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Fraud Vulnerability Factors that Affect if You’ll Fall for a Scam

Researcher Martina Dove talks about the fraud vulnerability factors she uncovered in her research.

Why do some people get caught in scams that other people spot easily? How do smart, aware people fall for fraud? And why do scammers seem to be so good at convincing us to do things, even if we know they’re a bad idea? We brought in an expert to answer these questions. There are a wide variety of factors that impact your fraud vulnerability, from your circumstances to particular personality traits. But the first step in protecting yourself is being aware.


See 5 Fraud Vulnerability Factors with Martina Dove for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Martina Dove has a background in cybersecurity, but currently works as a researcher. Her passion is fraud prevention and psychology. She recently published a book, The Psychology of Fraud, Persuasion, and Scam Techniques, about fraud psychology, how scammers persuade people, and how they get us to comply with phishing, scams and fraud.

While working on her PhD, Martina became interested in a cognitive bias called the Barnum effect. It happens when you tell someone something that’s applicable to the general public, and therefore it is true of you. It seems very true and builds trust so you’re more inclined to believe other things that person says. She wanted to do more research on the Barnum effect. But it’s difficult to find a real-world application for it. Then she read an article about scammers using psychology in phishing and thought that might be an area where she could research cognitive biases. That’s where her research started.

Experiencing Fraud Firsthand

Martina walked into her PhD program thinking people who get scammed are just gullible. But through interviews with victims, she realized that’s not always the case. Sometimes people don’t pay attention or check details. Sometimes they do and still get scammed. It all depends on how smart the scammer is.

I walked into my Ph.D. thinking people who get scammed are gullible. … That’s not always the case.

Martina Dove

Even though Martina researches scams and fraud vulnerability, she has still been scammed. At one point, she needed to buy a new phone, and had a lot of money in her PayPal account. She decided she was going to guy one on eBay and use her PayPal balance. She didn’t think twice about it. But when the phone didn’t arrive, she knew something was wrong. She emailed the person who sold it and got no reply. So she opened a case with eBay and started investigating.

The seller seemed to be a legitimate person on eBay. But they had listed several phones the day she bought hers. They may have been hacked, or they may have decided to try scamming. eBay did eventually give Martina her money back, so it wasn’t financially terrible, but the feeling you get when someone deceives you is awful. She felt that she should have checked the seller out more and maybe that would have given her a clue.

That self-blame is a normal tendency after someone gets scammed. It often stops them from reporting or sharing their experience. But if a scammer is very good, there may be no way of telling if it’s a scam or legitimate. Martina’s experience helped her understand the anger, disappointment, and self-blame of a simple scam.

The 5 Fraud Vulnerability Factors

When she was working on her PhD, Martina developed a measure of fraud vulnerability risk. It was the first of its kind because it was specifically about scams and fraud. In this measure, there are five factors that affect your vulnerability to fraud: Compliance, impulsivity, decision time, vigilance, and belief in justice.

Compliance

Compliance is a trait where you have a hard time saying “No” to people. You may even understand that something’s not right or is a bad idea, but you go along with it anyway. The more compliant you are, the more likely you are to get defrauded or scammed. It’s not an either-or idea, though. Compliance is a spectrum. Some situations make it hard to say “No,” and scammers capitalize on that – especially in the past, when they could go door-to-door and apply pressure in person. These days they will pretend to be an authority or get you emotionally involved in something long-term to make you feel uncomfortable being assertive.

Impulsivity

Impulsivity is exactly what it sounds like – you have a tendency to act and make decisions without thinking it through. Scammers often try to get people to make impulsive decisions or act without thinking through the ramifications. So if you have high impulsivity, you’re more likely to be caught in a scam or fraud.

Decision Time

Decision time is the opposite of impulsivity. If you are strong in the decision time factor, you don’t like to make decisions immediately. You want to take your time, think it through, dive into the details, and examine all the options. High decision time people are the type who are willing to read the whole terms and conditions document. This factor generally causes lower vulnerability to fraud.

Decision time is a fraud vulnerability factor - the more time you take to make decisions, the less likely you are to fall for fraud.

Vigilance

Vigilance is another factor that results in lower fraud vulnerability. A person who is vigilant is a little more cynical and a little less trusting. They tend not to believe what people tell them and want to double-check and verify the facts for themselves.

Belief in Justice

The belief in justice factor is a cognitive bias that tries to justify how things will work out in the end. Regarding scams and fraud, people often assume that it won’t happen to them, or the police would fix it if it did. If you’ve ever heard anyone say that karma will get someone, that’s belief in justice. They’re trying to find rationalizations or justifications for why bad things happen. It provides a false sense of control – they rationalize why it happened, so if they can just avoid those things, it won’t happen to them.

