Consumer vulnerability to scams, swindles, and fraud: A new theory of visceral influences on persuasion

Authors: Jeff Langenderfer (Berry College) & Terence A. Shimp (University of South Carolina)

Publication: Psychology and Marketing

Year: 2001

Focus Area: Profile, Persuasion

Relevance: By outlining the theoretical process of a scam (and how a person either resists or succumbs), the author provides a template for evaluating reactions to the scam process and what contributes to vulnerability or resistance.

Summary: This article seeks to develop a theory of scamming vulnerability – what makes some people more vulnerable than others.

  • If we assume that there is some characteristic of scams that would allow a reasonable person to identify them as fraudulent, then there must be a process by which victims miss these cues.  Either, a) victims carefully examine a message but fail to recognize indicators of fraud, or b) victims fail to consider the offer carefully.  The former can be addressed through education, but the latter is related to the emotional appeal or “visceral influence” of the fraud.
  • The authors’ model of vulnerability suggests that, if a target is interested in a fraudulent offer, then the degree of vulnerability can be predicted by the target’s visceral response:
    • High visceral response (inspiring greed, hunger, lust, etc.) leads the target to ignore the rational elements of the message and focus instead on the emotionally desired outcome.
    • Low visceral response frees the target to examine the message rationally, and potentially identify cues that indicate its fraudulence.

This model is reinforced both by subjective evaluations of those witnessing fraud, such as employees of the Better Business Bureau, and by former scam artists who use emotional appeals to persuade targets.

This article also posits that victims who are not viscerally invested may be vulnerable because they are older and socially isolated.  This is countered by Van Wyk & Benson, 1997 and Van Wyk & Mason, 2001.

Author Abstract: Scams exact a huge toll on consumers and society at large, with annual costs in the United States alone exceeding $100 billion. The global proliferation of the Internet has enabled con artists to export their craft to a rapidly expanding market and reach previously untapped consumers. In spite of the prevalence of scams around the world, there has been virtually no academic attention devoted to understanding the factors that might account for why individuals differ in their scamming vulnerability. Building on the background of elder consumer disadvantage and informed by the authors’ own survey of expert opinion, this article presents a tentative theory of scamming vulnerability. The proposed theory incorporates the effects of visceral influences on consumer response to scam offers and hypothesizes a role for various moderating factors such as self-control, gullibility, susceptibility to interpersonal influence, and scam knowledge. Theoretical propositions are provided for future empirical investigation.

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