Successful fraud requires both a set of skills and a willingness to deliberately target and deceive others. The most successful fraudsters have a capacity to look us in the eye, to engage our trust and then betray it without a qualm. This capacity is actually quite rare and often associated with personality disorder (or perhaps politicians?).
Typically, those committing fraud use psychological strategies to distance themselves from any sense of guilt. Criminologists refer to this as ‘neutralisation’. A common form of neutralisation is to view the victim as in some way to blame – “He had it coming; I
couldn’t have taken him in if he wasn’t so greedy”. Another is to depersonalise or belittle the victim – for example the perpetrators of a series of frauds on Ebay, referred to their 3,000 victims as ‘the idiots’. However, for most people, such attitudes are difficult to support in the face of personal contact with an intended victim.
By contrast, telephone or internet fraud guarantees a psychological distance between fraudster and victim. The technology already provides a significant amount of depersonalisation: a ready-made neutralisation strategy. Thus, people who would find the emotional costs of face-to-face fraud too high are much more able and willing to engage in remote fraud.
Why are we so easy to fool?
When we fall victim to fraud, or the more legal but related forms of advertising and marketing manipulation, we often assist in our own deception. Effective fraudsters don’t try to fill out all the gaps in a story. Like professional magicians, they know that manipulating us to reach a conclusion for ourselves is more powerful than making a direct statement. We’ll fill in the gaps in a story for ourselves given the right motivation; and they know that emotions such as greed, fear and loneliness are powerful motivators that they can easily manipulate.
If we believe someone can enrich us, or rescue us from debt or loneliness, or we think they can prevent something we dread, we want to believe them; and will often explain away any holes in their story for ourselves.
Once we have become victims of deception, another factor comes into play. Fraud is often under-reported. For most of us, self-esteem is important. We, often quite unconsciously, look for ways to protect it. For this reason, we tend to pay more attention to information that builds our own self-esteem than information that threatens it. So, many of us are quite reluctant to accept that we are victims and are even more reluctant to tell others.
Intelligence and education are not a protection here. Indeed, there is some evidence that highly educated people are easier to fool, because they don’t expect to be fooled, and because they have greater mental resources to devote to their own self-deception.
There are important parallels between the traits that make many of us easily deceived by fraud and those that make traders in financial markets easily deceived by market movements. In my own research on the behaviour of traders in investment banks, I found these well educated, intelligent and highly trained professionals to be often prone to illusions about the extent to which they were in control and able to make unbiased financial judgements. Fear, greed and the need to maintain self-esteem may make many of us more easily trapped by a telephone or internet scam, but they also account for some major mishaps in financial markets. In another blog post I discuss some of the reasons traders may turn to fraud themselves.
One increasingly common form of scam which exemplifies the role of self deception is the romance scam.
In Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ Boldwood becomes entranced with Bathsheba, after, in a moment of idle fancy, she sends him a Valentine. He hardly knows her and as the narrator tells us: –
The great aids to idealization in love were present here: occasional observation of her from a distance, and the absence of social intercourse with her – visual familiarity, oral strangeness. The smaller human elements were kept out of sight; the pettinesses that enter so largely into all earthly living and doing were disguised by the accident of lover and loved-one not being on visiting terms; and there was hardly awakened a thought in Boldwood that sorry household realities appertained to her, or that she, like all others, had moments of commonplace, when to be least plainly seen was to be most prettily remembered.
Hardy gives us a picture of romantic idealisation; an important part of the process of falling in love. In the psychoanalytic view of love and infatuation, we are inclined to project on to others what we most desire in ourselves. We each foster within ourselves an idealised self and look to the other to complete what we lack. For this to happen, it helps that the other person fits our ideal in some sense. However, it also helps that we don’t see too much detail; thus the other person can become a blank slate on which we write our desires. Popular sayings and songs remind us of this:
‘‘Love is blind’
‘When your heart’s on fire, you must realize, smoke gets in your eyes’,
‘You know it’s clear that I’ve been blind, I’ve been a fool’.
Internet communication, for many, provides the ideal conditions in which to fall in love. Just enough cues about the other person to hook into our desires, not enough information to shatter the romantic illusion. Candid self disclosure becomes common as it is the only means of getting to know each other and is protected by a degree of anonymity, but it is also easy to build a picture that the other wishes to see. Indeed, as I discuss above, the distancing provided by the internet can reduce the emotional costs of deceiving others. Many are attracted to the internet as a medium for relationships for just this reason; it
provides the opportunity for emotional contact without personal risk or exposure. Add a profound sense of loneliness into the picture and the conditions are ideal for a victim to collaborate in their own deception as the scammer seems to hold out the promise of what they long for.
Face-to-face relationships move from an initial encounter in a physical location and based on physical attractiveness, to the discovery of common interests and self-disclosure. Internet relationships proceed in the opposite direction – the physical encounter comes last. For many the transition from romantic idealisation to genuine attachment happens during the course of an internet romance.
Rosantonietta Scramaglia interviewed fifty people who had fallen in love on the internet. She describes what they told her about the positive and negative sides of the experience:
It creates ‘mystery’, ‘the unknown’, ‘the excitement of something you’ve never experienced before’, ‘it lets you dream’. It is ‘more fun because you can discover the other person gradually’. People feel ‘the fascination of novelty’…
[but] a relationship can spring up which is, … ‘not as serious because it is easier to leave each other because you do not have to face the situation in person’, or ‘not as easy because you are going into it blind’, or a situation where ‘uncertainty’ prevails, where it is ‘impossible to be sure that the other person is really sincere’, where you have to have a blind faith in what you are told, and you risk meeting the wrong kind of people or being taken for a ride’. And, confronted with these unknowns, ‘the worse thing is that you get your expectations up’, and tend to ‘idealize the partner more’.
Many fraudsters target online dating sites because they understand that this process of romantic idealisation provides an ideal context in which to make victims cooperate in their own deception. Typical scams involve trawling on a large scale for victims and constructing an online persona with characteristics likely to trigger trust. For example they may construct or steal the identities of doctors, police officers, military officers etc.
Once they identify a potential victim, scammers may devote considerable time and effort to the fraud. One victim, interviewed as part of a study carried out by Monica Whitty described the process: –
He sent me a love poem every morning and we were on chat (IM) for hours every night and he called in the morning to say good morning and every night to tell me he loved me and would never let me go.
Once a victim is hooked, the relationship moves ever closer to the promised meeting often with the presumption of marriage or a permanent relationship until one by one problems emerge that can only be solved with money, often in the form of a large but ‘temporary’ loan.
Many victims are so caught up in such scams that even confronted by relatives and friends telling them they are being scammed they refuse to accept the possibility.
The results are often devastating. Many victims report that the loss of (often large sums) of money is less devastating than the harm done to their sense of themselves as a capable person worth of love, and the grief they experienced for the loss of what had seemed a real relationship.
Protecting yourself from fraud
So if the world is full of fraud and human psychology disposes us to be dupes, how can we protect ourselves? There is no foolproof solution, but some simple rules may help:
- If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- If a person, or organisation, starts to play on your fears it may be that person or organisation that you should fear.
- If you are fooled, it does not mean you are an idiot. You are in good company. Do find the time and courage to report the scam.
- Recognise the times when you or others may be emotionally vulnerable and recognise that this can create an especial susceptibility to those who would prey on those emotions.