook is safe as you only share things with your friends and family that you added as friends.  This is true to some degree but you also share your details with pages that you like.   I will explore couple of popular ways that scammers use Facebook to get to your details. 

Taking identities of your friends

Have you ever received a request from a someone you already have as a friend on Facebook?  It is very likely that this is a scammer who has cloned your friend's identity and is now adding their friends in order to have access to their details on Facebook.  Always be careful of such requests.  Email you friend through old Facebook account to ask if they added you again and wait for a response or contact them via other means to ask.  Once you add this new account, all your information on Facebook is in the hands of the scammer.  Remember, even harmless details are now sold between scammers for profit. 

Fake competitions, prize draws, give aways  and raffles

This is something that is incredibly rife on Facebook.  Perhaps you have seen your friend sharing a status by a company advertising a give away on Facebook and all you have to do is like the page and share the status to be in with a chance.  Whilst some legitimate companies do this type of thing, large number of prize draws on Facebook asking you to share their page or status are fake.  Once you like the page, the page will have your details.  Be careful what you like.  By sharing the status you are giving your friends a feeling that what you are sharing is legitimate.  Scammers often exploit this as they know that a recommendation from a friend is likely to be perceived as credible.   So how you can tell if the page is real or fake.  First of all, look at the page without liking it.  If it is a large company such as Virgin, they are likely to have many followers, not just few hundred.  You can also put the name of the company in the search and see how many results come out and see what other pages with the same name say.  Finally you can search in Google for the giveaway and it is likely that you may discover if it is a scam that way.  

The worst possible thing you can do is click 'like' and 'share' on Facebook, without thinking or investing few minutes to cross reference information.  Scammers are then invited to your photos and your details and these often get used in romance scams or setting up profiles on Twitter or other sites.  Having just an access to your photos is valuable to scammers.  Often they save the whole albums, create fake profiles and scam other users (this is a popular technique in romance scams) and having lots of consistent photographs, especially with family and friends, adds credibility to a fake profile.   

Take time to check the information when you next encounter a prize draw or an offer, especially if it is extremely enticing.   You know the old saying... if something looks too good to be true, it usually is.  Often now, even if it doesn't look too good to be true, it could be fake. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Reading the small print is often tedious but extremely important

Know that in fraud, you are often alone.  Scam warnings cannot warn against new types of scams evolving every day so it pays to be careful and reading the small print can often save you.
Think about known websites, such as Gumtree, eBay and PayPal.  Everyone has one of these at some point in their life, and we often associate credibility with known brands, companies and names.  But how safe are you when using these sites? 

Let’s start with Gumtree.  Just as any other free advertising site, it is full of scammers advertising for potential victims.  Fake jobs, fake items and so on.  But although Gumtree’s terms of use stipulate that ‘you shall not violate any laws’, they are more than aware that people often do and clearly state;
we do not have any obligation to monitor the information transmitted or stored on our sites, services, applications and tools and we do not accept any liability for unauthorized or unlawful content on Gumtree or use of Gumtree by users.’

What this means is that, once scammed on their website, Gumtree has no responsibility to help you because you accepted their terms of use.
If someone told you this before looking for items, would this make a difference?

PayPal is another company that is seen as highly credible. It provides a safe way of paying that covers the buyer in case of scams. But how safe is it?
It is pretty safe if you read and understand terms of use but it is not foolproof.  Who reads all the small print?  And even when you do, often written in the legal language, it is difficult to understand.  PayPal doesn’t help themselves by listing bullet-pointed T&Cs that only highlight the good parts of their guarantee and many people only read those without considering the whole agreement.

I am listing some things that would invalidate your PayPal protection, as explained in their full terms of use, that you may not know about:

    1.   Some items are listed as not covered by PayPal – do you know which? This includes vehicles, property, gift vouchers etc.  Scammers know this and will send you an email purporting to be from PayPal (and it will be very convincing) explaining that, due to the large amount, PayPal is requesting you to pay via bank transfer.  PayPal does not cover any bank transfer.

