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Psychology behind two common scams

Psychology behind two common scams

Scammers rely on tried and true ways to manipulate how we think and act to make us more vulnerable. IDCARE counsellor Suli Malet-Warden explains how scammers use psychological games to entrap their victims in these two common schemes.

Romance scam

In the initial grooming stage, the scam artist works to gain a high level of trust from their victim to manipulate them into an “ether state”.

Victims in this state characteristically have high oxytocin levels that are increased through “love bombing” - where the criminal validates the victim, tells them how amazing they are, sends love notes and poems relentlessly through the day, and emotionally bombardes them with “love vibes”.

Once in this state, the criminal can start asking the victim for money, citing plausible but unusual reasons such as accidents, lost wallets or banking issues.

The victim is also encouraged to keep messaging the scammer throughout the night, becoming sleep deprived, which has a detrimental effect on brain function.

The scammer will promise an enticing future life with the victim, who will want to believe everything the scammer says and will employ selective thinking to do so.

The victim will block out any observations that contradict the story the scammer is telling them, which is why it can be incredibly difficult for well-meaning friends and family to convince them they’re falling for a scam.

Romance scammers often lure victims in using sexual desire and dreams of an intimate relationship in the future. The stronger the ‘pull’ for sexual connection, the less a victim will notice any gaps or oddities in the scammer’s story.

The ATO scam

Criminals using this scam send victims into “amygdala hijack”.

This evolutionary response shuts down the prefrontal cortex - our rational ‘executive function’ area in the brain - in response to threats to our safety and security, which causes us to act and not think.

Scammers often convince victims of the importance of needing to take immediate action, such as making an immediate payment in the Australian Tax Office scam, and the fear triggered by threats of imprisonment causes amygdala hijack.

When the cash starts flowing

Once the victim starts paying the scammer, they are susceptible to another psychological process called “induction of behavioural commitment” which makes them more motivated to keep giving money with the belief they will get it all back.

The victim will be asked to make small steps of compliance to build trust in the scammer. 

Criminals also ensure the promised story of a better life is made vivid enough so the victim will still feel motivated to give money and continue making faulty decisions. This applies to both the romance and ATO scams, with scammers using the relationship, lottery winnings, or inheritances to suck the victim in.