Updated: Sep 14
The Psychology of Internet Scamming
If you read my previous post, "Not the Superhero he says he is", then you'll know that there are internet scammers everywhere, and I played cat and mouse with one recently (so far, I've collected 6 phone numbers from this one scam). If it's happened to you (or does soon) don't feel like you're an idiot for allowing yourself to get taken in. Absolutely no-one is immune to the scammer's methods. I'll show you how; using the psychology of social grouping, of needing and wanting, and of motivation and reward.
Let's think about ingroups and outgroups.
#BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo are really good examples of feeling like you belong to a particular group. You belong to your ingroup because they are like-minded people. Everyone who doesn't belong to your ingroup, must belong to the outgroup. You can see it in the riots in Hong Kong and Beirut, just to name a couple. This element of social psychology is an incredibly powerful motivator to act in certain ways.
So, what are the motivators that lead a person to become engaged in a scam? Later on, I'll show you a graphic of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and I'll refer to those needs in my description of what a scammer does and how it plays on your needs and wants. They find out what you lack, and offer the hope of fulfilling it.
Here's how it's done.
The scammer will use a social networking site, because the users of those sites are already motivated to connect with other like-minded people. I'm on a few, for various reasons; because I am a researcher, I have published two books, and because I have a business. On the very odd occasion, I've even briefly dabbled in an online dating site (they overwhelm me). The thing is, the scammers make you think they are "like-minded" (that is, they're part of your ingroup, not your outgroup).
They use a photo that has been deemed as "likeable". If you right-click on the photo they use and inspect it's properties, you will eventually find code that refers to trustworthiness, empathy, race, status .... Again, we're talking here about ingroup qualities.
They connect with you as though they are a like-minded person, with a similar sounding name to your own. There will be people who connect with me as fellow researchers on my research sites, and fellow business people on the business site. If on a job-search networking site, they will offer a lucrative work-from-home gig that they can't talk about on that site.
They offer what you are looking for on that site: improvement in your needs and wants. Business and job networking sites offer the chance for more money, prestige, accomplishment and promotion (these are "esteem" factors). Dating sites offer love and sex (which are "belonging/love" factors). Research sites, publishers and agents offer fame and awards (esteem). So, the scammer "could offer improvement", if you accept their connection request.
Their connection request is innocuous. You don't think anything is untoward about the words or tone they use. At best, it might be a bit generic or brief. You feel safe.
They compliment you on something personal. As a self-help author, I get lots of emails and phone calls from US numbers, from people claiming to be literary agents and publishers, or editors and marketers. As a relatively new author, I'm fresh meat. They can get thousands of dollars at a time out of new authors. They say things like, "I've read your book and it's important. You deserve to get it out there on bookshelves". Ego-strokes hide a hook. As a peer-reviewed scientific author, I have also received many invitations to speak at international conferences and to publish in journals. If they ask for money toward the gig, they are not legitimate; and those emails were always sent by someone with two first names, or a name followed by an initial.
If they are a romance scammer, it doesn't matter where they pick you up (you are probably not even on a dating site, anywhere); they will compliment you on your beautiful eyes, your lovely smile, your profile being interesting; and they will want to chat with you more to get to know you. They get to your hierarchy of needs very quickly, without you noticing. It doesn't matter who you are, what platform you're on and for what purpose: the romance scam is one of the easiest and slickest scams, and it comes before all the others. No-one is immune to a compliment; no-one.
They get you to discuss your shared interests on a different platform. The first alternate platforms are often WhatsApp and Google Hangouts. Why? They move the conversation from platform to platform so they don't get caught. Where you're concerned, a little mystery feeds the fantasy, and you go with the flow without hearing a voice or seeing a person speak in a video call. Mystery feeds fantasy.
They tell you a story about their childhood adversity. Poor thing, they're all alone in the world. There's probably an orphanage, there's probably the tragic death of a spouse, and the further demise of their foster parents. They evoke your compassion, just like those ads on telly for the aid organisations that make you send money to support a child or an orangutan. They make you feel empathic towards them.
