Why we get scammed – and how to avoid it

2 min read

Experts says it is not only the naive that can fall victim to scams. Photo / 123RF


The plea from the Nigerian prince seeking help to recover his fortune is an oldie but a goodie in the long list of scams, frauds and cons that millions of people get taken in by every year.

Psychology professor Daniel Simons and co-author Christopher Chabris say we should not feel bad about getting taken in and explain how to avoid it in their book Nobody’s Fool: Why We Get Taken In and What We Can Do About It.

They look at everything from investment cons to fake news and bogus research.


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Daniel Simons told RNZ Afternoons it was not only the naive that could fall victim to scams.

“There are a lot of different mechanisms that we tend to use by default that work great for us most of the time. We call these cognitive tendencies habits because habits are generally things that we’ve learned to do that work really well for us. But if somebody’s trying to deceive us, they can take advantage of them. They’re essentially shortcuts.

“And there also are what we call hooks that are kinds of information that we find really appealing.”

He said to be able to function in society, often people assume the first things said to them as true, “kind of a truth bias”.


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“You can’t constantly be second guessing every single thing we encounter and see and hear from another person. We want to believe that people are true and you have to have a real conversation with anybody.”

Simons said in many cases, people had expectations based on experiences, and that often led to instances such as buying forged art or the spread of fake news.

“Most people don’t want to spread fake news, they don’t want to deceive their friends and their family. But if you get something in social media that perfectly matches what you would expect to be true, whether or not it actually is true, we tend to pass it along.

“We’re really good critical thinkers when somebody presents information that we completely disagree with, we can take it apart. But … what we are expecting, we don’t tend to question.”

He said people did not always question the information they received to avoid becoming socially awkward.

Asking non-combative questions was one way – for example: “What else can you tell me?”

“Get people talking more, and that might lead to more natural Q&A, that might lead to getting more information out of people when you actually need it.”

He said scammers usually targeted people where their mindset was.

“Just because people fall for scams does not mean that they’re gullible all the time. Even highly sceptical critical thinkers can fall for scams if they’re targeted.

“The way to avoid scams is if you look at enough of them and think about the sort of principles underlying them, you start to see those commonalities and you start to see how they’re taking advantage of you. That gives you just enough pause to say, ‘wait a second, is this really true?’ And that question can really help a lot.


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“The other one for big decisions is, ‘if I were scamming me, what would I do if I were trying to fool myself, how would I go about it?’ and thinking about it from the perspective of a scammer can help you reveal ‘what are the risks here, what are the danger points and how can I challenge them?’”

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