Do you think you can spot a scam a mile off? Have you ever scoffed at stories about others falling victim, saying ‘I’d never have fallen for that’? A new Which? Money investigation reveals the truth is far less comforting.
Fraudsters are master manipulators, adept at using language, psychology and even our own deeply held values against us.
Which? has been granted exclusive access by the City of London Police to a model script fraudsters followed to dupe nearly 200 people out of £7.5m in total a number of years ago.
It serves as a fascinating and terrifying example the psychological techniques fraudsters use on their victims. Here, we share their six tricks of persuasion.
In this case shared with Which?, a ruthless gang posed under several different names to target vulnerable and elderly victims from 2008 until 2011, when they were shut down by the City of London Police.
The fraudsters bought cheap agricultural land and sold it for far more than it could ever be worth by making false promises about its future value.
More brazen still, they also sold land they didn’t own. Umbrella companies were then set up to launder their ill-gotten gains.
Six defendants were found guilty of fraud offences and sentenced to a combined total of more than 40 years behind bars.
Detective inspector Marcus McInerney, who led the case, said their crimes left victims ‘destitute’, adding: ‘The nasty selling techniques, which ultimately intimidated and deceived victims and forced them to part with their hard-earned money, were an added humiliation.’
Six principles of persuasion
In the 1980s, leading psychologist Robert Cialdini outlined a ‘theory of influence’ listing six common tactics used to persuade.
While commonly used by fraudsters, these tactics aren’t exclusive to them – they can be used by anyone wishing to persuade you to do something.
Whether their use is ethical depends on whether the claims being made are true, showing the extreme importance of doing your own checks (more on this later).
Fraudsters want victims to feel a psychological need to ‘repay’ a perceived favour from someone they feel has behaved selflessly or generously.
The script we’ve obtained asks:
‘So if you do love this market and I put a position your way on a spectacular plot in an area with government support, is there anyone else who may slow down your process of coming on board?’
It doesn’t merely offer an investment scheme – it appears to do the victim a favour by putting a position their way on something they already ‘love’.
This means the victim is primed to repay this ‘kindness’ by seizing the opportunity, and not – as the fraudster mentions – letting anyone else ‘slow down [the] process’.
Fraudsters play on our need to show others that our current behaviour is consistent with how we’ve behaved in the past. They can do so by making small requests at first, then escalating their demands.
In the script, the victim is initially asked if they consent to receiving a brochure – a relatively small and benign-sounding request. The fraudster also tags lots of questions onto the ends of supposedly factual statements. For example:
‘And it’s good to know that your investment is being helped by the government rather than hindered, isn’t it…?’
If the victim habitually responds ‘yes’ to these smaller questions and requests, they may then be reluctant to change tack by later refusing to invest.
Fraudsters take advantage of our tendency to believe something, or behave in a particular way, if other people appear to believe the same thing or behave in that way.
This can clearly be seen in the script, where the scheme is presented as if it already appeals to a critical mass of shrewd investors:
‘We speak to individual investors who make their decisions based on their own good judgment, and are liquid and ready to strike a bargain.’
Fraudsters know that we have a tendency to trust people who appear likeable and similar to ourselves.
The script adopts a consistently warm and genial tone, encouraging friendly informality by saying:
‘By the way, please do call me […] I’ve got your first name down as […], do you mind if I call you [that]?’
We also have a tendency to trust and comply with the requests of those perceived to be in a position of authority.
Appeals to authority are abundant in the script. It grandiosely describes the scam as a ‘private client brokerage’ and implies the speaker has special insight and stature in the land investments sector:
‘So you can clearly see how we secure a much safer position, using our knowledge to offer the best locations.’
It goes even further, repeatedly citing authoritative sources, such as the BBC and government, to lend a veneer of respectability.
This is the tendency to believe that scarce goods, services and opportunities are better than those that aren’t scarce.
The script encourages the view that land investment opportunities are scarce by saying:
‘Now, unfortunately, we don’t have anything currently available for someone new to the market, and be assured that [the senior broker] will only call you should something come up that is perfect for you.’
Yet it stresses the need to strike first if the ‘rare’ opportunity does arise – which of course it will:
‘And if he does find something for you, all he will need from you is a simple “yes” or “no”. What he won’t have time for is “I need to think about it”. That’s fair, isn’t it?’
Staying safe from scams
If you encounter the persuasive techniques above you can follow these tips to protect yourself:
- Ask the FCA: If you’re being offered an investment, always check with the Financial Conduct Authority to see whether a firm or individual’s activities are authorised, or whether it’s issued a warning about them.
- Get a call blocker: If you’re plagued by cold calls, a call-blocking system can help stop them. People with dementia may be eligible for a free device – contact National Trading Standards.
- Join the TPS: The Telephone Preference Service is a free register that records your preference not to receive unsolicited sales or marketing calls on a mobile or landline.
For more advice on avoiding cons see our how to spot a scam guide.