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How Scam Methods Fool Our Brains (and How to Spot Their Tricks)

Chris Chabris and Dan Simons talk about scam methods and how they fool even smart people.

Like malicious magicians, scammers use distractions and illusions to keep you from figuring out their tricks. They know if they can’t keep up the facade, you’ll realize it’s fishy. Many of the common techniques of scams – like urgency and rushing your decision – are really ways to hijack your decision-making brain and keep you focused on their lies. But by understanding how our brains work and how scammers manipulate it, you can spot their scam methods before they fool you.


See Why We Fall for Scams with Chris Chabris and Dan Simons for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Dan Simons and Christopher Chabris have jointly authored two books and multiple essays about human decision-making, distraction, and why are brains are vulnerable to scammers’ tricks, including the recent release Nobody’s Fool: Why We Get Taken In and What We Can Do About It. Dan is a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois. Most of his research is around visual attention, what we notice, what we miss, and how we focus our attention. He also has a broad interest in how we think about perception and how we think about how our minds work. Chris is a cognitive scientist. He has a day job working for a health system in Pennsylvania, where he is also a professor and involved in work helping people make better decisions. His work applies ideas from decision science and cognitive psychology to improve people’s decision-making.

Why They Wrote a Book About Scam Methods

Dan and Chris started thinking about this topic a long time ago. They finished thier first book together over a decade ago. For their second book, they started by gathering content and generating ideas of what they wanted to write about. Most of what they came up with had to do with deception in general. It took them a while to find a way to organize all the ideas into a connected, cohesive book.

They found the connection when they realized that across all the different domains they looked at – chess, art, science, sports, and more – scams, cons, deception, and self-deception all had common characteristics. The scam methods relied on thought patterns that normally work well, but can be distorted by people trying to deceive us. Information that we find appealing can be hijacked to lead us down the wrong path.

[Scams] rely on the same sorts of thought patterns that we tend to use very effectively most of the time, but they get distorted at times by people trying to decieve us.

Dan Simons

Stories of Deception

One of the interesting things they found when trying to structure the book was that all the stories about cons were engaging and entertaining. They have a narrative structure – which is why movies about big cons are popular. There are hundreds of news stories, documentaries, podcasts, and more about these types of deceptions.

One case that comes to mind for Chris is his father. His father lived to be ninety-seven years old. Sometimes late in life, he got a call from a guy pretending to be a tech support person who needed to help him fix his internet. Chris’s father was pretty savvy and cognitively intact until the end, so he hung up on them. His father was never victimized, but Chris could easily see how he or someone like him could have been.

We've all heard stories about scams - so why are the same scam methods still tricking us?

Chances are high that you’ve heard a story about a scam, or at the very least watched a movie featuring one. But very few of these stories focus on why people get fooled. Why do some scam methods lead really smart, highly-educated people into scams? Stories of these kinds of cons are everywhere. And yet we’re seeing more and more news about scams and cons in all sorts of areas. Why aren’t we learning from all the movies and the true tales that end up in articles or podcasts? Dan and Chris wanted to explore this idea – and try to make us more aware of the risks in our own brains.

Whether that means there’s more and more [scams] happening, or we’re just leaning about more and more of it, it seems to be such an issue of great importance that it is worth diving into.

Chris Chabris

Scam Methods in Movies and Reality

The scam methods you see in movies about great cons are somewhat accurate. The fictional con artists exploit the same kinds of cognitive tendencies that make us vulnerable in real life. Most of the scam methods you see on the screen also work in real life.

What isn’t realistic is the intricacy of the plan and how everything depends on a precise sequence and exact timing. You need that kind of tension to make a compelling movie. And while some scams do run down to the wire to avoid getting caught, such as Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, most of them are much more flexible and don’t require precise timing.

