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How Even Sophisticated People Are Scammed

Last update on: Oct 27 2016

People who never expected to be victims of scams and frauds often are victimized. The stereotype is that older people with reduced cognitive abilities are the most likely to be scammed. But many other people are vulnerable, and those who don’t fit the stereotype need to stay alert for potential scams.

Self-confidence is one factor that leads people to be led into scams. People who believe they are too smart or well-informed to be tricked are very likely to become victims, especially today when technology is used in many scams. Investigators frequently find that well-educated people with their cognitive abilities intact are victims of scams, partly because they were confident that they didn’t fit the profile of fraud victims and couldn’t fall for one.

To avoid being scammed, it is important to recognize that your personal information probably has been hacked at least once and is available for sale to crooks on the “dark web.” Crooks can establish authenticity and authority by mentioning the personal information they know about their targets. Accepting that a lot of your personal information probably is available for sale should help you avoid giving credence to crooks.

Most scams depend on a psychological technique that’s now called social engineering. People make bad decisions when an emotion becomes so strong that the higher-level thinking parts of the brain essentially shut down for a period of time. Strong feelings of fear, anger and greed can cause people to make irrational decisions. Con artists excel in using social engineering to stimulate strong emotions.

Most of today’s top scams depend on fear. In a very common con, the crooks pretend to be employees of the IRS. They tell people they owe the IRS a lot of money and must pay it immediately to avoid going to jail. The thieves have enough personal information about the targets to make a convincing case that they really work for the IRS and are looking at the person’s record. For most people, there aren’t too many fears greater than owing money to the IRS.

Experts recommend a few simple changes can help you avoid being conned by today’s scams.

• Realize the crooks are looking for you. Even if you don’t fit the profile of a typical victim, the crooks will try to manipulate you.

• Think like a crook, but only a little. Most people are honest, and they don’t think like dishonest people. Also, as people age they tend to become more trusting and optimistic. Remind yourself that there are dishonest people in the world and that you need to be skeptical when someone is asking for or demanding money.

• Accept that crooks probably have access to your personal information. It was obtained from a hack of a medical provider, retailer, credit card provider, or government. Don’t be impressed when someone reels off some personal details you thought were private. And don’t confirm the details unless you’re sure the person is legitimate.

• Be aware of your emotions. As I said, the crooks try to excite certain emotions to keep you from thinking clearly. Ask yourself if you’re contemplating an action based primarily on emotions. Slow down. Think clearly. Consider all the facts. Crooks emphasize urgency and say you have to take action now. That should be a clue that someone is trying to con you. Take time to talk to someone about the situation.

• Look out for intimidation. Crooks depend on your accepting their authority, whether they are claiming to be an IRS official, investment expert, or something else. Red flags are being waved when someone is using information, threats, technology, tone of voice, or other tools to try to intimidate you.

• Stop the process. You can hang up the telephone or terminate a conversation. If you really owe the IRS money, it will send you a letter. People selling legitimate investments will let you carefully consider the decision and follow up in a professional way. Legitimate people will try to contact you several times in several different ways. But crooks usually won’t contact you again if you hang up on them.

• Learn the basic cons. Most of today’s successful cons merely are variations of scams that have been around for a long time but are being executed in new ways because of technology. Knowing the cons helps you spot the red flags. There’s a lot of information about current cons on the web sites of AARP, the IRS, National Consumers League (, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the Better Business Bureau and other organizations. Many of these organizations also offer seminars around the country. Take some time to learn how frauds are perpetrated, so you’ll quickly spot one.



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