We've all had that moment when we were shopping on eBay at 3 a.m. and spotted the deal of the century -an Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch for just $100? That's the watch that's been on the moon! Then we realize the price is too good to be true when we see that our newest find will ship from the other side of the planet and the listing features mysteriously blurry photos that obscure key details. Maybe that Moonwatch spelled Saturday with a "B," because some scams are really easy to spot. We've all seen the scam and after catching ourselves, we've all asked ourselves the same question: Who falls for this garbage?
From behind a computer screen, spotting a scam is as easy as a stroll in the park on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. What investigators have realized is that it gets much tougher when fraud happens in person. In person, all of those skills we've developed online go away and we become easy marks.
The IRL problem
It's easy to act differently online. No one knows us there, so we can make up the life we want to live or act without repercussions. Otherwise calm and decent people can become maniacs online if certain topics come up - from vaccinations to the recent play of the local professional quarterback. For others, the digital world is a place of exploration and indulgence in hobbies that are unavailable offline, as players of World of Warcraft or the thousands of people who left reviews on Food.com's recipe for ice cubes can attest. However we change behind the computer, it's easy to see that we think of ourselves and others differently while online. Offline, you wouldn't constantly harass your friends about a farming game, would you?
The same is true when it comes to scams. When we sympathize with people, we lose the critical distance we need to spot scammers. If we can connect with a person, we are far more likely to fall for a scam, and talking to them away from the computer increases that personal connection.
Think about it this way: The FTC says the most common forms of scams all involve human interaction, not computers. The most common form of online identity theft isn't breaking into your credit union -- we're really good at security -- it's phishing, where scammers convince victims to willingly give up their credit card information. The most common phone scam is the grandparent scam, in which the bad guys use our natural concern for our family to get money out of us. The most common scam ever might be the basis for the modern home improvement scam: using a hard-luck story or the victim's greed to convince them to pay up front, then never actually do the work.
How to avoid in-person scams
1.) Be wary of surprises and secrets. Two things that should tip you off right away are really big surprises and really private secrets. If you won money in a contest you don't remember entering, you probably didn't enter it. If you're getting a big payday, but you can't tell anyone about it, you're probably not getting a big payday at all. If a company runs a contest, they want to get publicity. If you've got contest winnings coming, that company probably made you put down your email address and a bunch more info. It probably took a while for them to get all of your data. You'd remember. Even in old TV shows they understood that surprises and secrets were a bad sign - if a 1960s sitcom hero inherits a mansion from an uncle they've never met, you better believe it's going to be haunted.
2.) Take your time. If someone needs you to act quickly, that's often a clear sign of a scam, particularly if the sudden rush is coupled with a surprise as described above. Scammers understand the power of groupthink - which is what psychologists call that trend among humans to make worse decisions in groups than by themselves - largely stems from an impending time deadline. By denying you time to catch your breath, scammers are trying to rush you into a bad decision and keep you from getting advice from someone with distance and perspective.
3.) Try to be a robot. NPR's "Planet Money" podcast aired an episode covering the danger of our humanity very well. In it, a banker named Toby convinced dozens of people to help him perpetrate a large-scale fraud simply by telling them his hard-luck story. He claims that not one of them turned him down. The case made in the episode is that for each person who heard the story, the ethical decision to commit a fraud and the rational decision to trust a scammer was completely overwhelmed by our sense of sympathy and injustice. Don't let that be you.
Hopefully, you're not going to have to deal with in-person scammers very often. If you do, be sure to contact the FTC here: https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/#crnt&panel1-1 and the FBI here: http://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx
If you think you may have been the victim of a scam, identity theft, phishing, or any other security threat, let us know immediately. The sooner we know, the safer your accounts at the credit union. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 850.505.3200.