It’s all too easy to decry folks who fall for online scams as “stupid”. What’s actually stupid is thinking that way – for several reasons.
The other day, I got an email with an enticing offer inside.
Yeah, it’s only partially downloaded, because I could see straight away that it was a scam, and not even a particularly good or smart one.
I own my own domain, and I’d like to think that if I had a lazy $121,955 lying around to send myself, I might remember that, somehow. I’m not entirely sure why I’d be sending my own money to myself in the first place, really.
Honestly, my first thought was “just how stupid do these scammers think I am?”
I quickly corrected my mental course, however, because that kind of thinking is quite dangerous on two completely different levels.
Largely because pretty much any scam, whether it’s an online one like this offering money, a MyGov scam threatening your tax return, a dodgy online “sale” or just some shifty bloke with a pencil moustache selling you “high-end” speakers from a van parked in a public library work on some pretty simple levels of human psychology.
You’re probably aware of how scammers use base level psychological tricks such as appealing to people’s sense of greed, or making them panic with some level of time pressure, but why is it a bad idea to presume that the folks who fall for them must be “stupid”?
Problem One: A False Sense of Superiority Is the Scammer’s Best Friend
“Oh, I’m too smart to get scammed”.
“It won’t happen to me, I know the tricks”
“Hey, why is my bank account empty?”
It’s not that much of a jump from the first two statements to the third, actually. It’s not that the scammers are absolute geniuses as it stands – the above email scam is really very low hanging fruit in terms of effort – but just as with activities such as driving, overconfidence can be quite deadly.
You “know” you’re too clever to fall for a scam, so clearly this offer or deal or sale or set of suspicious smelling speakers from the back of the van must be legit because you, personally, are not a fool. You can’t be fooled… right up until you actually are.
The problems here are not insubstantial. At the time of writing, ScamWatch statistics suggest that Australians have lost at least… deep breath… $429,412,991 this year alone to scams.
The real figure is probably significantly higher – I’ll get into why that is below – so it’s pretty easy to see online scams sucking at least half a billion dollars out of the Australian economy annually. Times are tight, and I’m pretty sure we could all do with a lazy half billion back in our collective bank accounts, no?
The reality here is that we all have our good days and our bad days for a whole variety of reasons, and that can have a profound effect on our levels of online scam detection, even for matters we might think of as “obvious”.
If you’ve had a horrible day and you’re super-stressed because your boss is being a jerk, your emotional state is already wobbling all over the place.
A stress-based scam that seems to suggest that you’re about to be hit with a fine, or indeed one that suggests (and this happened not long ago to a relative of mine) that you’re about to get a bonus government incentive grant and it would be all too easy to click without thinking – because your brain is tired of thinking, it’s had a bad enough day and it just wants you to get to the part of the day where you dose it up with chocolate, booze or sex, depending on your proclivities. Less thinking, it says, let’s get to the part where I let the dopamine flow, because I’m so smart, right?
Problem Two: Oh The SHAME!
“I’m such an idiot. I must make sure nobody ever finds out about this.”
The other problem with thinking of people who fall for scams as “stupid” is that it reinforces a sense of shame in victims of online scams.
There are some legitimate emotions to feel if you’ve been scammed. A little anger, for example, is appropriate, and I’m here to give you absolute permission to go outside and yell up at the sky to let some of that tension out if it’s just happened to you. Try not to frighten any of the birds nesting in nearby trees while you do so, though; they’ve done nothing wrong.
But shame does not help in this situation at all. Indeed, again, it’s a psychological tool that works in the favour of the scammer, because any online (or real world) illicit operation works best under the cover of darkness.
Encouraging a sense of shame in victims means that far fewer of them are likely to come forward to report their losses or the scams they’ve been the victims of. Sure, some are rather well known, which is why you’ll often see printed messages in supermarkets reminding folks that the ATO doesn’t actually want to be paid in Apple Gift Cards, but illuminating the problem is a big plus for everyone involved.
If clear patterns and setups can be identified, the prospects for law enforcement to actually bust scammers goes up markedly, which stands to reason. To bring a physical dimension to this, the police would never investigate your home being burgled if you never actually told them it was burgled, would they?
What’s more, shining a light on scams helps to get a better broad picture of any trends in scams globally. The scamwatch figures I quoted above are just for those individuals who have come forward to report losses, but there’s little doubt that they’re under-reported every single year. Why? Largely because of shame, and that makes it harder for advocacy and support groups to work, whether it’s services like IDCare or Scamwatch in its education and outreach to make others aware of scams doing the rounds – or indeed make those who have been scammed aware that it is indeed a scam in the first place.
Ultimately, the people who get stung by online scams are, indeed, just people. We’re all people, and thinking of anyone as “stupid” does nothing to help, and everything to hurt.