    2.   Did you send payments in instalments? You will not be covered if so.

    3.   If the item is not as described and you need to return in, you have to post tracked to be able to claim money back and this could be costly and you will not get your postage costs back.

    4.  If the person selling you something sends an empty envelope with a tracking number, you will have a very hard time proving that you did not receive your item – scammers exploit this.

    5.  Once you cancel the complaint you raised against a seller, the matter will be closed and you will no longer be able to re-open it.

The list is not exhaustive, there are lengthy legal points to consider when shopping with PayPal.  Both, sellers and buyers are supposedly covered but some of the legal points contradict themselves and scammers exploit this.
For example, seller often only needs to send a tracking number as only proof of sending an item.  Often they will send a letter to a different address and provide a tracking and you will never receive anything but seller would have satisfied the conditions of sale and your money is lost.
Equally, you could do the same as a buyer sending something back and the seller will be out of pocket for that item.

So are you really covered for fraud in either case?  Only up to a point but is that enough?  Scammers are now extremely skilled at exploiting legal loopholes.  Another loophole is that once you raise the claim against a seller for goods you paid for but have not received, scammers often write to apologise profusely about not sending an item and promise to send it, asking you to cancel the complaint.  Once you do, PayPal is no longer liable to help you.  PayPal has made things better slightly by extending the period to raise a claim from 45 days to 180 days after purchase.  Often scammers would claim things are on the way and taking slightly longer to arrive.  If you have a bank account linked to PayPal and this happens, you have no other way of getting your money back as banks also cover themselves with legal terms and conditions that avoid liability.  Sending someone money from your bank account is considered to be a willing payment.  However, if you have a credit card registered with PayPal instead, you will probably get help from your credit card fraud department if you get defrauded.

So how do you know if a seller on eBay or Gumtree is a scammer?   There is no easy way, of course, but it pays to flick through their feedback (please see my post on faking eBay feedback) and read all the comments and also see what else they are selling.  Use your intuition – if something feels not right (too good to be true, seller says viewing is difficult as he/she is abroad, seller rushing you to make a decision etc.) don’t buy it.  But also know where you stand with fraud protection. 

It pays to know all terms and conditions and not just what the companies want you to take in, which is usually just the good points.  The summary of terms and conditions will not mention exclusions and disclaimers, which may be crucial for you. But I agree, reading the small print can be extremely tedious, however, it may save you from scams.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Scammers prey on those that are down on their luck

I wanted to write a blog about vulnerability to scams that is related to specific circumstances people find themselves in, as there are now so many scams exploiting people who find themselves at a low ebb in their lives.  When people are desperate, they are sometimes more willing to take risks they would not take otherwise.   First on the list are job scams.  Anyone looking for a job is already in a predicament.   They may be out of work and therefore probably financially low or they don't like their current job.  Either way, there is a need to find a new job and where there is a need - there is a scam. 
Scammers know that when people 'need' something, they will be more determined to attain it than when they just 'want' it and many scams exploit fundamental needs such as the need to be loved or the need to be financially secure.  Job scams are now very prevalent and scammers invest time and effort to post attractive jobs on legitimate job websites.  There are job offers that are advertised on websites but also those that are sent by email.  Jobs advertised via unsolicited emails tend to be simple (au-pair, nanny etc.) so that anyone can do them and the incentive tends to be very high (salary that is way above the current market rate for the job).  This is to ensure that whomever reads it is immediately interested. They are often too good to be true and therefore much easier to spot as scams.  But when you are actively looking for work, applying to certain job offers on legitimate websites, it is not so easy to tell who may scam you.  Some scammers are now aware that big incentives or glamorous jobs advertised will arouse suspicions, so the fraudulent jobs advertised may not stand out at first.  The advertised pay may be in line with market rates and often, scammers will copy the content from legitimate job offers. 

