Posted by: Martin | March 10, 2010

The psychology of scams

I just found this quite interesting study on the psychology of scams made by the University of Exeter in the UK:

The study covers the UK, but I think there are many lessons in the study that are useful for foreigners attempting to do business in the Ivory Coast.

Some excerpts:

it was striking how some scam victims kept their decision
to respond private and avoided speaking about it with family members
or friends. It was almost as if with some part of their minds, they knew
that what they were doing was unwise, and they feared the
confirmation of that that another person would have offered. Indeed to
some extent they hide their response to the scam from their more
rational selves.

There are clear downsides with providing too much information on the internet relating to ones’ business endeavors, but this is an updside I hadnt thought about before, that putting ideas up for scrutiny will cause the silliest ones, those that may involve falling for a scam, to be shot down.

Another counter-intuitive finding is that scam victims often have better
than average background knowledge in the area of the scam content.
For example, it seems that people with experience of playing legitimate
prize draws and lotteries are more likely to fall for a scam in this area
than people with less knowledge and experience in this field. This also
applies to those with some knowledge of investments. Such knowledge
can increase rather than decrease the risk of becoming a victim.

While I think this paragraph is mainly about some knowledge vs no/little knowledge it is a good reminder that one should be wary of overconfidence, and not be so sure in one’s own knowledge that one stops to question things.

Our research suggests that there is a minority of people who are
particularly vulnerable to scams. In particular, people who reported
having previously responded to a scam were consistently more likely to
show interest in responding again. Though a minority, it is not a small
minority; depending on how it is assessed, it could be between 10 per
cent and 20 per cent of the population. Furthermore, the research
suggests that the vulnerability is not specific to the persuasive
techniques most characteristic of current common mass marketed
scams, though it does include them. This means that there are other
techniques, which scammers do not currently use very much, which
would put people further at risk if they were introduced.

The existence of individual differences in general persuadability throws
some light on the fact that some people become ‘chronic’ or serial scam
victims: it would not be surprising to find that such victims are
exceptionally highly persuadable – though that is unlikely to be the
complete explanation of chronic victimhood, as other factors such as
cognitive impairment are likely to be of some relevance.

Well, those 10% – 20% should probably avoid attempting to do any business in a place like the Ivory Coast. That is,  given that they are aware of being in the 10-20% group which may be unlikely.

The study deals mostly with scammers approaching people. While that might well happen in the Ivory Coast, my main worry is about figuring out whether people I approach are fraudsters/scammers.  Regardless of who does the approach I’d say scammers exploit the same psychological vulnerabilities, so it’s good to be aware of those vulnerabilities. The Exeter study outlines  psychological vulnerabilities quite clearly in the executive summary.

And well, guess it’s a good time to point out that I find the people of the Ivory Coast on average pretty great, and it is definitely not a country populated by scam artists. It’s just that, like anywhere, some people, given the wrong incentives are likely to be dishonest, and as previously discussed the incentives look different in a country such as the Ivory Coast.



  1. You go into any Cyber Cafe, other than the big hotels, and you’l find them full of scammers, having paid for a 10 hour session or more !!

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