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The Psychological Trick Scammers Rely on and How to Protect Yourself

3 minute read

The data may show that Americans are losing billions of dollars to fraud each year, yet many consumers still believe they'd never fall for a scam. But scammers rely on certain psychological tactics that mean anyone could become a victim, experts say.

“Everybody says, ‘Oh, this would never happen to me,’” says Megan McCoy, assistant professor of personal financial planning at Kansas State University. “But that's actually a well known cognitive bias that makes us more vulnerable.”

There's one simple and effective trick many scams rely on: emotional manipulation. “They use fear-based tactics to get us into our primitive brain, which is always on alert,” says Alex Melkumian, founder of the Financial Psychology Center.

Scams range from impersonations of federal offices or banks to AI voice cloning that impersonates a family member or friend to pretend romances. The situations scammers create often involve high pressure emotional stakes and tight deadlines—such as claiming a family member has been kidnapped and asking for ransom—which are meant to encourage the individual to spring into action and make choices they wouldn’t normally make. “The emotional part of the brain really just hijacks our ability to rationally think through the situation,” Melkumian says. “It’s no different from the bully on the schoolyard. There’s this immediate pressure to hand over your lunch and you feel like you have no outs, no exit to run away.”

It’s easy to become vulnerable when you’re in a more emotional state, whether because you're worried about a loved one or looking for emotional intimacy. “They really do psychological warfare to make you feel either less lonely, or guilty, or afraid,” says McCoy. “Those core human emotions make us react physiologically instead of intentionally.”

Americans are increasingly falling prey to these scams: FTC data shows that consumers lost more than $10 billion to fraud in 2023, most of which went to investment and imposter scams.

If you find yourself in a situation that might be raising red flags, McCoy suggests reminding yourself to slow down. “I can think of very few cases in life where this bill cannot be paid in an hour or two hours later,” she says. Ask for a number to call back, and take the time to do an internet search and consult those around you.

And if you do find yourself a victim of a scam, try not to feel guilt or shame after the money’s gone. “Have grace with yourself,” says McCoy. “The scammer’s job is to make people fall for their tactics.”

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Write to Simmone Shah at simmone.shah@time.com