So how do you protect yourself from fraudulent job offers?  Usually, after you apply for the job, there will be some correspondence but the person may not be as interested in your background and experience as they would be if the job was legitimate.  They may ask you to pay a small fee for a training pack or to receive details of the job.  Some jobs are based on you purchasing products to sell and may not be a scam but if the job is not properly explained to you (i.e. are you employed or self-employed) I would walk away from it.  If the job is abroad, they may ask you for a fee to arrange a visa.  Some jobs, especially those advertising via emails for staff, such as au pairs or housekeepers, will almost always contain a story where there is an inability to have a proper interview, but instead, the person is keen to employ you and wire you some money for you to arrange some shopping etc.  Eventually they may say there is a problem with the wire transfer and they will ask you to send them some money or they may send you a cheque, asking you to send them a bank transfer for the same amount. The cheque then will bounce and the money you sent will be lost.

Lotteries are another popular thing that scammers do to catch out those that are down on their luck.  If you are short of money, you may be more likely to take greater risks with the little money you have. Letters and emails telling you that you are a winner of a sweepstake or a lottery that you did not enter will most likely result in the scammer asking you for a processing fee.  This fee might be small but you may be asked for other fees, such as a legal fee down the line and so on.  Either way, when you win something, it should not result in you paying for anything. 

So here is a little checklist (by no means exhaustive) explaining what to look for and what to do. 

1. Is the job too good to be true, is the person on the other end very keen to hire you?  If so, ask them lots of questions and if possible, request a meeting.  If they ask you for any fee, however small, you can be sure that it is not a legitimate job offer. They should be paying you, not the other way around.

2. Take your time to Google the job offer independently, lots of people report dodgy experiences on forums and you may find your story is familiar. Don't look for specific names (i.e. email from Mrs. Brown) as scammers will have many aliases.  Instead, focus on similarity in the scenario or a job description you were given - this is something scammers will not vary much as they don't want to get caught in a lie.

3.  If you have not entered a lottery, it is unlikely that you have won anything.  If you get an email saying you won a prize and you really want to respond, then first ask your friends and family if they entered you into anything and Google the company writing to you to see if anyone has flagged them as fraudulent.  If you have replied and they ask you for a fee, stop all correspondence. 

4. As always, talk it over with your friends and family, your support or community group if you attend one or anyone that would listen.  People will share their stories and you might find out if it is a scam that way.  Delay making any decisions for few days, especially if someone is pressuring you to make an instant decision.  Scammers are very good at pressuring people into making decisions on the spot.  There is a reason for that and it is not in your best interest, trust me.

5. Be aware that if you are feeling vulnerable at any point in your life, your desire to get yourself out of the situation may mean you will be more open to quick schemes offered by scammers. Try to scrutinise each offer as much as you can.  Seek professional advice if necessary.  Internet is a great tool for asking questions (forums, private blogs) that get answered by solicitors, doctors and so on.  It will give you some indication what to be careful of.

This list is not exhaustive, it is just a quick list of thoughts that you may employ if you encounter similar offers in your inbox and something is telling you all is not well.  And remember, scammers get tired of inquisitive people.  They are seen as non compliant so if you are not sure, ask lots of questions.  If it is a scam, they may drop you as a potential victim.  Even if they don't, you may spot a discrepancy that way. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Credibility is now for sale - how Internet changed 'word of mouth'

Once upon a time, businesses built credibility by doing good work and being recommended by customers.  Prior to the Internet, people still got scammed by con men but you knew that, when a friend recommended someone, they would more or less be safe.  Word of mouth is the best advertising - any business will tell you this. 

However, Internet has changed how we use 'word of mouth'.  There are several sites out there that a business can have; Facebook, Twitter, they may have a shop on eBay and so on.  There are also sites for employing tradesmen that build their credibility on feedback left by previous customers.  This is an electronic 'word of mouth' if you will.  But you should beware - these imaginary people are not your friends, whom you know and trust.  These people, leaving that great feedback or liking that Facebook page of that business you are checking up on might be shills.  So what is a shill? 