Even huge cons like Madoff’s scheme, Theranos, and other long-running cons don’t need that level of precision. But they are good examples to think about because they draw on a variety of scam methods to keep going. They exploit the same metal habits and use other techniques available. Smaller scams may only need to rely on one or two scam methods, but for something to last as long as these examples, they need to take advantage of every trick in the book.

The Scammer Who Targeted Academics

At one point, Chris and Dan were targeted by the same scammer. This was nearly twenty years ago. Chris was a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard, and he was contacted out of the blue by someone. This man seemed to know who Chris was and have a lot of connections in common. He told Chris about a person who had an interesting neurological problem and wondered if Chris was interested in doing a case study. Chris was interested. They had a number of phone calls back and forth and Chris was working to make the study happen when eventually, contact stopped.

Around the same time, Dan was contacted by the same person claiming to be interested in the work he was doing on visual perception. He was interested in illusions and wanted to find a way to make Dan’s research more well-known. Just like Chris, this man pitched a collaboration. At one point, he asked Dan to help work on his website, which Dan declined. They had multiple calls and emails over several months before contact stopped.

It was only very recently that Dan and Chris learned what happened. The man was a small-scale scammer. Most often he convinced people to let him sell their rare books and then never gave them the money. He affiliated himself with high-profile researchers and universities, and people kept him around thinking everyone else knew him even though nobody really did.

One Easy Way to Avoid Being Scammed

This story illustrates one easy way some people can avoid being scammed. That method is to look up the person talking to you! Check their credentials and look up whether they have been convicted, criminally sued, professionally sanctioned, or anything else. A history of speeding tickets may not be relevant. But a lawsuit or conviction for scams, fraud, or relevant crimes definitely is. Surprisingly, many people don’t think to check. Scammers don’t usually change their scam methods. If they’ve done it before, chances are good that they’ll do it again.

Have they done the same thing before that they might do to you? That’s a really basic question to ask.

Chris Chabris

For the scammer who reached out to Chris and Dan, they could have seen through him specifically by checking his credentials. He was academic-adjacent, but didn’t have the kind of credentials you would expect for someone in a research field. Scammers targeting academics often use scam methods to pass themselves off as wealthy connected patrons, which this scammer did sometimes. But he was faking a lot of his resources, too. His main tool was talking his way into things. He was more of a recreational or hobbyist scammer than a professional, so he didn’t have convictions to be suspicious. But the credentials would have been a warning sign if Dan or Chris had checked.

How Scam Methods Exploit Your Focus

Humans only have the ability to focus on a select amount of information in front of us. This is what we commonly call “paying attention.” When you’re focusing on something, you can process information more efficiently and get more out of it. But it also means you have less focus for anything else. If you’re focused on what’s on your computer screen, you may not notice things happening elsewhere in the room.

A good con artist, a good scammer, will know that if they can get you to focus on one thing, you may not notice something else.

Chris Chabris

If a scammer can use their scam methods to get you to focus on what they want, they know you’ll be less likely to notice what they’re doing behind the scenes. It’s like a magic show. The magician directs your attention to what they want you to pay attention to and away from the slight of hand that makes the effect happen.

The challenge here is that focus is not a bad thing. The ability to focus on one thing and exclude everything else is really important and helpful in our everyday life. It only becomes a problem when scam artists exploit and manipulate it to their benefit.

Time Pressure as a Scam Method

One of the most commonly-used scam methods is time pressure. It could be an “exploding offer” – something fantastic that will expire in a very short time. Or with IRS scams or other impostor scams, the scammer may claim that the police are on their way to arrest you and will be there in half an hour, but if you can pay your debt before they arrive they’ll call the police off.

Time pressure is a scam method that manipulates your focus. If the scammer can get you stuck in the moment, or in a rush to deal with the situation before the police arrive, it can be hard to step back and consider what you’re actually being told. Most of us know that the IRS will never call you and demand gift cards. But if the scammer can get you to focus only on what they’re saying and the time pressure, it may not even occur to you to ask what’s going on or if the request makes sense.

