Why do individuals respond to fraudulent scam communications and lose money? The psychological determinants of scam compliance

Authors: Peter Fischer, University of Regensburg; Stephen Lea, School of Psychology at University of Exeter; Kath Evan, School of Psychology at University of Exeter

Publication: Journal of Applied Social Psychology

Year: 2013

Focus Area: 2000 to Present, Consumer Behavior, Emotion/Motivation, Persuasion Methods

Relevance: Scams use a variety of persuasion tactics to convince their targets to comply. Victims respond differently than non-victims to these messages. High values of the promised reward and trust in the message are very important in convincing people to comply.

Summary: Using a mixed methods approach, this paper presents the results of three separate studies. The first study involved qualitative interviews with scam victims, the second study was a questionnaire completed by victims and non-victims, and the third study investigated scam framing effects and the impact of other motivators on interest in the scam.

  • In the 23 victim interviews, the main questions were: Why did participants react to the scam.What did they think and feel? And what were their motivations and behaviors? Results showed that over 87% of interview transcripts included words relating to (a) cues associated with positive emotions; (b) cues of trust; (c) cost–benefit considerations; and (d) words trying to prompt behavioral commitments.
  • In the second study, potential subjects were mailed a questionnaire that included a list of statements that would be typical of people who were vulnerable to four different kinds of psychological processes associated with decision errors. Respondents were asked to indicate how far they agreed with them. Results showed that the primary factors associated with becoming a scam victim or near victim are affected by the high values of the rewards offered, and showing a high degree of trust in the scammers. High motivation, positive emotion, self-confidence, and lower belief in personal superiority are also predictive of scam vulnerability.
  • In the third study, respondents were presented with a simulated postal scam that was enclosed with a questionnaire asking for their reactions to it. They manipulated variables such as high motivation (varied by manipulating the amount of money offered in the scam), positive emotion (varied by including or omitting triggers to contemplate how receiving the money would make the recipient feel), and trust (varied by including or omitting conventional symbols of authority). They also manipulated the format in which the simulated scam was sent out–either the scam flyer was enclosed in the envelope such that it would be seen first when the letter was opened, or it was bundled inside the questionnaire and not seen until later.

Author Abstract: Why do so many people all over the world, so often, react to completely worthless scam offers? In two questionnaire studies, one of which included the distribution of an experimentally manipulated simulated scam,we investigated differences between respondents who did and did not report past compliance with scams. We found that the principal differences were in their response to very high-value incentives, in the extent to which they reacted with positive emotions to the thought of winning a large prize, in their reliance on signs of official authority, and in their self-confidence. The first two of these can be regarded as forms of visceral processing. Some of these differences suggested a dispositional difference between victims and non-victims.