Persuasion Techniques Scammers Use to Increase our Fraud Vulnerability

Different techniques often affect our fraud vulnerability. So scammers use a wide variety to try to trick as many people as possible. But most of these techniques come down to what’s called “visceral influence.” Visceral influence taps into our primal drives, like hunger, thirst, excitement, sexual desire, fear, pain, and strong emotions. It’s incredibly influential because when we’re under visceral influence, we temporarily lose our reason. It’s really hard to think logically or recall advice when all we’re thinking about is the state of our emotions.

When we are under visceral influence [i.e. strong emotion], we temporarily lose reason. It’s more difficult to recall any logical thinking or advice … because all we’re thinking about is that state of excitement or fear.

Martina Dove

A lot of phishing emails evoke fear, such as compromised accounts or sextortion scams, or excitement, such as winning a big prize. Miracle cures claiming to fix scary, painful conditions can cause visceral influence by evoking a sense of hope. Most scams evoke visceral influence, as well as other techniques that work along with it.

Scarcity

Scarcity is another technique that scammers use. It claims that whatever they’re offering is in limited supply, you can’t get it anywhere else, or the offer expires soon. Their goal is to evoke visceral influence through the excitement of the offer and the fear of missing out. But the scarcity aspect also makes you more impulsive, which is a fraud vulnerability tactic. If you could wait a day or two and think about it, you’d be more rational. But scarcity tries to drive you to act in the moment and focus on emotions, not questions and logical thought.

Authority

Scammers sometimes pretend to be authorities. Nobody wants the IRS or the police to call them, so even a fake call can be frightening. And people generally trust those in positions of power. They hope that people who have more of the compliance fraud vulnerability factor will fall for it, and they want to convince other people to be more compliant. A lot of old-fashioned advance fee fraud claims to be from pastors, doctors, lawyers, or bank representatives – people we trust to be looking out for our best interests.

Social Proof and Social Norms

Social proof includes things like fake reviews and fake testimonials. It works because as humans, we look to other humans to define our reality. We as humans also don’t like to break what we view as social norms. Scammers exploit both of those psychological facts. They use social proof to make it look like other people are buying and liking their fake products. And they evoke social norms to make you feel like everyone is doing something, or a good citizen would do something. Social norms are especially exploited in charity scams because we’ve generally been brought up to be helpful and kind to others.

The Scammers are Already Ahead

When Martina first started promoting her book, someone asked her if she was worried that it would become a manual for scammers. And she isn’t, because scammers are already one step ahead. By the time she can write something and get it published, the scammers are already doing it.

As we’re becoming a little bit more aware, we’re sharing our stories, and we’re sharing advice, I think scammers are always one step ahead.

Martina Dove

We’ve seen a lot of newer scams that don’t have all the same elements of older scams. But some things don’t change. Scams still need visceral influence to get them going. And the persuasion techniques scammers use have been around for centuries. Humans are still human, and these techniques keep working because our fraud vulnerability hasn’t changed all that much.

Fraud Vulnerability and You

There’s a lot to be said about personality affecting our fraud vulnerability. No two humans react the same because we all have different genetics and experiences. And your circumstances also matter. Not every scam that you encounter is one that will attract you. With job scams, for example, you won’t be vulnerable if you’re happily employed. You’re only vulnerable when you’re looking for a job, out of work, or struggling financially. At that point, you may go along with something you think is risky because you’re desperate.

You’re not going to be interested in everything that comes into your inbox. They have to get you at the right time.

Martina Dove

Personality traits can play a big role in your fraud vulnerability, too. Some people are more impulsive than others, and we tend to get a bit more impulsive as we age. We’re all born gullible, and we become less so as we get more life experience. What makes us each vulnerable can vary from personality traits to the situation you’re in at the moment.

One Piece of Advice for Everyone

It’s hard to give advice that works for everyone to reduce your fraud vulnerability. An impulsive person needs different advice than one who needs a lot of decision time; a vigilant person will need different tools than a compliant one. But the one piece of advice Martina can give everyone is to never make decisions in the moment.

Always delay decisions. That is always the best advice I can give you.

Martina Dove

As a psychologist, she knows it’s really hard to go against something as ingrained as a personality trait. You’re basically going up against yourself. Some people find it helpful to make a rule that you don’t make a decision on the spot. If you’re in a situation where someone wants you to make a financial decision right away, you can respond, “Sorry, no, I don’t do that.”

Martina once gave a talk to a group of elderly people about how to say no at the door. One of them said they always felt rude saying no. Her advice was to not say no, but say, “Not right now.” Say something like, “Oh, my son will be interested in this! Can you come back tomorrow when he’s here?” A genunie person will come back. A scammer won’t. The next day, just don’t open the door.

Sometimes all this is really difficult. There’s a lot of simplistic advice out there. They’ll tell you to just not click the link or not engage. But that can be very hard. There’s no easy answer.

You can get Martina Dove’s book, The Psychology of Fraud, Persuasion, and Scam Techniques through the publisher Routledge, on Amazon, or wherever books are sold. You can also find more of her writing on her website, martinadove.com.

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