Time pressure is, in a way, a tactic to get you to focus. You don’t have time to consult alternate sources of information or think about what information is missing.

Chris Chabris

Many other scam techniques, like staying on the phone with you while you drive to the store to buy gift cards, are just more attempts to manipulate your focus. They know if they stop talking to you, you might start to think about whether gift cards are actually a reasonable way to pay for this or if it’s normal for the Social Security Administration to threaten you with arrest. Time pressure, rapid-fire talking, and many other scam techniques are meant to keep your focus on the scammer, not what’s really happening.

The Principle of Prediction

You’ve probably heard of confirmation bias before. With confirmation bias, people seek out evidence to confirm their expectations, beliefs, or conclusions about something. The principle of prediction is similar, but it’s also something that scam methods can exploit to swindle us.

“Prediction” refers to the fact that we tend to be much less critical of new information that matches what we expect. Most of us are really good at critical thinking when it comes to things we disagree with. If someone tells us something we absolutely don’t believe, we can tear it apart. But it’s much harder to find flaws in an argument when it’s something we believe or expect. Scammers know this, and they exploit prediction in their scam methods. They give you what you’re expecting or hoping for so it’s harder to counter it.

We’re capable of applying logic really effectively when it’s something we disagree with, but we tend not to apply it as systematically when it’s something we agree with.

Dan Simons

How Prediction Works

For example, it’s normally a good thing to trust people that you know. The longer you’ve known them, the better you know them, and the better you know them the more you can trust them. That’s how it works normally. But these days we have social media and “online friends.” When those friends spread information to us, our brains view it with a little extra credibility because it came from someone we know. Even if that credibility isn’t warranted – for example, your friend retweeted something from a complete stranger – we still view it as a bit more trustworthy. This creates pathways that scam methods can exploit.

Scam methods exploit our natural human tendencies.

This tendency usually works really well. Most people don’t get scammed or conned all the time. The moment-to-moment risk is pretty low. Most of the time, these “shortcuts” or mental simplifications work really well for us. There’s a tendency to frame them as biases or flaws, but they’re not. We have these tendencies because in most cases, they work. But they can be hijacked for nefarious purposes or lead us astray if we assume they always work. That’s where it becomes a challenge.

These are things that work really, really well most of the time and that can be hijacked for the wrong purposes.

Dan Simons

Commitments and Assumptions

In this context, a “commitment” is an assumption that we make and that we hold to strongly. We often don’t realize we’ve made these commitments or hold them when we’re making a decision. The challenge with commitments is that if we accept them as inherently true, logic can lead us to all kinds of absurd conclusions because we have to rationalize other things to keep believing our commitment.

NXIVM was a multi-level marketing organization, front for criminal activity, and arguable cult founded by a guy who got himself in a book of records as the world’s smartest man. One early member wrote in a memoir that she knew he was the world’s smartest man, so whatever he said had to be smart. If you keep in mind that you’re dealing with the world’s smartest man, you could wind up agreeing to a lot of crazy stuff because it’s coming from “the world’s smartest man.”

It’s a simple example, but cults tend to happen because of an idea that someone is infallible, speaks or god, is really a genius, or has some other reason for authority. Once people believe that commitment, they can rationalize all sorts of things from that premise.

Terrible Ideas from Commitments

Commitments are used in scam methods often. It’s common to build up commitment over time and start with small things that you agree with. Once they get you to buy into the small commitment, it’s easier to build bigger, more unreasonable beliefs on top by convincing you that you’re staying committed to those initial good ideas.

It’s important to remember that people who’ve made commitments usually have internally consistent logic. From the outside, their beliefs and actions may look crazy or disconnected from reality. Or it may seem like they’re intentionally ignoring something that seems very obvious to you. But they’ve built everything around certain commitments. To them, everything seems coherent and logical because it supports those commitments. And it can be very difficult to step back and question those fundamental assumptions.

