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Research Tests ‘Inoculation’ Against Social Security Scams

Studies suggest exposure to simulated fraud messages can build immunity to real ones

Close up shot of Social Security card stolen by scammer
Kameleon007 / Getty Images

Just as inoculating someone with a weakened version of a virus can help to protect them against the real thing, recently published research suggests that exposing people to simulated Social Security scams in training sessions may be a powerful way to protect them against actual con artists.

Part of the secret to helping people resist scams is “breeding familiarity,” says Cliff Robb, an associate professor in the consumer science department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and coauthor of two recent, Social Security–funded studies on preventing impostor fraud.

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In these scams, crooks pretending to be from Social Securitythe IRSAmazon or other familiar entities send emails or text messages that aim to deceive their targets into giving up money or sensitive personal information. Social Security is the most common subject of government impostor fraud, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which received more than 217,000 complaints about such scams in 2021. Victims reported $148.5 million in losses.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) posts detailed information on its website about impostor scams (as does AARP) and uses other channels to spotlight the problem, including prominent “scam alert” warnings on envelopes of mail sent to millions of Americans.

‘Pre-bunking’ impostor scams

In their research, Robb and his colleagues tried another method, known as “inoculation theory,” in which people are exposed to a dangerous appeal in a controlled setting so they can learn over time to resist it. “Pre-bunking,” as the technique is also known, has been used effectively to combat recruiting campaigns by extremist groups and misinformation from fake news sources.

In one experiment involving a nationally representative group of more than 1,000 U.S. adults, Robb and behavioral scientist Stephen Wendel showed some participants an assortment of messages, including both authentic SSA communications and others modeled on scam texts and emails. People were asked to guess whether each message was real or fake, and were given pointers about what details might help them tell the difference.

Other participants were given only “static information” beforehand, such as unrelated reading matter about internet addiction (in the case of a control group) or existing SSA warnings about scams. In subsequent tests, those who received the interactive training performed significantly better at identifying both fraudulent messages and real ones.

Exposure to simulated scams “helped people to deal with and identify the core mechanisms by which these scams operated and, essentially, helped them to build up defenses,” Robb says. Over time, he adds, it becomes second nature for subjects to spot “the hallmark of false communications,” as well as indications that a message can be trusted.

“What they found in terms of interactive engagement makes a lot of sense,” Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention programs at AARP, says of the study. “We see it for ourselves in the cybersecurity training we get as employees of AARP. That’s also the intent behind sending employees fake scam emails to see if they interact.”

Rebuilding trust

In follow-up research presented at an online consortium of retirement and disability researchers in early August, Robb, Wendel and Marti DeLiema, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work, looked at the issue from another angle: how to get people who’ve been targeted by impostor scams to regain confidence in legitimate communications from Social Security, other government agencies and private companies.

Again, the researchers devised an interactive training program, designed to teach the difference between authentic emails and websites and look-alikes created by the researchers that mimic impostors’ methods — to a fault, Robb says.

“When we launched our first scam web page, it was so realistic that it was flagged by Google,” he says.

The researchers found that participants who had been inoculated did significantly better than a control group at telling the difference between real communications and scam messages, though the training seemed to be more effective with emails than with websites. Others who had received written tips on avoiding scams also did better than the control group, but to a lesser degree than the inoculated group.

Stress and ‘overload’

People are especially vulnerable to scammers when they’re experiencing cognitive overload — that is, too much information from the internet or other media, which causes them to become distracted, Robb says.

In those moments, “we’re just automating our way through certain things,” he adds.

2021 AARP study highlighted the role of stress in numerous forms on scam susceptibility, creating “vulnerable moments” that can turn fraud targets into victims. Stokes underscores the value of knowledge in countering that vulnerability, citing prior research by DeLiema and others showing that people forearmed with information about a particular con are far less likely to engage with a scammer plying it, or to lose money if they do engage.

“I believe all forms of education can serve to inoculate,” Stokes says.