Confidence trick

Confidence trick

Another day and another email from a Nigerian general arrives in my in-box,
They don’t want to waste their time on people who would be fooled by more sophisticated approaches only to catch on later in the process.  Instead sending the emails that they do allows them to make sure that only the easiest to convince and manipulate will respond.  But why do those people still fall for the confidence trick in the first place?

Contrary to popular opinion it isn’t the case that only the greedy and stupid are likely to be the victim of a confidence trick.  In fact the profile of the typical victim isn’t someone who is uncomfortable with email and the internet but quite the opposite.  The more connections people have on Facebook or LinkedIn the more likely they are to accept unsolicited requests to connect with people.  It is this mixture of social conformity and complacency the people behind the confidence trick use to start to manipulate your behaviour.

One favoured ploy of the scam ‘artist’ is to be likeable, as this is as powerful in leading peoples’ behaviour in a confidence trick as it is in a sales environment.  The rapid building of rapport and the appeal to your evident intelligence, wisdom, or judgement are all ‘positive strokes’ that, done well, can surreptitiously channel our behaviour and decision making.  We all like to think that we are special and the appeal of exclusivity, or of being in on a lucrative insider secret, can be enough to prompt decisions being made on an emotional basis rather than objectively.

Another aspect of rapport used to prime people for a confidence trick is the fact that we tend to socialise and trust people like ourselves.  Shared professions, religions, and clubs can be used by tricksters both to identify victims and to reassure them as well.  The similarities that they trade on can be even more fundamental, as victims of the “Women Empowering Women” Ponzi schemes will have found to their cost.

The fact that we see others doing the same thing can be enough to prompt and validate our own behaviour, and the authority of the ‘wisdom of the crowd’, or even a celebrity’s involvement, can be as persuasive as the referent authority of an expert.  Such widespread popularity, whether real or not, is also used to underline the urgency of making a decision, as the opportunity becomes correspondingly smaller.  This is used to provide a degree of stress that makes the victim of the confidence trick less able to make considered decisions and easier to manipulate.

Our inherently social nature provides other levers that can be pulled by the confidence trickster.  We want to appear, to others and ourselves, as consistent and reliable.  This is why a confidence trick will often involve a trivial commitment or agreement from yourself early on in the process, and which is then referred back to and used to draw out greater and greater commitment and involvement on the part of the victim.

The easiest method of gaining that agreement early in the confidence trick is through aspect of our social nature – our tendency to reciprocate gestures of goodwill.  Hence a valuable thank-you gift or prize might require a contribution to cover the delivery and insurance, given its inherent value.  Not only has the confidence trickster used your natural tendency to return good will against you, he has also established that you have the potential for this commitment to be increased.

Finally there is one further indicator of how likely you are to be caught by a confidence trick, and that is whether you have been caught by one before.  Perhaps counterintuitively previously having been the victim doesn’t make us less liable to be caught again, but sadly more liable.  People who have been the victims of financial fraud will often feel so ashamed and desperate to recoup their losses that they make themselves more even more vulnerable.

Don’t write off the victim of a frauds or confidence trick as being somehow mentally weaker.  Not only are they using the same decision making process as the rest of us (although in a context where it’s been compromised) but that feeling of complacency is exactly what the confidence trickster is relying on when they contact you.

Convinced that you’re too clever to be a victim?  Read my blog post on conspiracy theories and find out why you’re not so far from people who deny the moon landings ever happened.

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