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Why do people fall for believe Internet Scams, and once in, refuse to get out? What can you do to help them?

Updated on June 19, 2012


You'd think that human beings, after having evolved for so long, would have evolved behind scamming each other. Unfortunately, old scams such as pyramid schemes simply find new ways to express themselves with modern technology. One such example is scam spread via the Internet, which can arrive in variety of forms, such as 419, sweetheart, HYIP, Ponzi, and more.

This hub attempts to explain how a scam works, what sort of people are vulnerable, and what can be done to "rescue" such people. We will be discussing a bit of psychology, but in very plain English, as well as the tactics that scammers use to get you to fall for their scam. We will discuss how to spot such scams, and how to help your friend if they had fallen for such a scam and they don't see it (but you do).

First of all, what sort of people are vulnerable to scams?

Dilbert: Dogbert on Gullibility


What is Credulity and Gullibility?

Credulity is usually defined as "tendency to believe in ideas or things that lack adequate supporting evidence and/or are ridiculous."

If a person is credulous, you can convince him of almost anything, such as "sun rises from the west", and "water flows uphill". When Ratbert said "I'd like that and I don't know why", he's credulous of almost anything Dogbert said.

However, credulity is NOT gullibility. Believe in ridiculous things does not necessarily cause any sort of financial or physical loss and/or mental anguish later. Believing that sun rises from the West does not really have adverse effect on the person (unless they are lost and is trying to navigate by the sun, but that's another story.)

Gullibility can be best described as a "tendency to be duped / deceived / defrauded, repeatedly". The difference between credulity and gullibility is being gullible requires you to actually DO something, to confirm the belief. For example, Dogbert asked Ratbert "to wear uniforms and chant my name [Dogbert]" or in case of a scam, the scammer asked the victim to hand over money and/or other bits of information.

If you think of it a different way, credulity and gullibility is a trust issue. The victim is placing trust in the other party without sufficient evidence that s/he can be trusted. This is sometimes called naivete, of simply being naïve and innocent.

Big practical jokes, such as the ones pulled on Ashton Kutchner's Punk'd, requires a close friend to act as the betrayer. The "victim" trusts the betrayer, who will then betray the trust by setting up some ridiculous situation, only to reveal it was a big joke later.

The same thing happens in a scam, where the person who you thought was doing you a favor, will betray you and left you with losses, and it won't be a joke.

Which is why a scam is sometimes also called a "con", which is short for "confidence game", where the scammer gains your confidence, and betray you later. A more "legalese" term is "affinity" scam, and it comes in bazillion different forms. Essentially, ANY sort of relations that involves even a little bit of trust can be a target of affinity scam.

With the power of the Internet, what was previously limited to phone, fax, and mail, can now to sent to thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people in a very short time, and someone may just be gullible enough to bite....

[ for more on gullibility, see my hub: How does a Person become Gullible ]

The 3+1 stages of a scam

An affinity scam always have three stages, with an optional fourth stage.

  1. Tease
  2. Please
  3. Seize
  4. (optional) Squeeze

The Tease

In a scam, there's always the tease... it offers you a tantalizing glimpse of what may be possible... to entice you to act, such as click on a link, call a number, reply to the email, answer the offer/flyer/brochure, attend a meeting, and so on.

There's often a good story (dead dictator left money that need to be moved out of the country) and a hook (the guy will split the money with you), but the idea is to get you to look a bit closer.

The Please

Once you bit the hook, they start to reel you in by promising you more and more stuff. They do want to please you, in whatever way possible. This is all in preparation for the seize.

There will often be fake training, fake negotiation, fake testimony, fake earnings report, and other sort of "legitimacy / authenticity" evidence that are either faked or doesn't say what you think they said. This can come in several forms, but most often used is flood, where they simply overwhelm you with information that you can't tell which are lies and which are truths.

The Seize

This is where they get you to cough up money, often by concocting some sort of excuse, by changing the rules and the playing field on you. What you thought was a set situation before? None of that matters now. Everything changed, and you are forced to make a decision quickly. There is an artificial deadline, and appeal to your emotion. You are not given enough information to make a proper evaluation given the time available.

Some sort of artificial deadline is given: there's an schedule audit, there's a deadline for results, there's a limited time offer, and so on and so forth, and the excuse for money always sounded so legitimate: it's for taxes, it's for reimbursement, it's for fee, etc. etc.

(Optional: The Squeeze)

if you look especially gullible, the scammer may decide to go for an extra step... try to squeeze even MORE money out of you by convincing you to "upgrade". Not all scams have this extra fourth step, but a long-term scam, such as a sweetheart scam or investment scam, may have this step, where the scammer convince you to put in even MORE money to "make back the losses". What you thought was a free benefit turned out to cost "taxes and fees".