They send texts at various times. Here's why. First, this is to see when you are most likely to respond, so they can time their texts to your rhythms. Second, they can insert pauses into the conversation that can be seconds, minutes or hours. It is a clever psychological trick to train you to look for their texts; and importantly, to anticipate and hope for their texts. In psychology, this is called "intermittent positive reinforcement of desired and approaching-desired behaviour". It is THE most powerful behaviour-modification tool known. Oh, yeah, you're being trained ("groomed"). The positive reinforcement is the text you receive from them; the desired behaviour is you looking for their texts and responding. And the most important bit is that they reward you intermittently so you expect (but get delayed) rewards. Groomed/trained; same thing here.
They send texts just before you wake up, around your dinner time, and just before your bedtime. How do they know when? They test it out by sending texts at various times to start with and asking what you're up to, and then hooking you in at those crucial times. You might not even think you're lonely, but these are the times that count in a relationship: when you wake up, when you're preparing and eating dinner, and when you go to bed. If you are lonely, you will feel it most at these times. Whether you feel lonely or not, they make you feel like you're being thought about; like someone is on the other side of the world waiting for you to wake up; they're struggling to sleep without you; they can't eat if you're not there. You get to a point where they say they were thinking about you, and you tell them the same; you follow up with "but you already knew that", to which they answer, "Yes, I did". They can make you feel known and adored, across space and time. That's very powerful, romantic, stuff!
They call you "dear". Oh lord, that one is such a red flag, but it works on many people. I suggested a new pet name to my latest scammer; so I'll be looking for it in future attempts. Your scammer is making it obvious that however this started, it's becoming deeply personal and you are the object of their affections. Terms of endearment increase your romantic feelings toward the scammer.
They send you some nice photos, without your solicitation. This is to entice you to send photos of yourself. Because they send the photos first, you think you can trust them, so you send something back. What they're fishing for, are photos that don't obscure your features. At this point, they elicit your trust.
They have a child. They will send you photos of a child, and you will text, "Oh, she's gorgeous!", so they say they'll tell her. Poor girl, she's alone halfway across the world from the only family she has, living with a nanny. You want to take care of her. You start thinking about who in your family is around her age, so she'll have a friend when they come to visit. Here, they are eliciting your DNA-inbuilt need to nurture.
Within days, they decide they'd like to visit you, and their "child" is excited at the prospect of meeting you. You think that they have feelings for you, and it's another ego-stroke to go with the morning "hello dear, how was your night?" and the afternoon "I didn't get much sleep. I was thinking about you" ... Now, they make you feel hope.
Now, this is as far as I've gone, out of curiosity, but many people go further. Why?
Being wooed is powerful magic! A person doesn't need much encouragement to become infatuated with a face, a child, the prospect of love. Do you believe in love at first sight? Back in 2013, a study found that over half of Americans surveyed believed in love at first sight, and even more if they were married or in a relationship. A more recent study (2017) found that love at first sight can actually happen, but it is usually more like infatuation.
Despite so many people believing in love at first sight, we tend not to tell any friends or family that we've started something with a person we met online. Why not? We don't want to "jinx" it. We are a superstitious species! But we keep believing in "love" ....
We're "hopeless romantics", at heart, and we fall for images of people who look "nice", "trustworthy", "empathic", "kind", "dependable". We fall for people whose jobs include doctors, engineers and marines. We don't care that they are halfway around the world. At first, we think that it will go nowhere; "I'm just a distraction for him because he's lonely on that ship ..". They are often in the military on assignment in Afghanistan; doctors in overseas aid organisations ... Their credentials look real! If they seem too good to be true ... we still believe in the ideal, the fantasy, the "prince". Prince Charming is often Princess Charming too ... and that's how they get photos from men and women.
Eventually, if you are taken further, they will ask for more revealing photos, which will be used to blackmail you. You are falling for this person, across space and time, and you want to show your best self. You send your most attractive photos; they ask for something specific. You oblige; you want to impress them. It continues until they have something that no-one else has, because you don't want to risk losing this person for whom you have fallen, without even hearing their voice. Then, they play on your fear of being exposed, and fear is a huge motivator.
How does it all work?
If we look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs (below), we can see a pretty simplified picture of life as we humans know it. We can see that once our physiological needs (of food, water, rest, and warmth) and safety needs (being safe and secure) are met, we go straight up to the need to belong and to have love. That means that anyone on a networking site could potentially be looking to improve their sense of belonging. That's ANY networking site for ANY reason.
