People think of Nigerian email scams as a late-night punch line, but people do still fall for them — and psychologists have figured out why.
See also: Pop quiz: How much do you know about scams?
The most tragic story to land in my inbox in recent years comes from a woman whose husband lost their entire life savings, more than $300,000, to scammers. Unfortunately, I couldn't help them.
They were victims of the so-called Nigerian email scam, which the FBI describes as a letter or email "from Nigeria that offers the recipient the 'opportunity' to share in a percentage of millions of dollars that the author — a self-proclaimed government official — is trying to transfer illegally out of Nigeria." While the scam may have originated in Nigeria, crooks worldwide now troll for victims.
Innumerable variations of the scam are all designed to snag a vulnerable victim. Instead of a government official, the sender might claim to be a bereaved widow, stranded student or even a U.S. soldier in Iraq who stumbled upon amazing riches.
In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission received 43,866 complaints about the Nigerian scam, more than the agency received about credit cards (33,258), telephone companies (37,388) or even car dealers (15,787). The exact take is unknown, but certainly millions of dollars annually.
Many of us might say, "That could never happen to me. Those people must be just stupid."
Don't be too quick to judge, says Monroe Friedman, professor emeritus of psychology at Eastern Michigan University, who has studied these scams for more than two decades.
He shared the story of a retiree who received a phone call from a scammer. She recognized it for what it was, told the would-be crook that he should be ashamed of himself and hung up the phone.
"A few weeks later, the scammer calls her back," Friedman told me. "He apologized and thanked her for setting him straight. He asked her to be his mentor, and over the next few months she counseled him on how to stay on the straight and narrow. Eventually, he asked her for a $5,000 loan to start up a new business. Of course, the leopard hadn't changed his spots. She lost the money."
Friedman's story is just one example of how these scammers find emotional hooks and reel you in. "Many are experts at discovering what motivates us and then taking advantage," Friedman said. "Everyone has a threshold for this kind of thing. For some it is lower, but no consumers should consider themselves completely immune."
Of course, some of us are more vulnerable than others. Psychologist Stephen Greenspan wrote a book on the subject titled Annals of Gullibility. He warns that "Anyone who is isolated, has recently suffered the loss of a spouse or who is simply financially naive can easily fall victim to one of these scams."
Once baited, many victims stay hooked even when friends and family point out their folly. The self-delusion can be as difficult to overcome as an addiction to alcohol or drugs. "They don't want to admit they've been scammed, to themselves or others," Greenspan told me. "They enter into a cycle of self-delusion, telling themselves that if they can just hang on long enough they'll be proved right after all."
Both Friedman and Greenspan agree that, in some cases, the only way to help family members or friends entrenched in one of these scams may be to take legal measures to protect their assets from themselves.
Ron Burley is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For.