First of all, let me explain why you cannot trust everything you see on the Internet.  Businesses have cottoned on that having a presence online, on social media or somewhere where feedback can be read is essential for a savvy shopper (see my post on how) while this feedback is taken as a seller's credibility.   The number or followers on Twitter, the number of likes etc. counts as credibility for the brand.  But these things can be bought for as little as £5.  Even eBay feedback can be easily faked
But credibility does not end with social media followers, likes and feedback.  Really smart scammers will go to any length to enhance credibility, register themselves on an electoral roll, open limited companies and register them with Companies House (governmental website for registration of companies in UK) and so on.  These details are not rigorously checked by the government, they are taken as correct but on the governmental website, they have a degree of credibility and scammers know this. 

Above you see a Twitter account Tweeting at me asking if I want to buy followers and feedback and below one selling Twitter followers.  These accounts are real and advertise all over the Internet and you can purchase anything; followers, likes, comments.  I don't even trust social media promotion features (legitimate advertising you pay for)  as it can be easily be taken over by scammers with fake social media accounts. Many businesses buy their followers to make their business appear more established instantly.  Some of this is innocent, almost like an advert for the product but please be aware that scammers do that also.  You cannot believe the feedback alone and there are ways of testing feedback (see my post on how to spot fake feedback)
Feedback online does not equal word of mouth by friends and family, it can be faked and might not be genuine.  

And now just a brief word on shills.  Shill is a person who is hired by a company to create a buzz about a new product or a brand.  They typically post feedback on certain sites (if it is a product then on a site where it is sold), forums etc.  Shills will not have infinite amount of time to do that though so you can easily spot fakes by clicking on their username to cross reference what else they reviewed or posted and if this was the only thing on nearly the only thing, I would ignore their opinion. 

It is a sad fact that nowadays, nothing can be trusted to be real. Scammers invest a lot of time thinking up scams that wrap around what we know to be true and feedback is just one of those things; we take feedback as recommendation and we trust things that come recommended.  But as a buyer, you should always beware that not all that appears real is real on the Internet and do a bit more digging. 

Some tips for staying safe when shopping online that I have not covered above; 

1. Always pay with your credit card; credit cards are covered for fraud so it is likely you will get your money back, whereas bank transfer, debit cards and any type of money transfer is money lost forever. 
2. If you use PayPal, please know they have specific terms; if you cancel your complaint about not receiving goods, you are no longer covered by PayPal - scammers know this and will contact you apologising and ask you to cancel the complaint in order for them to send the purchase. 
3. Never follow links someone emails you to pay.  If you cannot pay on the website, it is probably a scam. 
4. Read terms and conditions before purchase; if it is a large purchase I tend to take a screen shot to have as proof of terms and conditions at the time of my purchase.  Lots of unethical practices openly have terms in their T&Cs that you won't like. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

How scammers are using identity theft to manipulate social norms in order to persuade

We all have had our email hacked at least once.  I personally had my email hacked once.  My scammer/hacker did little more than spam my friends with adverts for electronic goods with a personalised message from (supposedly) me, saying that I just bought this amazing stereo system and my friends should use the link to do the same, at a reduced price.  Knowing me too well (I would never brag about a stereo system like I would do about a designer handbag or a nice scarf), my friends alerted me quickly.   I changed the password for that email and that was the end of my advertising. 

However, some hacking is not so innocent and is not done by a computer generated programmes.  Scammers are now so opportunistic as well as astute that they often combine several techniques to get you to send them money, and not small amounts either.   What can start with a simple email hacking can quickly turn into sophisticated persuasion technique and I will explain how. 

We are all brought up to be nice to others and help our friends and family.  Society as a whole is built on those fundamental unspoken rules and this is ingrained in us.   We help our friends and family and they help us, when in need.
Scammers know this.  They also know that, where one would usually be suspicious to get an email from a stranger, asking for money, they would be less cautious if that email came from a friend. 
We are hard wired to help when our friends
need it and scammers exploit this

The scam usually consists of an email from your friend, a person that you know, telling you they have been stranded on holiday, their possessions stolen and they need some money to get new passports and to get home.   Naturally, you are horrified and consider helping.  They tell you to wire money to them via Western Union in a particular country to help them get their affairs in order.  If you do, money is lost forever and there is little anyone can do for you. 

