The psychology of scams: Provoking and committing errors of judgment

Authors: Office of Fair Trading (prepared by University of Exeter School of Psychology)
Year: 2009

Relevance: We may make errors of judgment when we succumb to legitimate sales appeals. This work seeks to identify what particular errors lead to scam victimization.

    “[A] modest probability of falling for a scam is no longer an inexplicable exception to the general tendency of human choice, but rather an inevitable by-product of the processes that enable normal economic life to continue.” (p. 15)

Summary: This work includes an extensive literature review of scams (mass-marketed consumer frauds) and outlines four studies:

1. Extended interviews with scam victims

  • In addition to providing useful subjective feedback, these were also “text-mined” for psychological features that characterized victimization. For instance, most victims described perceived legitimacy and high reward in the scam ploy.

2. Text-mining scam communications

  • By categorizing the language of different scams, the researchers could identify key ploys typifying scams generally: appeals to trust/authority & visceral (vividly emotional) triggers referencing the future (“phantom fixation”).

3. Victim/Non-victim comparison – susceptibility to errors of judgments

  • “There was no evidence that any of the decision error propensities distinguished victims… from non-victims more effectively than others” (p. 121)
  • However, victims did report trying harder to understand scams than did non-victims. This counter-intuitive result may reflect non-victims reflex to discard promotional materials, rather than a careful attentiveness on the part of victims.

4. Scam simulation experiment – “hot” and “cold” conditions

  • By varying whether a mailed survey initially looked like a scam mailing (“hot” condition) or an innocuous mailing (“cold” condition), researchers were able to garner more direct feedback from people targeted by a “scam” – in this case from those who, by opening the mailing, had demonstrated interest in the ploy
  • Impact of $$: In the “cold” condition, respondents indicated that they would have been more likely to respond to the ploy when the prize was larger. In the “hot” condition, however, the manipulation cues were most critical.
  • The differences between conditions suggest that in-the-moment feedback may be particularly important when studying fraud and its victims.

First Paragraph: According to the Office of Fair Trading (2006), 3.2 million adults in the UK fall victim to mass marketed scams every year, and collectively lose £3.5 billion. Victims of scams are often labelled as ‘greedy’ or ‘gullible’ and elicit the reaction, ‘How on earth could anyone fall for that?’ However, such labels are unhelpful and superficial generalisations that presume all of us are perfectly rational consumers, ignoring the fact that all of us are vulnerable to a persuasive approach at one time or another. Clearly, responding to a scam is an error of judgement – so our research sought to identify the main categories of decision error that typify victim responses, and to understand the psychology of persuasion employed by scammers to try to provoke such errors.

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