Behavior

How Scammers Use Emotions to Persuade

It’s an implausible ruse. Yet we are all human, and many people are taken in by it.

In the Social Security imposter scam, someone claiming to be from the agency tells the intended victim that he has been accused of a crime and that his bank account will be frozen. To prevent arrest and preserve the money, the individual is instructed to withdraw the funds and buy gift cards or exchange the cash for virtual currency such as Bitcoin. A government official, the caller claims, will return the funds tomorrow.

More than 300,000 people lost millions of dollars in this scam between 2018 and 2021. At a broader level, imposters purporting to be from various government agencies were the most common fraud reported in 2019 to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which tracks and investigates cases of consumer fraud.

A new study found that young adults in their 30s, and also minorities, were more likely than other groups to report being victimized by the Social Security imposter scam. But the victims who are over 70 lost significantly more money, on average. The typical loss among victims of all kinds was $1,500.

More interesting is what the researchers uncovered about how someone becomes ensnared in such an outlandish scheme. The insights came from victims’ first-hand accounts in 600 FTC complaints, as well as an involved process of coding the narratives in some 200,000 complaints to find the emotional words the victims used that would identify larger themes about the Social Security imposters’ methods of persuasion.

High emotional arousal “is an extremely effective tool” that overwhelms victims’ ability to process information rationally, the researchers concluded.

The victims’ accounts reveal a trove of psychological manipulation by the Social Security imposters to elicit anxiety and other negative emotions. Some imposters threatened to harm the victims or their families. In half of the complaints the researchers scrutinized, victims were threatened with arrest.

As one scam victim said, “Steve had me so scared and tired that nothing made sense.”

In a quantitative comparison between the victims who lost money and the people who resisted the scams, the victims used more words associated with fear and anxiety – “terrified,” paralyzed” – and anger – “frustrated,” “stolen.” A higher prevalence of fear words – “illegal,” “threaten,” – correlated with dollar losses.

If someone pushed back, denying they had committed a crime, the imposter might switch tactics and offer to clear their names. An offer of help made some people compliant because they felt indebted to the scammer. “They assured me that … they would notify the authorities that I was cooperating,” one victim explained in his FTC complaint.

Among the closely examined fraud cases, many people successfully resisted the scams. They usually either knew Social Security would never make such a call or discussed the situation with the police, a retail worker selling gift cards, or even Social Security employees. After one victim spent hours driving from store to store to buy gift cards, his sister said she had heard about the Social Security scam on the news and told him to call the police.

This anecdote supports what the researchers argue would be one of the most effective ways to prevent imposter scams: raise consumer awareness. However, this solution presents its own challenges at a time social media has pulled people away from reliable sources of news.

To read this study, authored by Marguerite DeLiema and Paul Witt, see “Mixed Methods Analysis of Consumer Fraud Reports of the Social Security Administration Imposter Scam.”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.   

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