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Why Phone Scammers Turn to Threats

Fraudsters increasingly use fear tactics to con victims

Phone scammer concept

Towfiqu Photography / Getty Images

En español | There's a wonderfully funny scene in the 2010 kids movie Megamind—the main character is asked what the difference is between a villain and a super-villain. The one-word answer: “Presentation!"

It's also a fairly accurate response. How a scammer makes a pitch can be as important to its success or failure as the pitch itself. At one time the preferred path to illicit riches seemed to be sweetness: Be friendly, reassuring, likable. When you win over the trust of a target, you're best poised to get that person to send money.

Scams Based on Fear

Examples of frightening scams frequently reported to the AARP Fraud Watch Network these days:

1. The Fake Utility Company

You're behind on your bill, and you'll lose power if you don't provide cash now.

2. The Social Security Impostor

Your SSN has been used in crimes, and you're going to be arrested unless …

3. The Dreaded Computer Virus

You're about to lose all your info and photos, and only we can fix the problem.

4. DNA Cancer Screening

People like you have died because they didn't take the DNA test we're offering.

5. Missed Jury Duty Scam

There's a warrant for your arrest because you didn't show up for your jury duty assignment

6. The IRS Warrant

You made criminal mistakes in your past tax filings and will be arrested shortly.

But that's changed as of late. Many of today's hottest phone frauds are based on fear, with the swindler quickly trying to frighten, even terrify, the target into taking action. Why are negative emotions increasingly the preferred approach?

To answer that, I called Roy Baumeister, a renowned social psychologist now teaching in Australia. I chose him because an article he cowrote several years ago, “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” has long stuck in my brain. Turns out, he has just coauthored a book, The Power of Bad, on the same theme.

"The mind is hardwired to react more strongly to negative than to positive things,” Baumeister told me. “Remember, human society has existed for about 150,000 years, and for 140,000 years, people lived as nomadic hunters and gatherers.”

In such a world, he explained, survival depended on giving your immediate attention to threats. These evolutionary impulses are still with us. And con artists know that.

"When a scammer calls to inform you that there is a crisis or major problem, your mind automatically goes into high gear, seeking a solution,” Baumeister said. “So when this person tells you the problem can be solved with one or two easy steps, that sweeps you along.”

Does fear also help close the deal? According to Baumeister, making decisions under the influence of “high-energy negative emotions” such as anxiety, anger or embarrassment can lead to judgment mistakes. “Some of my laboratory work found that these emotions caused people to take foolish chances. They failed to consider the downside risks.”

So what's the best way to avoid falling prey to such tactics?

"In our studies, pausing just to make a list of pros and cons of each option — even if this took only a minute — greatly reduced the rate of bad decisions,” he said. “Pay attention to the downside risk. What could go wrong? That can quickly bring you to your senses.” Good advice for us all.

Doug Shadel, director of AARP’s Washington state office, writes the "Outsmart Fraud" column for AARP The Magazine.

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free “watchdog alerts," review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.

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