Are you on a scammer's sucker list?

11 November 2010

Buy any product or service and chances are you will be asked to sign up to a mailing list.

Fraudsters know that if you have signed up to a scam once then you're more than likely to fall for another. Because of this, your name and contact details could appear on what's known as a 'sucker's list'.

The phrase was coined by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) in 2005, when it was trying to raise awareness of scamming techniques.

But sucker's lists became headline news back in March this year, when the Financial Services Authority revealed it had found the biggest-ever, containing the names, addresses and telephone numbers of more than 38,000 people.

Criminal hit-lists

There are likely to be plenty of such lists still out there, and it's easy to end up on one. As criminal gangs build up their hit-lists and focus on particular individuals or types, even responding to say 'no thanks' or asking for your name to be removed from their list can mean you're bombarded with letters, calls or emails.

Bill Hughes, director general of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), says the slightest response can result in victims receiving up to 100 scam letters a day.

"Some are receiving four sackloads of junk mail a day, all aimed at taking money off them," he says.

According to the OFT, 3.2 million adults in the UK – around one in 15 people – collectively lose around £3.5 billion to mass-marketed scams each year. 

What is it that makes one person more likely to hand their cash over to a fraudster than another? In May last year, the OFT published groundbreaking research, called 'The Psychology of Scams: Provoking and Committing Errors of Judgement', which examined the psychological reasons why people fall victim to mass-marketed scams.

The OFT's findings revealed that up to one in five of the UK population could be particularly vulnerable to scams.

Alarmingly, it also discovered that good background knowledge of the subject of a scam offer, such as experience of investments, may actually increase the risk of becoming a victim through 'over-confidence'.

Moreover, 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.

Another seemingly counter-intuitive finding was that scam victims tend to spend more time considering a would-be scam and not less, as you might expect. 

Victims often keep their decision to respond to a scam private and avoid speaking about it with family or friends, thereby compounding the problem. According to the researchers, it's almost as if their rational selves realise the danger but decide to proceed anyway.

Repeat victims

Being stung more than once can happen simply because we want to trust, according to clinical psychologist Dr Cecilia d'Felice.

"Our desire to trust people can be taken advantage of; if we've been the target of a scam, we may need to make ourselves feel better by trusting all the more, to reassure ourselves that the world is a good place," she explains. 

"Sadly, we may then end up being fodder for the scammers once again," she adds.

"The very vulnerable may end up serially scammed because their ability to make these judgements, further confused by the desire for material gain, can lead to a gambler's mentality that surely they'll win through this time. That is why the scammers have these lists – they understand human nature."

As scammers often play on our emotional needs, there's no surprise 'lonely hearts' scams have become common. They often snare victims via online dating websites, encouraging trust and friendship, and of course romance, in order to extract cash.

This popular scam technique exploits some common 'scam victim' traits found by the OFT, such as lack of emotional control, a tendency to be impulsive and a degree of isolation.

Victims are also likely to be vulnerable to certain psychological triggers, such as the building of relationships by apparently obliging people and "a strong inclination to give something back" if they receive a small gift.

Incredibly, such is the bond built up by the fraudsters that when police officers contact people to tell them that they are being conned, many don't believe it and refuse to give evidence.

"Remember, we're being primed with a series of cues, Derren Brown-style, that lull us into trusting the scammers. They often offer a series of steps that appear to give good feedback – until they sting you with the real deal," says Dr d'Felice.

"This cognitive loading not only confuses your innate alarm system but also reassures you in the short term to continue, because it looks 'real'. This is why even experienced people can fall victim to fraud."

You're more likely to be scammed if you...

  • Give out your personal details to anyone who asks for them
  • Give out your credit card or bank details for identification purposes
  • Reveal a lot of personal information on social networking sites
  • Respond to junk mail or spam emails
  • Fail to check the identity and credentials of a company you're dealing with

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