Understanding The Science of Scams

science of scams


From fraudsters bilking the elderly by posing as their cash-strapped grandkids, to fake lawyers defrauding immigrants in need of legal help, we’ve discussed many, many different scams in the past. While we all know that there are literally thousands of variations on these crimes, they are all based on the same few premises… And knowing the underlying science of scams can make it easier for consumers to spot and avoid the cons. Thanks to our friends at Consumer Reports for always teaming up to be at the forefront of protecting all of us!

An examination of hundreds of recorded scam pitches by FINRA Investor Education Foundation found that most fraudsters use the same ‘hard sell’ techniques on their targets. But unlike pushy sales people that you encounter at the mall who you can simply walk away from, scammers have other tools in their arsenal, such as being masters of persuasion and having the ability to appeal to one’s emotions.

So, while scams may evolve over time — taking on different targets and appealing to different emotions — most fraudsters subscribe to the same core strategies to lure in victims.


The first objective for most scammers is to keep targets from questioning their motivations. To do this they try to gain one’s trust (or confidence, hence the term ‘con artist’) by creating a connection. This can occur by asking you questions about your health, family, or other hot-button issues.


In order to make themselves look legitimate, most scammers will employ techniques that make them look official. This can include illegally claiming to be from federal agencies, real businesses, or non-profit organizations. Some will even go as far to fake a real phone number in order to fool Caller ID systems. These tactics are often used as a way to dissuade victims from checking for real credentials.


In the grandparent’s scam, a scammer appeals to a family member’s emotions by calling or emailing, claiming to be a grandchild in need of quick cash for an emergency. This is a similar tactic found in the lottery and natural disaster scams, where fraudsters excel at getting targets to make a quick decision based on feelings and emotions rather than logic.

A scammer will go to great lengths to dissuade you from doing your due diligence. The best ones will actually make you feel guilty for even daring to question their motives. Don’t let your common sense fall by the wayside just because someone knows how to tug at your emotions. Scammers are constantly changing their tactics to stay ahead of their victims. But, understanding the science behind their techniques will help protect you from becoming a victim.