Unfortunately, mass marketing scams persist because they work—at least enough to justify the attempts made. In a 2015 Data Breach Investigation report conducted by Verizon, it was found that it takes an average of 82 seconds from the time a phishing campaign is launched for the first victim to fall for the trap.
How is it that scammers are able to trick the average person into making costly and humiliating mistakes? How is it that even the smartest people can fall for the simplest scams?
As it turns out, behind the robocalls and the cheesy emails about deposed Nigerian princes, there is some psychology at play. Scammers are very good at crafting situations that create “amygdala hijack”, which is a term used to describe what happens when the brain perceives an emergency situation. Fear, urgency or threatening behavior can trigger a reaction in your brain that sidesteps the usual neural pathways. Amygdala hijack is what compels you to act before any rational thought can kick in—and this is what many scams are designed to get you to do. In a state of amygdala hijack, you might comply with a scammer’s request before your brain gets a chance to notice any red flags. This helps to explain why smart people fall for (seemingly) obvious scams.
We often look to family, friends and even other consumers when it comes to decision-making, and scammers use this to their advantage by impersonating others in order to make a scam seem more credible to its target. A common example is fake product reviews on online shopping sites. In order to move more product, the fraudulent seller will fabricate identities and post glowing reviews to influence a purchase and to bury any accurate (and negative) reviews. In other scams, existing connections are used to make a scam seem legitimate. In one especially manipulative example, scammers will use social media posts to figure out when you’re out of town or on a vacation. Then, posing as you, they contact friends, relatives or co-workers and request financial help with an emergency. Because you are in fact on vacation, the request gets a little boost of legitimacy that makes it easier for targets to overlook the scam.
Even though scams come in all shapes and sizes and via different communication methods, there are some underlying similarities. Keeping an eye out for tactics like scarcity, authority and credibility will help you flag potential fraud. Even when presented with a stressful situation, create an opportunity for yourself to pause and think before acting. Although that the circumstance may seem time-sensitive, think about whether the context of the situation makes sense. Verify the legitimacy of the communication (do not use the contact information that the potential scammer has provided themselves—call them back through a main number listed on an official website). If someone is claiming to be your friend but the circumstance is suspicious, verify their identity through another form of communication, like a phone call or text message. Don’t worry about being polite—verifying the identity of the person or company you are talking to is a reasonable thing to do. It also helps to take preventive measures by being careful with your personal information and using privacy settings on social media accounts.