The psychology of scams: how to avoid becoming a victim

Thoughtful young man thinking and using blank screen computer
Posted at 8:32 AM, Aug 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-10 08:32:14-04

NORFOLK, Va. - The amount of money people lost in scams and fraud cases went up dramatically last year.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, people reported losing more than $3.3 billion in 2020, up from $1.8 billion in 2019.

So how are scammers so successful?

While the details of scams and frauds vary, Old Dominion University psychology professor Dr. Jason Parker says they all have something in common.

"People who are trying to manipulate you or scam you, they want to talk to your logical brain. They don't want your emotions involved," said Parker.

There are a lot of different strategies to accomplish that.

One strategy often used in manipulation - the 'rejection-then-retreat technique.

Someone starts with an extreme request, then comes back with a much smaller request, which was the original goal all along.

Parker says it happens all the time.

"You'll get an estimate on a repair on your home or computer or renovation and they give you this estimate three times larger than you expected," said Parker.

They'll then come back with an offer for something less.

"You feel like you just negotiated. You didn't," said Parker.

Scammers use the same strategy.

To keep from becoming a victim, Dr. Parker says there are two keys things to remember - saying 'no' is not a bad thing, and listen to your gut.

"There's wisdom on both sides of your brain, they just talk different languages. Left brain uses logic, your right brain uses emotion and pictures, so learn the language of both and you become a powerful person," said Parker.

Here are some other ways you can spot a scam:

  • Look closely for misspellings. Your eyes can often overlook them.
  • Check for transpositions. It's the most common spelling and math error and the eye easily misses them.
  • Watch out for a web address that's slightly off by missing one letter or number.
  • Be wary of phone calls at odd hours that are aggressive.
  • On the phone, always ask off “script” questions that a computer-generated bot cannot answer, e.g. "What color is the sky?"