So, let's think about love and belonging. This level includes friendship as well as intimacy. You'll see from the picture above that love and belonging are "Deficiency Needs", and that as these needs are met, motivation (to meet them) decreases. COVID-19 is battering around at all our needs, but especially our connection to our "close others". So, our relationships are influenced very heavily by COVID-19. This means that our motivation, to meet our needs to belong and to have love, is increasing.
It has been so hard for everyone.
People in relationships have been forced together for extended periods, and not all can manage. They lash out, swear, and abuse in other ways, until either mediation or separation occurs. Some stay in the relationship, but start looking elsewhere for comfort to fill a void that they might not have identified. You know, if they identified the void, with their partner, they might find a way through their issues. But, I realise, that's possibly oversimplifying it.
The single people are stuck without a hug-bubble. Should I make that #HugBubble ?? Single people rely on friends and family members to give them a reassuring touch now and then, a hug upon greeting and departing, support in loss and grief. Single people are feeling what I call Hug Deficiency. That means, you guessed it, single people without a hug-buddy are feeling decreased belonging/love and increased motivation to meet that need.
But, here's the thing. I think that lots more people will find the scammers plying their trade during COVID-19. They will play on those relationship, safety and physiological insecurities.
I mentioned earlier, that this is all about motivators, and I also mentioned that there is a neuroscience behind all of it. The big brain chemicals at play in this, include serotonin (the feel-good neurotransmitter), norepinephrine/noradrenalin (the excitement neurotransmitter), oxytocin (the bonding hormone), and dopamine (doing motivation and reward).
Now, what happens when we learn something, is similar to what happens when we eat. Our brain registers "reward". A nice little article on BrainFacts.org explains that it's not so much the reward that motivates us; it's the expectation of reward.
That word is such a big player in human cognition and behaviour - "expectation".
Basically, we learn something as cause and effect. Then we try it out again to see if it happens again. Sure enough, every time we do something, we "cause" something else to happen! We are the masters of the universe!! Then, it stops happening. We wonder what we did wrong, so we try again and again, until it works. Oh, that's a relief. It's fixed.
I believe that's how religions start (as superstitions). But, that's "belief" for you, and I could be wrong!
So, we continue along, thinking that if we do "A' then "B" will happen. But, without warning, "C" happens, and we need to figure out how it fits with "A" and "B". We have to readjust our expectations. This uncertainty can make us great problem-solvers, but it can make us paranoid as well! It also means that we start to associate certain things with other certain things.
All the while, our beautiful brains are doing the job that they were designed to do. They learn, they categorise, they connect. They imagine, and figure stuff out, and plan. They also have these great mechanisms to help us feel good: to make us feel full when we've eaten; rested after a sleep; like the world is a relaxing place after an orgasm; jubilant after we've scored a goal. We can feel like we've made the right choice in an exam question or a big life decision.
There is always a flipside. What if we made a decision, and feel awful about it (even if we have no reason to)? Yep, brain chemicals. Some people respond more to punishment, or to risky behaviours; others respond more to reward and comforting behaviours. This explains (very basically) why some people are daredevils and gamblers: they not only see the risk and accept it, they seek it and love it. The expectation of reward is not just enough for them, it drives them.
The reward becomes, at some point, intermittent. It's built into poker machines, and the code for scammers is probably similar. That's right, you might have been texting a computer; had you thought of that? It might not be one person on the other side of the globe, or even two. It could have been a computer, coded to look like someone is typing into WhatsApp or Google Hangouts. It feels like a real person, but now you know that the real owner of that face wasn't the person complimenting you ...
And that brings us back to the start.
Why do we let the scammers in? Expectation of reward (even curiosity is expectation of reward). Why do we continue to let them in? Intermittent positive reinforcement (reward) of desired and approaching-desired behaviours. What neurotransmitters and hormones are working in this deception? Serotonin will make you feel happy; norepinephrine/noradrenalin will make you wake each morning full of anticipation for, and feeling excited at, the sight of every text; oxytocin will cause you to bond with, and feel empathic toward, your scammer; and dopamine will motivate you to act on every impulse, and reward you for doing so.
So, go easy on yourself and don't engage!!!
In Australia, report internet scams on the ACCC's dedicated website: ScamWatch.
In USA, report on this website.
Remember to talk about your experience, and report it on the website where it started. They have to act, and it will help to protect others.
Counselling phone lines in Australia include -
Lifeline (13 11 14), and
BeyondBlue (1300 22 46 36).