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7 Tactics Criminals Use to Perpetrate Fraud

Scammers have learned how to manipulate people’s emotions and take advantage of their trust in others

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Many people believe they are too smart to be taken in by a scam. But they miss the key point: Scammers mostly bypass your intellect and rely on sophisticated psychological and emotional manipulations to get you to say yes. “You don’t have to be a fool to be fooled,” says Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. “These people are using tactics and strategies that all of us are susceptible to.” Specifically, he explains, they weaponize universal human instincts such as fear of loss, love and trust in others. Here are some of their techniques.

1. Scammers establish camaraderie

“So sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. You know, my own wife passed away last year as well. It’s been hard.”

The Trick: Scammers will parrot back the target’s religion, political affiliation, military background or life situation to get the target to feel “he’s just like me,” Cialdini notes. “Then we tend to lower our defenses and are much more likely to follow their lead.”

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2. Scammers play on your aversion to loss

“You’ve won the sweepstakes! You are now rich! But if you don’t act fast ...”

The Trick: Many people have a deep-seated fear of missing out (FOMO, in internet jargon) on good opportunities, given how infrequently they appear. The criminal encourages that FOMO, Cialdini says. “They do it in terms of the uniqueness of the idea, or the dwindling of availability of the product or service. This spooks people into choices.”

VIDEO: 3 Scams That Target Your Emotions

3. Scammers flatter you

“I can tell you know a lot about finance, so you know how much money you can make in cryptocurrency if you manage the risks.”

The Trick: “Usually, at the beginning, it’s a lot of love bombing,” says Anthony Pratkanis, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. They’ll frequently praise the victim, Cialdini says. “That lends itself to a sense of connection and trust. ‘If this person likes me, well, then I can trust this person.’ ”

4. Scammers make you feel anxious

“This malware means your bank account has been compromised. Someone could steal from it very easily now.”

The Trick: “We live in this age of anxiety, where there are so many actual existential fears,” AARP fraud expert Doug Shadel says. “It’s pretty easy to get people to say, ‘All right, what do I have to do to make this one go away?’ ”

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5. Scammers create instant terror

“Grandpa, help! I’ve been arrested and need money for bail right away!”

The Trick: “When you’re afraid, the emotional part of your brain takes over the cognitive part of your brain,” Shadel says. “That’s what they want. When your emotions kick in, it swaps out the logic.” In such moments of powerful emotion, you are far more likely to think you hear a loved one’s voice and to fall for a scam.

6. Scammers seduce you

“I love talking to you. I have not felt so close to someone in so long.”

The Trick: In a romance scam, as in a [real] love relationship, you’ll have reciprocating self-disclosures,” Pratkanis explains. “I’ll tell you a little bit about me. In return, you tell me a little bit about you. And as we go further down the path, we say more intimate things, and that creates a sense of closeness, even love.”

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7. Scammers intimidate you

“I’m with the police; you’ve missed jury duty again. Either pay a $900 fine now or go to jail.”

The Trick: They present themselves as a feared authority (say, a cop, IRS officer or Medicare rep). “Technology makes it so easy now to pretend to be someone you’re not,” Shadel says. “Criminals can program their caller ID so it says ‘San Diego Sheriff’s Office.’ ”

How to stay rational when scammers rattle you

Monitor your reactions to calls from strangers. Do you feel heated? Is your pulse rising? Are you getting angry or anxious?

If the answer is yes, get out of the situation immediately. Simply say, “I won’t do this by phone. Send a letter. Goodbye.” Then hang up.

Recenter yourself: Leave the room, take 10 deep breaths and ask yourself questions that you know the answers to, such as “What color is grass?”

Look at the situation like a scientist, as though you’re observing someone else in the same position.

Never make an immediate impulse-buying decision. Wait at least 24 hours to allow emotions to subside before making a purchase.

Get advice from a person you trust and respect. Merely discussing the situation out loud helps bring rationality back.

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