Why do people cooperate with scams?

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Scam Compliance and the Psychology of Persuasion

Scams are a variety of fraudulent activity that requires victims’ willing cooperation. So why do victims agree to participate, given that doing so will likely be against their own best interests? Various factors have been identified in research on psychology of persuasion, and some are particularly applicable in motivating compliance with scams.

Building on literature about persuasion, Modic and Lea develop a model of susceptibility, which is used to determine the influences that are strongest in getting people to comply with scams. This approach considers various levels of compliance, from an individual finding the fraud to be plausible (and therefore being open to further participation), to sharing personal information, all the way to giving money.

Individuals were presented with various fraud scenarios (such as fake cheques, phishing schemes, and lottery scams), asked if they had ever been victim of one of these types of fraud and, if so, what influenced their compliance. One study inquired about experiences over the participants’ lifetime, while another focused on incidents of fraud within the last three years.

Four factors were found to contribute to individual susceptibility:

  • Influence of authority (e.g. the degree of trust in authority figures)
  • Social influence (e.g. the power of peers)
  • Self control (e.g. when low, suggests a lack of filter for impulses)
  • Need for consistency (e.g. to seek structure and a desire to honour commitments)

More than half of the respondents found the scams plausible, which is the first step in building their willingness to comply. Once people have shared information, they are more likely to also give money. These findings point to a progression in the compliance with scams, from seemingly innocuous engagement to forms of participation that present greater risks. Respondents who indicated a high need for consistency were more likely to give information and those with low self control were more likely to give money. Student respondents were more likely than non-student respondents to give both information and money, especially in Internet fraud scenarios. Although the study considered demographic factors, the results are inconclusive on the role of age and education level in predicting compliance. For example, younger people appear more sceptical when presented with fraudulent activity, but that suspicion does not necessarily translate to less compliance. In this way, the findings are consistent with the competing results among other studies that consider demographics and compliance.

The factors that influence susceptibility could be considered in fraud prevention and awareness campaigns. Fraud prevention activities could expose the key strategies used in scams to motivate people and provide tools for people to use in filtering what they hear and how they respond.

People fall victim to fraud for a variety of reasons. Security measures that consider fraud susceptibility factors could be more effective.