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Scam psychology: 3 common tactics fraudsters use to trick victims (and how to stay one step ahead)

Scammers often rely on our psychological biases to trick us into handing over important data or financial information – here’s what you need to know.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the number of scams that seem to be going around these days, you’re not alone. 

The surge in fraudulent schemes seen during lockdown has continued ever since, with new research from Barclays revealing a 17% rise in the number of reported scams over the last three months.

The problem? Although some scams remain pretty easy to spot, there are a growing number of scams that are harder to identify, with scammers using increasingly complex psychological tactics to ‘socially engineer’ their victims into handing over personal data or money.

So, what are these tactics? And how can you keep yourself safe from these kinds of schemes? To find out more, Stylist sat down with Barclays’ chief behavioural scientist Dr Pete Brooks. Here’s what he had to say. 

What are the main psychological tactics scammers use to trick their victims?

A woman on the phone
Scammers use a number of tactics to pressure victims into making poorly-judged decisions.

According to Dr Brooks, there are three main psychological techniques scammers are currently using to trick people – time pressure and illusions of scarcity, authority bias and greed and status. 

Brooks explains that each of these techniques tend to apply to a different kind of fraud, but warns that they can be used in any situation to force someone into making a poorly judged decision.

Time pressure and illusions of scarcity

“The first major tactic that we see is time pressure,” Dr Brooks explains. “Psychologically, we tend to make poor decisions when we’re forced to act quickly – our reflective brains are much better at trying to think through an issue or problem. But we tend to make a lot of our decisions – about 95% of the decisions we make on a day-to-day basis – without reflecting on them.

“So, if a scammer can get you to make an instinctive gut reaction to something, the more they’re using that fast neural network to get you to do something instinctively rather than pausing. And that’s why you see a lot of the messages around fraud being about pausing and thinking, even though it’s really difficult. 

“And I think depending on the type of scam you also see them using illusions of scarcity – like time-limited offers. 

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“You also see that time pressure come into those impersonation scams when somebody might be telling you that someone has access to your bank account, and you need to take action right away. It’s that sense that you’ve got to do something super quick so you can feel back in control of the situation, and your brain feels really comfortable with that.”

Authority bias

“One of the other tricks we see coming through is the use of authority bias, when somebody tries to make it sound like they’re coming from a trust position, whether they’re trying to impersonate the bank, or a police officer or some other investigative force, like HMRC,” Dr Brooks says.

“And that kind of authority bias can make you panic, because you feel like you’re being told something from someone at a trusted organisation – and we like to feel like we can trust people in authority, so that can be played upon.” 

Greed and status

“Greed and status is a trick which is used in investment scams and other similar fraudulent schemes,” Brooks explains. “We all like to feel that we’re getting something that somebody else isn’t, and that drive can sometimes turn us into a very poor decision-maker, as we’re motivated to take care of ourselves as opposed to others.

“Scammers are experts at exploiting the fact people want to grow their assets, and that we can sometimes put our better judgement aside for a high return opportunity.” 

How can you keep yourself safe from these scam tactics? 

A woman drinking a cup of tea at home
Taking a moment to pause can help you to reassess the situation.

While many scams rely on their victims trusting people, Brooks doesn’t advise becoming wholly untrusting – instead, he recommends taking a few key steps to protect yourself.

“One of the best things you can do is stop and ask yourself, ‘Does it sound too good to be true?’ and think about what you’re doing,” Brooks says.

“You can also try to sense check things with others as well, because somebody who’s not quite so caught up in the situation can give you a third-person read of what’s going on. It may not be enough to stop you, but it’ll give you a new perspective and give you that opportunity to step back.” 

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Brooks also recommends against thinking that you won’t be scammed because you’re young or technologically savvy, because doing so can lead you to let your guard down.

“It’s not just older, more vulnerable or less tech savvy people who fall for these things,” he says. “That’s the reason why scammers use psychological tactics and behavioural biases to manipulate us, because they’re very widespread things which apply to most people. So consider yourself part of the group that has the potential to be scammed, so you keep your guard up a little.” 

If you think you’ve been a victim of fraud, contact your bank immediately and report it to Action Fraud online at police.uk or by calling 0300 123 2040.

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