[For more discussion on 4 stages of a scam, read my hub ]

What are Some Common Signs of a Scam?

Ernest Hemingway said it best: "every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector", and it starts with the questions you ask above. Scammers overwhelm you with crap info. So how do you spot crap info and tune your "crap detector"? Start by asking the following questions:

  • What was said?
  • Who said that? Who wrote it? (if it's anonymous, maybe you shouldn't believe it)
  • When was it said? (is it fresh, or more like a rotting zombie?)
  • Did that person still say that now, if it was said a while ago? (if not, why?)
  • Can I trust this person? Why should I? (if a person pushed 6 different failed MLM, and is now pushing a 7th venture, why should I believe this person now?)
  • Is what was said a logical statement, or a logical fallacy? (Look up the different ones)
  • If it's a comparison, is the comparison valid? (a lot of bad comparisons are logical fallacies as well)
  • Is there third-party evidence to support what was said? (if there's no proof, then you shouldn't believe the statement, like "We'll be like Google and Facebook.")
  • Can I trust the third-party evidence? (who is this "third-party"? Are they real info or just "cheerleader" information? )

[ For more on how to spot real nuggets of info in a sea of crap, read my other hub ]

Why Do People In a Scam Continue Believing In It?

Those of you who had seen a friend fell for a "scam" that was obvious to you should know exactly what I am talking about: it was so obviously a scam to you, but your friend seems to be completely oblivious to it. S/he insists that you are wrong, it's not a scam, s/he'll be rich in no time, and so on and so forth. If you insist, they may get angry and accuse you of various things like jealousy, don't want s/he to succeed, and so on.

They have a couple afflictions: confirmation bias, negativity avoidance, and sunken cost fallacy.

Confirmation Bias is basically a mental filter that only keeps information that confirms his or her beliefs and dumps everything else. A person who believe in a scam would ignore warnings from friends, family, even police, as well as other signs of danger and suspicion. Those signs simply have been weighed, and found wanting, and thus are discarded as irrelevant. And it may be an inherited condition, according to some recent research.

[ Read more on confirmation bias in my other hub ]

Negativity Avoidance, on the other hand, is basic psycho-babble used by new-age gurus as a part of their motivation mumbo-jumbo. Basically, you are told that in order to be successful, you need to avoid negativity, i.e. people who tell you "no". Frankly, that is crap advice, as irrational positivity is recklessness, and rational negativity is what stops you from doing stupid things. By embracing irrational positivity and discarding rational negativity, you do really stupid and reckless things you would not otherwise do... such as join a scam.

[ Read more on "Dream Stealers" and why Avoiding Negativity is a Very Stupid Thing to do ]

And finally, "sunken cost fallacy" is basically "I've invested this much into it already (sunken cost)", I have to justify all that effort. Maybe I just need to work a little harder, spend a few more hours..." Humans are "loss averse", which means that they evaluate losses as being "more relevant" than gains. For example, given the two scenarios:

a) You have 50. I flip coin. If heads, you get 50 more. If tails, you lose 50.
b) You have 100. I flip coin. If heads, you keep 100. If tails, you lose 100.

The odds are exactly the same: 50% chance of 0, 50% chance of 100. Yet majority of people chose a) instead of b), because b) is viewed a loss: you start with 100, and you can LOSE all 100.

People with effort and money already invested are often reluctant to simply cut the losses and end the bleeding, due to this aversion to loss, which often leads to further losses.

[ Read more about "Sunken Cost Fallacy" on YouAreNotSoSmart ]

So What Can You Do To Help the Gullible?

First thing you need is to keep a skeptical mind, and some humbleness. After all, if you are gullible yourself, then you can't exactly help another person, can you?

Thus, the biggest hurdle in overcoming gullibility is to admit that you don't know enough.

"I know one thing: that I know nothing." -- Socrates

Just admit that you don't know enough to decide on what to believe. It really is that simple. Leave your ego for something else.

  • Admit Ignorance: I don't know what to believe as I don't know enough

The remaining two steps are actually very simple:

  • Healthy Skepticism:I refuse to believe either side until I know enough

You will conduct your own research, using the "find nuggets of info" link above, for real information that you can base your decision on. You refuse to be hurried into making a hasty decision. You also will verify all information as proven, or unproven.

  • Deliberate Action: I refuse to act until I know what I believe

Once you have determined what to believe, you can then act according to your own decision, not the sort of pseudo-decision that you are influenced into making.

Once you have practiced enough, teach this three step process your friend, and analyze the results with him, and hopefully that's enough to point him in the right direction.


Scams are common, but with a bit of help such as some humbleness, some research, and some persistence, Internet scams can be detected and avoided, as they are the same scams, only spread through a different medium. All you really need is a healthy dose of skepticism and access to Internet.

Stay safe out there.


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