A new pandemic has hit Singapore – the scam pandemic. In 2022, Singaporeans lost a total of $660.7 million, with 31,728 scam cases reported. And it’s not just the elderly who are vulnerable – contrary to popular belief, 53% of scammed victims are actually aged between 20 and 39 years old.
So if you think you’re safe, you might want to think again.
In this digital age of cunning cheaters and elaborate schemes, how can we outsmart these scammers? We hear from Ms Karyen Chai, a psychologist from Thoughtful Chat, on the psychological tricks swindlers use to confuse and convince.
1. Are there any emerging scam trends or new tactics you’ve noticed in recent years?
“Scams seem to be ever-changing. But most of them target the most basic human fears and human desires: our fear of losing what we have (e.g. loved ones, safety, properties, etc.) and our desire to gain more. Some new scams are also targeting our carelessness and complacency through security breaches.”
2. What are some common psychological tactics used by scammers to manipulate individuals?
Scammers target our fears and desires. Other than security breaches, most scams require us to take action. In order to get victims to take action, scammers can use the following tactics:
- Urgency: “You have to act now!” This is common for many scams.
- Foot in the Door: Scammers start off by asking for small favours, then gradually asking for more. For example, asking you to download an app (Please avoid doing this because that can be a security breach), setting up an account or doing a small task.
- Sunk-cost Fallacy: You keep investing because you have already invested some amount. This is especially common for investment scams or job scams.
- Secrecy: “Don’t tell anyone about this.”
- Weaponizing Kindness: Scammers leverage people’s kindness and helpfulness. This is common for money transfer scams where the scammer transfers the money to the victim’s account “by accident” so the victim helps to shift funds, all while believing it’s a simple act of kindness.
3. How do scammers exploit people’s emotions and vulnerabilities to manipulate them?
Here are some ways scammers target people’s emotional vulnerabilities:
- Fear of Losing: It’s natural that we don’t want to lose what we have, so we take steps to protect them. We don’t want to lose our health, love, property, family, etc.
- Desire to Gain: While not wanting to lose what we have, we also have a desire to gain the above, or to enhance what we already have.
- Kindness and Helpfulness: People are generally nice and we want to be helpful.
- Tired: When tired, our defences are down and we are not able to think as clearly and critically.
- Down on Luck: When one is down on their luck, the fear of losing and desire to gain is enhanced.
4. What can we do to safeguard against emotional manipulation?
Be aware of your own emotional states, and be aware of how your emotional states change according to the environment. For example, you can start by asking yourself some of these questions: Are you feeling agitated and feeling like you need to do something? Why are you feeling that? Are you feeling this way because you received a phone call and you believed it when the caller says that you have to do something right now?
If that is indeed what you are feeling, figure out how you can manage it. Perhaps you can choose to calm down (get that heart rate down and remove yourself from the situation for a while before coming back with a clearer mind). Perhaps you can ask someone you trust to provide a different perspective.
5. Are there specific personality traits or vulnerabilities that make individuals more susceptible to scams?
Research has shown that those who are less emotionally stable may be more susceptible. This is because those who are emotionally stable have some mastery over their emotions.
Those who are lonely and/or have low self-esteem are also more susceptible, as it would be easier for scammers to establish a relationship with them. Those who are down on their luck may also be more susceptible, as mentioned above.
6. Are there specific age groups or demographics that are more targeted by scammers, and why?
Adolescents and the elderly are usually targeted. Adolescents are targeted because their self-concept and understanding of the world may not be fully developed yet, thus the knowledge gap allows scammers to exploit them easily.
The elderly, on the other hand, are targeted because they may be feeling lonely and also potentially have a knowledge gap with new technological developments in the world. Those who are desperate may also be commonly targeted.
7. What are some red flags or warning signs to look out for when encountering potential scams?
If they use any of the tactics mentioned above, watch out. Of course, there’s the disclaimer that some honest non-scammers may use some of these “tactics”, for example, charity donation drives that rely on our kindness. We should not stop being the good people we are, but we need to know where our limits are.
Besides that, it’s also a red flag if they are directing you through various channels (e.g. they’re contacting you through multiple social media platforms, or they pass you off to multiple agents). Again, some non-scammers may also do that – but if there are multiple redirects, it could be a scam.
Additionally, one should always check if they are from a legitimate source. Check using other portals, not the ones that they provide. For example, if they claim to be from IRAS, tell them that you will call IRAS when you have time to verify the issue.
Be aware of your emotions. Think critically. Get a second perspective. Stay vigilant.