How Scammers Leverage Their Knowledge of Human Psychology to Trick You

Zulie Rane

I got scammed three years ago by someone who made me feel beautiful and flattered. They didn’t take anything except money, but it was still enough to make me feel embarrassed about it and avoid telling anyone what had happened.

It made me think about how expertly I’d been manipulated — from the second someone caught my attention to even now, three years later, still feeling what they want me to feel: the fear and shame of having been tricked.

As a student of the human psyche, I wanted to understand what it is that scammers do, how they can put you through their hoops with seemingly no effort. And this is what I’ve come up with.

Here’s how scammers work: They will take three things from you.

First, they prey on your optimism, on the best idea you have of yourself. Then they take what they came for — your money, your time, whatever it is they’re after. And finally, they leave, taking your sense of dignity.

They take the best part of you

If I walked around the world as a cynical, jaded, sarcastic girl, always expecting to be cheated, I wouldn’t have been scammed.

I also would be a bitter, dry husk of a person with no friends.

Scammers rely on people like me, people who live in eternally optimistic sunshine. People like me who expect the best of people, who take a compliment at face value and don’t think about how unlikely it is that someone just so happens to say exactly what I want to hear at just the right time.

So when someone approached me and a friend after an afternoon of shopping and told us we looked like stylish women who’d be interested in a fun day out in London, receiving a heavily discounted photoshoot where we’d get our hair and makeup done, I didn’t think twice.

I had a single twinge of misgiving — after we’d handed over our cash and walked off, tickets in hand, I turned around for one last look of our admirer. But he was gone already.

I put it out of my mind. I didn’t want to believe I’d been tricked, after all.

They take your money

For the “cheap” price of £60 each (around $75), we bought our tickets for the event. We went to London a week later, were plied with plentiful Buck’s Fizz, and had our hair and makeup done. We had several lovely shots taken, with props and costume changes and lighting options.

At the end of the event, they took us to a huge computer, poured us a few more glasses of off-brand Buck’s Fizz, and showed us the pictures. We ooh’ed and ahh’d our way through the slideshow, our host complimenting our flawless skin while simultaneously showing us what the pictures would look like with various levels of retouching.

Finally, we got to the sell. We could choose one to keep each and could pay an additional £50 for any additional photo we wanted. Any photoshop would, lamentably, cost us more fees, too.

My friend and I looked at each other. We each wanted a solo shot, but there were so many cute ones of the two of us together, too, that the photographer had encouraged us to take. And wouldn’t it be such a shame if we didn’t have a memento of our fun day out?

Slightly buzzed from the bubbly and sentimental, we agreed to get one more of us together, splitting the cost between us.

They take your dignity

On the train back to Oxford, my friend showed me something on her phone. It was a Groupon for the exact same deal we’d done for just £20. The man we’d bought our tickets from had told us they were typically £200.

I leaned back in my seat, feeling a rising sense of shame burning through me. We’d been tricked so capably, so fully, so comprehensibly. I’d really believed that just because of our cute style and fresh faces, we’d somehow earned these vouchers, that we deserved this discount.

So I arrived back in Oxford, told all my friends what a marvelous time I’d had. I showed them the pictures we’d taken. I bounced my artfully curled hair and smiled at how fun the experience had been. And I told nobody how thoroughly I’d been fooled, how much my vanity had been leveraged against me.

If you feel tricked, after all, if you feel ashamed of having fallen into their trap, you’ll be less likely to tell a friend who’d also fall into the same trap. And isn’t it a much better story, that we got scouted as fashionable, attractive young ladies, than saying we got pegged as the kind of girls who would fall for something like this?

Lots of people wonder how on earth some scammers make their living. How do they persuade people to part with their hard-earned money? How can they convince folks that they’re worth wasting time on? How is it that they fool people into buying the most incredulous tales?

They do it with a subtle understanding of human nature most of us don't possess. They look for people who want to be fooled, and they sell us what we already want to believe. I bought an overpriced ticket, yes, but I also bought the idea that I was glamorous and that I’d been picked out from a crowd. They look for folks who believe they’re special — which is most of us.

Then they wield that to get you to spend your money. Having already sunk £60, not including the price of the train ticket, I spent an additional £25 — why? Because I still didn’t want to believe I’d been tricked. I wanted to keep living the fantasy.

And finally, they leech away your dignity. We’re all prone to a bit of pride. Nobody likes to admit they’ve been caught out. And all it lets them do is perpetuate the trick.

I feel embarrassed about being scammed, but I also can’t help but admire the thorough use of psychology that was wielded to part me and my friend from our money. And if you’re ever in Oxford and told that you look so beautiful that you should be a model, you can believe it. But don’t buy it.

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