Fraud is still very much a crime that is still largely ignored by police and largely goes unpunished.  This is especially true of personal fraud, so it pays to know how scammers work and be careful online.  

Scams evolve almost daily.  Scammers carefully follow news and as soon as there is anything happening that a scam can be invented around, they invent it.  This is why usual warnings are not always very useful in warning against scams that are yet to come.  It helps to understand how persuasion works and how it is exploited by fraudsters.  So what can you do to prevent being a victim of this type of scam? 

If you ever get an email from a close friend asking for help, if you can, give them a call instead to check the facts first.  If you cannot get hold of them, you could respond to the email expressing your concern but also asking a random question such as " how is your son coping?' - when you know that this particular friend doesn't have a son.  Chances are that the scammer will not know this and will respond saying that the son is distressed etc.  Or something similar.  If it is a genuine request by a friend, they won't mind and you will get a warning sign if it is not a genuine friend of yours.  It is also good to let your friend know by some other means that their account has been compromised and urge them to change passwords connected to that email.  This also means passwords connected to any social media that they use with the email in question, just to be sure. 

People often underestimate scams as something only gullible people fall for until it happens to them.  Scams are now so rife that you cannot avoid them in daily life, especially if you use the internet.  It is often a form of organised crime, where people are employed to converse with potential victims.  You can't stop being a target but by taking time to scrutinise things that reach you in detail, you may prevent being a victim. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How Nigerian scams keep persuading the vulnerable

Nigerian or advance fee - 419 scams have been around for decades (see Glickman 2005).  They usually contain a story of a bank official who has spotted an account with funds that are unclaimed and needs someone to help him get the money out of the account without it being in his name. This is somewhat illegal and he needs help of someone who can receive the money in their account and be paid for it.  Sometimes it is a royal person, a distant prince, rich widow unable to leave money to anyone, someone dying of cancer with wealth to give away and so on.   Once the victim replies, they request conversations, befriending the victim and eventually ask for fees to process legal papers.  The victim never sees the money they were promised.  Worse still, sometimes the victim will receive a fake cheque and cash it, wire the money to the person that is asking them to launder money and then find out the cheque was fake after few days, losing funds they sent. 
Sometimes victims are not even after money but simply believe they are helping the person as the stories are often elaborate.  In the past, Nigerian scams were executed via postal means, incurring a cost to the scammer.  With the invention of the fax and the phone, they became more prevalent and the Internet finally allowed them to become almost an everyday occurrence for most people while not costing much to execute.  Research also stipulates that they are now so well known that they are purposely used to identify the most vulnerable victims, whose details are then sold to other scammers too. 

Recently I have been contacted by someone asking me to warn about a scam purporting to be a girl from a refugee camp, but upon reading the email, I realised it was a spin off, a Nigerian type scam with a new twist to fit the current times. 
Briefly, the story is about a girl who is in a Syrian refugee camp and needs someone to help her get the money that her late and wealthy father deposited in the bank. This is a complex story and I decided to explain why it is complex and how it is written with a view to persuade in the future.  The initial emails asks only that the victim listens to the story but even acknowledging the email might be dangerous if you are uncomfortable saying no. Here is why:

The story starts with an account how the girl lost her mother and father to a violent murder and her consequent life in a refugee camp.  She prays to get out of her situation.  Without explaining what she wants from the victim yet, she asks for trust and not to be betrayed and asks to know more about the potential victim.  This part is likely to elicit empathy towards her situation - who would not feel empathy when someone tells you about their parents' murder.  Asking to know about you is likely to induce feelings of familiarity and closeness, as if you are friends, once you share this information and people help their friends.  She asks for trust and not to be betrayed. You may not think about these words at this point but when the request comes you may feel uncomfortable saying no, because you will feel as if you are betraying her, despite the doubts you might feel. 

