Case Study: Scam trajectories - a typical path a scam might follow

by Martina Dove

Scams have typical trajectories they follow. It's important to understand that although the persuasion route may be the same, scammers work hard on updating the stories to mimic current events, so the same scam might look completely different depending on the story.

My name is Martina Dove, Psychology Researcher specialising in the psychology of fraud and scams and I've put together a few examples of frequent scams and trajectories scammers may follow, so you're aware of what to look out for, and hopefully, avoid falling victim to a scam.

Nigerian (419) or advance fee scam

Nigerian scams featuring a Nigerian prince trying to smuggle his wealth out of the country are probably the oldest internet scams. They have been around for decades, most commonly delivered via telephone or post. The language used in these types of scams is usually very specific and designed to prime the victim for future compliance.

There are also quite a few different variants of this scam. Research by Microsoft found that Nigerian scams are now frequently used to identify the most vulnerable victims. The victim's details are put on 'suckers' lists, sold to other scammers to be targeted with different scams over and over.

Trajectory 1

Variants of an advance fee scams also include:

• Wealthy official (often bank official or a solicitor) trying to get funds out of the country
• Wealthy and orphan Syrian girl needs an intermediary to get the funds left by her late parents out of the country (a recent spin off that reflects current events)
• Wealthy but terminally ill widow without family, wanting to donate her wealth to you because she has no beneficiaries
• Lottery winner(s) trying to donate some of their lottery win
• Wealthy, religious person looking for another religious (often Christian but could include other faiths) person to distribute the funds to charities (note that scammers often mimic your values to persuade you)
• Last but not least, the Nigerian astronaut lost in space looking for money to come home

Romance scams

Romance scams typically follow certain paths but there are different persuasion techniques used depending on gender.

Trajectory 2

Types of romance scams differ depending on your gender. Women tend to be targeted based on their emotions, whereas men will typically move on if the scammer does not hold up their end of the bargain, so tend to lose smaller amounts.

By sharing communication of a romantic nature for several months, you are more likely to be heavily emotionally invested in the relationship and will pursue it despite the warning signs. This is called the sunk-cost effect or tendency to invest in something that isn't working, as admission of failure would harm self-esteem. The financial loss is often considerate and the scammer may invent an elaborate story as to why they need the funds temporarily (i.e. to fund a project whilst the bank is approving their loan).

Take a look at some further research on romance scams by Witty (2013) and Witty and Buchanan (2012).

Investment scams

Investment scams can take many shapes: pyramid schemes, investment in stocks and shares etc. They have one thing in common - very high and quick returns.

Trajectory 3

Investment scams often elicit greed and in the past have targetted those in certain senior positions. However, they now tend to be tailored to anyone and often ensnare people who don't actually have much money but are desperate to solve their financial situation or change their life in some way.

The losses can be considerable. These scams also often target retired or elderly people specifically because they may not be familiar with current investment regulations but have funds (i.e. such as mature pensions).

Phishing scams

Phishing scams are extremely prevalent and cheap to execute. Phishing emails rely on you to follow a link to a fraudulent website without deliberation, where your log in details are then stolen. They frequently elicit panic, excitement or greed in order to make you act in haste.

Trajectory 4

Research (Blythe, Petrie and Clark, 2011) into phishing correspondence found that people are primed by visual cues and tend to be less careful if an email contains familiar company logos, such as those received from their bank.

As we can see, scammers conjure and create lengthy types of scams that play on victims emotions, aiming to form a relationship with them to gain their trust. Be aware of the typical trajectories they may follow to keep you safe.

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Martina Dove

Psychology Researcher (specialising in Fraud and Scams)