Comment | Inside the mind of the online scammer
When Dame Helen Mirren revealed she had been the victim of a “humiliating” scam on the press junket for her latest movie (in which, coincidentally, she also plays the victim of a hoax), it highlighted how everyone needs to be on their guard against fraudsters. Even members of the royal family are not immune, as was illustrated when Prince Charles was dragged into a major counterfeit art scandal. But what motives scammers, other than greed? I believe the answer can be gleaned by investigating why humans lie in the first place.
Online fraudsters carry out a sophisticated and well-planned array of deceiving strategies to con people. These include romance scams in which the victim is enticed to contribute cash to foster a fake romantic relationship, fraudulent lotteries, prize draws, sweepstake games and auction sites. Substantial winnings are offered if the victim can send in some cash.
The fraudsters are constantly building better mousetraps in order to lure in increasingly sophisticated mice. For example, scams are being personalised to the victim by including references to familiar people or by targeting the victim’s occupation.
What’s behind the deception?
Scams are carried out using almost untraceable methods, so the criminals are often unknown, despite concerted efforts by law enforcement to identify and prosecute them. But the knowledge from several disciplines (ethology, social psychology and criminology) can help us to understand them.
Deception to ensure survival
Ethologists study animal behaviour. They have observed that species, including humans, have developed a complex means of deceiving their prey in order to ensure their survival. For example, ethologists have identified complex forms of deceptions in other species, such as the jumping spider, which uses behavioural and chemical mimicry. This allows them to coexist with ants and feed on them. This is regarded as comparable to humans engaging in embezzlement by which they use their privileged access to resources and reputation for illegally extracting finances from other people.
Social psychologists have found that when humans lie for altruistic purposes or advancement of the group, the lie is often praised rather than denigrated. For example, even young children (aged between five and seven) show a willingness to tell “white lies” in order to make others feel better. Meanwhile other research shows that adults perceive lying that benefits others (because sometimes the truth hurts) as more “ethical” than honest statements.
Typical and serious lies
Social psychological research shows that lying is part of normal life. Frequently, people tell everyday lies that are rather benign. Most of these lies are self-serving, but many are designed to benefit others.
People most often tell “serious lies” to their closest relationship partners. They tell serious lies in order to avoid punishment, protect themselves from confrontation, appear a highly desirable person, to protect others and also to hurt their partner. Common serious lies tend to involve affairs and taking money from others without their knowledge.
Liars, fraudsters and corruption
Frauds represent a complex array of deceptive behaviour that originates in species and arises, in part, from some of the typical motivations for deception. It is, of course, a criminal activity that is well understood by criminologists. Most criminals are typically male and have parents with criminal records, delinquent peer friends, arrests at a young age and come from poor areas with higher crime rates.
Today’s most common online scams are often carried out by people from poor countries. These countries and their government officials are generally regarded as corrupt by international corruption indexes. Such corruption conveys the message that deception is a desirable strategy. Poverty combined with high corruption contributes to a heightened motivation to deceive others for survival.
The criminals in question tend to have traits of psychopathic and antisocial personality disorders. Research has investigated illegal downloading and hacking in adolescents from 30 countries. It was found that “cyber deviance” was mostly carried out by males and by people who experienced “school disorganisation” (stealing and vandalism) and “neighbourhood disorganisation” (having untrustworthy or criminal neighbours).
These “cyber deviants” tend to have elevated cognitive ability and, of course, have access to computers and technology. This type of fraud is often well planned and the fraudsters employ a range of deceptive tactics.
The law tries to keep these criminals at bay. In September 2019, Operation reWired in the US succeeded in prosecuting 281 email scammers from several countries.
But the large numbers of fraudsters who combine deceptive and complex strategies make it extremely difficult to keep these crimes under control. So an understanding of how their minds work and their modus operandi is vital if one is to avoid becoming a victim.