It might look completely unhinged from reality. But … if they can get you to throw out all the other stuff and accept that one premise, you can be acting completely logically, completely reasonably, given that premise.

Dan Simons

How to See the Bigger Picture and Spot Scam Methods

For commitments specifically, part of the problem is that we’re not aware of the assumptions we’re making. If you were in NXIVM, you might not always be thinking about how your leader is the smartest man in the world. But you may have internalized it and act from that assumption without thinking about it.

It’s important to take the time to ask what you’re assuming about a situation. Even when not trying to spot scam methods, it’s a good thinking tool in general. Ask yourself if there was any information that would get you to change your mind, and if there’s anything you believe that would change anything if you were wrong. You may not be open to having your beliefs changed. But you might be.

One of scammers’ most important scam methods is to keep you from asking questions. They’ll do anything they can to keep you from talking to anyone else or getting any other perspectives. Some scammers will get aggressive or try to browbeat you if you ask questions. The best thing you can do iis ask someone else. When working on their book, Dan and Chris found many stories where someone saw the situation by accident and pointed out that it was a scam. Once the bubble was pricked and the would-be victim had an opportunity to reevaluate their beliefs, many of them realized it was a scam. Ask someone outside the situation what they think is going on. They might see the scam methods for what they are.

Having somebody else look at it who might have different motivations, different desires, might see through it and say, “Okay, wait. That’s too good to be true,” and force you to think about it for a second.

Dan Simons

An Increase in Scams or in Scam Awareness?

We are definitely hearing more about scams. But is this increase because there has been an increase in scams or because there is more awareness about them? It’s really hard to tell. We can look at statistics, but those won’t give us a solid answer, either – statistics could show an increase because people are more comfortable reporting it now.

As new technology and industries are created and aren’t regulated, it creates more spaces that are ripe for scams. There’s been so many things happening with cryptocurrency, AI, and other new technology, that it’s possible scams are on the rise just because there are so many more technologies to scam with. It could also be because there has been more reporting and documentation about it lately and more people are willing to come forward about being scammed.

Technology also makes it easier to use scam methods at scale. Even in the last twenty years we’ve seen the rise of large-scale industrial scamming. Even the classic Nigerian Prince and advance fee scams are easier to pull off now because of email. But people aren’t changing as fast as technology is. Scam methods are still going to capitalize on the same tools to trick us. We’ll see the same methodologies, just in new contexts.

Every new advance is going to lead to new variants of these [scams] that are more sophisticated, but they all rely on the same principles.

Dan Simons

The Future of Scams

Dan thinks AI and large language models are an interesting case because they make it easier to spread misinformation at scale. It could even take the scammer out of part of the scamming process to make it less costly for scammers. At the very least, it will make it easier to use scam methods at scale.

At the very least, Dan hopes that people will realize tools like ChatGPT and other large language models speak with absolute certainty but have no connection with truth. They might generate reasonable answers most of the time, but unreasonable or false answers sound just as good and confident. As people start to realize these models aren’t representing truth, Dan hopes it causes people to start questioning all messages, even if they’re not driven by AI.

It should take some work to have an opinion. You should have to gather some evidence to support why you believe something.

Dan Simons

If we could be deceived easily by a large language model, we could just as easily be decieved by a person. It might make people more questioning and less accepting of content they receive.

That’s also Dan and Chris’s best advice for spotting and avoiding scam methods. You can’t just trust – trust, but verify. Be willing to be a bit uncertain. Don’t accept things at face value and don’t decide to believe without doing a little research, even if it sounds logical and reasonable. Do more checking and ask more questions.

Accept less, check more.

Chris Chabris

You can find Dan Simons and Chris Chabris on their websites – Dan at dansimons.com and Chris at chabris.com. You can also find their book Nobody’s Fool on the “Book” page of Dan’s website or wherever you get your books. Find Dan on LinkedIn and on Twitter @profsimons, and find Chris on LinkedIn and on Twitter @cfchabris.

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