Here's When You're Most Likely To Fall For A Scam

Image: Courtesy of Viking Press; Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
We'd all like to think we're smart enough not to fall for the oldest trick in the book, but science (and life) tells us our chances aren't great. Think about it: Even our smart seeming Facebook friends post spam statuses about supposed Powerball winners sharing their wealth; too-good-to-be-true weight loss supplements are sometimes too-hard-to-resist; and the TV show Catfish exists. Scams are everywhere. So why is it so hard to tell when we're being strung along? Well, that's exactly what science writer Maria Konnikova looked into for her new book, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It...Every Time.

Konnikova says she became interested in cons after watching the 1987 movie House of Games, in which a woman who's a psychologist ends up falling for a long con. "She’s not your typical victim, she’s not someone you’d think of as gullible, and her business is human nature," says Konnikova — yet she still fell for it. "I wanted to see how common that was," she says. So we asked her what she found out about the telltale signs of a con, and why we're so sure it'll never happen to us.
Why are we all so confident that we'll never fall for a scam?
"We all like to see ourselves in a positive light. We really like to have a good opinion of ourselves, and probably a slightly better one than we deserve. We’re all above average drivers, intelligence, et cetera. And people who are like that [believe they] are not people who fall for scams, because they’re also above average judges of character — they’re above average at being to able to spot deception. So no one wants to see themselves as the victim. It just doesn’t fit with our image of who we are."

What makes some people extra vulnerable?

"One thing is being in a situation in life where you’ve become unstable or where you’re experiencing some emotional vulnerability. That can often happen in points of transition. For instance, if you’ve just lost a job, someone you were close to just died, or you went through a breakup. But it could be positive as well — you could have just gotten a new job. It just disrupts your frame of reference. All of a sudden, things aren’t as stable as they used to be, they don’t make as much sense."

"But we really dislike uncertainty and hate ambiguity. We feel really uncomfortable in situations like that so we become really vulnerable to people who counteract that, people who make us feel better, who make us feel certain, who create stability where it’s missing. And those are the best moments for con artists to pounce."
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We become really vulnerable to people who make us feel certain, who create stability where it’s missing.

Maria Konnikova
Are there are any signs that we’re in the middle of a con?
"Yes, to an outside observer, and not to us. It’s one of these things where someone else would look at it and say, ‘Oh my god, are you insane?' But you’re in it, and you’re emotionally involved. Even if someone were to tell you at that point, 'Hey, I think you’re getting scammed,' you would probably say, 'You just don’t want to be happy for me." The red flags are certainly there for someone who is looking in from the outside, but you don’t see it when you’re in it."

"We all know that if it seems to good to be true, it probably is. But when it happens to us, we don’t think it’s too good to be true — we just think it’s good. So the biggest words of advice I can offer are to know yourself. Try to analyze yourself the way a con artist would. Know your weaknesses, the things that make you tick, and what's really important to you. Those are the pressure points that con artists are going to be using. When one of those needs is getting met and you want to suspend all skepticism, ask questions instead — look a gift horse in the mouth."

When it happens to us, we don’t think it’s too good to be true — we just think it’s good.

Maria Konnikova
What is it that con artists are preying on?
"This underlying human need, which I think we have from the moment we’re born — to make sense of the world, to have a world where cause leads to effect. That need for meaning never goes away, and whether or not we’re vulnerable at any given point, we always have that drive. What happens in moments of vulnerability is we become even more destabilized, so we really need meaning. We become really good targets because we’ll buy a lot of different stories that are supplied to us."

"One of the things I learned is that it’s not domain-specific. So, for instance, if you lost your job, you’re not just more likely to fall for finance scam, you’re also more likely to fall for an online dating scam. So, really, we’ll get that meaning wherever can."
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