Second part tells more about her situation in the camp and the pastor who is helping her to email a random person across the globe.  It also gives the pastor's telephone number.  The victim will probably not use it but if they do, it will add credibility to the story. Here is a quote;

"My Dearest, please I want to go back to my studies because i only attended my first year before the tragic incident that lead to my being in this situation now took place. Please listen to this, please it's a secret, even no one knows about it except the Reverend that knows about it"

The endearments used are to evoke feelings of closeness, the mention of the secret too - we tell secrets to those we are close to so potential victim might feel privileged they were entrusted with the secret.  She then explains about her father's fund that contains millions, that she cannot access and makes a request.

"So i will like you to help me transfer this money to your account and from it you can send some money for me to get my traveling documents and air ticket to come over to meet with you. I kept this secret to people in the camp here the only person that knows about it is the Reverend because he is like a father to me. So in the light of above i will like you to keep it to yourself and don't tell it to anyone for i am afraid of loosing my life and the money if people gets to know about it."

Scammers often put victims in a position of trust, by making themselves appear vulnerable. This gives the victim a feeling of power but in reality, the scammer holds all the strings.  The girl in this story follows up by reminding you that she requested you to be trustworthy.  I particularly like this sentence;

" Remember i am giving you all this information due to the trust i deposed on you. I like honest and understanding people, truthful and a man of vision, hardworking and GOD fearing people."

We all like to think of ourselves as honest and understanding people. And hardworking. Some people are also religious and they will relate to this aspect.  Scammers are good at altercasting. Altercasting, a persuasion technique, is where a person puts the victim in a specific position, often targeting the ego of the person (look at the quote above, calling for a man of vision) or social norms (understanding and honest people). 

There are people out there that may not be very Internet savvy, such as elderly people, who would see this plea and think of ways of helping.  At this point the letter does not ask anything but to get in touch for her to tell you her story but you can bet your life at some point the victim will be asked to part with some money, usually to pay a solicitor to prepare legal papers to transfer the money.  The scammers build up a rapport before they ask for funds, in order for the victim to feel they have to help as they have some sort of relationship or a friendship by this point.  

What I wanted to show with these few bits from the lengthy email is how scammers lay the ground. The email is often benign and mysterious and someone who is not very familiar with phishing emails and scams might respond to find out more.  Often these scams are praying upon social norms of being being helpful and nice.  By replying to the email, the target enters another stage where the familiarity and reciprocity are played upon. They will tell the potential victim about themselves but also ask about the victim's life, which often appears sincere and goes to enhance the trust.  By repeating they asked for trust over and over, the potential victim will unconsciously start to feel uneasy every time they feel they want to stop the process.  It is called priming.  They are priming the victim to comply at a later date without  them being conscious of it happening.   If they want to exit by this point, the potential victim will feel they are betraying someone who is vulnerable and feel uncomfortable about it, often despite seeing the warning signs as the story becomes more complicated.  In many cases the scammers will drown the victim in fake legal papers and documents and there have been cases where people have signed power of attorney to their finances without being aware of it due to the amount of the paperwork they were asked to sign. 
Successful scammers play a long game.  That is why they are successful.  The best thing you can do is try to understand how different scams work and what they target.  Nigerian scams tend to target desirable human traits such as being helpful (when a widow asks for help with finding honourable causes to donate her wealth to) and sometimes greed (when the corrupt bank official asks for help to extract money out of the bank, for which the victim is promised a payment).  Different scams target different things.  One universal advice would always be in control. Don't reply if you are uncomfortable saying no when you start suspecting something or having second thoughts. Change your number if they are harassing you or ask your relative or a friend to call them and tell them you rang the police and reported it.  Share your doubts with friends and family who will advise you.  But most of all, if a stranger emails you out of the blue, ignore the email. 

