Who Falls for these Things?

June 18, 2009

I’m sure that each of you, at one time or another, has asked yourself this question, perhaps during the process of cleaning out your spam trap. I imagine we’ve all gotten the offers of pharmaceuticals that produce anatomically-improbable results, of ways to make a fortune by doing some simple, unspecified job, or of an opportunity to help transfer some money for a new friend in Nigeria.  Some of the offers are so extremely improbable that it is hard to imagine how anyone can be taken in; yet some people must be, since the offers keep coming.  (Admittedly, the monetary cost of sending a spam message is negligible, but someone has to put the damned things together.)

Bruce Schneier has a note on his blog, “Schneier on Security”, about a new report that was commissioned by the UK’s Office of Fair Trading.  The report, which was compiled by members of the Psychology Department at the University of Exeter, is quite hefty, at 260 pages [PDF here], but after initially skimming through it, I think there are some interesting results that come out.   First, this is not a small or isolated phenomenon:

According to the Office of Fair Trading, 3.2 million adults in the UK fall victim to mass-marketed scams every year, and collectively lose £ 3.5 billion.

The population of the UK is roughly 62 million, according to Wikipedia; so we are talking about something like 5 % of the population, each losing, on average, over £ 1000 (or more than $1600 at current exchange rates).

The researchers identify some characteristics of scam messages that are designed to entice the recipient:

  • Appeals to Authority The message attempts to imitate the appearance and language of a message from a legitimate organization or business
  • Visceral Triggers Appeals to fear, greed, lust, and so on
  • Scarcity Cues Suggestions that the recipient is part of a select group, or that the offer is a one-time chance at a windfall.*
  • Induction of Behavioral Commitment You might call this the “slippery slope” gambit: the idea is to get the recipient to take some small action in response, which will tend to make him more committed to continuing.
  • The Big Payoff Strong emphasis placed on a potential payoff that is very large relative to the investment or effort required.

Some of these things are fairly apparent, as is the researchers’ observation that people who fall victim  to these scams tend to have less control over their emotional repsonse than average.  But there are some conclusions that you may find surprising; for example, people with the following characteristics are more likely victims:

  • Better than average background knowledge in the area of the scam. For example, people with experience playing legitimate lotteries were more like to fall for lottery scams; people with some knowledge of investments were more likely to be victimized by investment scams.
  • More than average amount of time spent on evaluating the scam proposal.  The victims surveyed spent more time looking over and thinking about the offers than those who rejected them.

These are not necessarily completely incompetent people in a general sense:

… victims are not in general poor-decision makers, for example they may have successful business or professional careers, but tend to be unduly open to persuasion by others and less able to control their emotions.

The report also says that it is common for scam victims to think of their participation as a “long-shot gamble”, and to avoid telling anyone else (family, friends, etc.) about what they are doing.

This last part of the summary conclusions really made sense to me, because it ties in with something I have often observed: that people seem to have some sort of innate desire to believe in magic, or to engage in magical thinking. Put another way, it is the idea that, if I want badly enough for something to happen, it will become more likely to happen.  (Note that I”m talking about thinking here, not about taking actual, concrete steps to reach some goal.)   That people tend to keep their participation in these scams a secret suggests that, at some level, their rational minds know that the offer is too good to be true — but something overrides that conclusion, somehow.  (From this and other evidence, it seems apparent to me that the classical economic description of individuals as completely rational utility-maximizing actors does not quite align with reality.)

I’m reminded of one particular situation in which I had a part, that exhibits this point.  But that is a story for a later post.

* I am reminded of a bit of patter by the satirist, Tom Lehrer:

The other day, I received a somewhat disturbing letter in the mail.  I opened it, and read: “Darling, I am madly in love with you and cannot live without you.  Marry  me, or I will kill myself.”  Well, I was rather concerned, until I took another look at the envelope and saw that it was addressed to “Occupant”.

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