Glickman, H. (2005). The Nigerian “419” advance fee scams: prank or peril?.Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue canadienne des √©tudes africaines39(3), 460-489.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Why scammers target elderly people

I thought it would be good to make a post about why so many elderly people fall victim to scams.  This is not a new fact and the government, predominantly Trading standards, are doing good work at raising awareness of the issue but I felt it might be beneficial to explain why it might happen. 

The reason why scammers target elderly people so aggressively has to do with cost effectiveness to the scammer. When the scammer invests the time to go around houses, selling bogus products, or calling around, they make sure they target the specific audience that is likely to produce a yield. With age, just as our bodies slowly develop aches and pains and we can no longer drink like we used to and not suffer the effects, we also experience diminishing cognitive functions. This varies across people and is also exacerbated by things like dementia or Alzheimer's, something more prevalent as people age.  Even without those present, ageing affects our information processing power, sometimes also affected by hearing loss, we get more easily confused, need more time to make decisions and so on.  You could say we are no longer so finely tuned as we once were. This is precisely why scammers target elderly people, usually with door-to-door scams that need instant decisions or creating urgency, such as the courier scam. 

Elderly population also might not be so internet savvy, where most of the scam prevention advice lies. Or if they do use the internet, they might not be using social media, again, where this advice is abundant. Even if they are, the amount of the advice that is out there can be overwhelming, therefore it is often after the scam has taken place that they seek help and their family become involved perhaps. 

The problem with the declining cognitive functions is that they decline very slowly and are difficult to diagnose at first. Most people notice when it is happening but, because they were once a competent and intelligent, highly functioning person, they feel ashamed to admit this to their loved ones and they try to hide it.  Some elderly people are also bereaved after a long marriage or have relatives living far from them, making it hard to 'talk things over' with someone who might offer a different perspective or advice.  Loneliness has been found to be a factor in scam compliance across all ages, not just the elderly but this is even more pertinent with regards to ageing population due to other factors that contribute to scam susceptibility mentioned above. 

Scams are now designed to fit almost anyone. Students, working people, businesses, people of certain age, marital status etc... just as much as elderly people and the important thing is to understand WHAT makes us vulnerable.  With age, we acquire experience and wisdom but often 'thinking on our feet' goes.  This is not the end of the world, it just means that you may need to implement some rules in order to protect from scams.  I will mention few tips below but these are by no means exhaustive.  They also apply to anyone, not just the elderly. I have concentrated on door-to-door techniques though. 

1. Always delay decisions.  Go away and give yourself a day to think about anything.  If you are dealing with a salesman that is pushy and tells you the deal is off the table if you don't act straight away - be sure that this is a scam or at least a technique to get you to comply. 

2. Lie. A white lie goes a long way. My favourite is: " I just want to run it past my dad who is a police officer.  Please call me tomorrow." You can bet that if it is a scam - they will not ring you back and if it is a legitimate deal, they will.  Same with people calling you, ask them to tell you who they are and say you will ring them back after you seek advice. 

3. Never buy from people who come to your door.  Ask them to leave you some information and Google the company before you call them back.  If they say they have no information to leave you, it is likely that they rely on aggressive sales tactics. 

4. Ask your neighbours, friends and family for advice before you make a decision to part with your money.  Don't be ashamed to admit you made a mistake or have been scammed.  By talking about it, information is shared and you are more likely to hear of similar scams, which may protect you in the future.  If you don't have many people to talk to, call your council and check with Trading standards or call Citizen's advice.  

It is important to remember that there is nothing wrong about not being sure about something and asking for advice is always good, if nothing, to give you time to think about it.  Often we are put under pressure to buy something we don't want to buy and allowing some time to pass, it is easier to say no, especially when dealing with pushy scammers or salesmen. Often just saying you need to run something past your family will make the scammer leave you alone as they drop people that seem non compliant with their requests.  It is also normal to get confused as we get older and as long as we are aware this is taking place, we can make sure we allow for this by putting simple rules in place.  And my advice always is; if you have even a tiniest doubt - walk away from it.