The Modern Survival Guide #35
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone, and did I mention that I’m a Nigerian prince and I could totally make you rich if I could get just a little help moving my fortune into the US? I also have a bridge to sell you if you’re interested, but if that doesn’t strike your fancy just keep reading, because in this article I’ll be talking about scams.
P. T. Barnum, the grandfather of the circus industry, is famously quoted as having said that “There’s a sucker born every minute.” That’s a bit of an understatement, and it’s inaccurate to boot. The truth is that, under the right circumstances, we’re all suckers. Scam artists make their money by creating those circumstances, and then capitalizing on them. This entry will attempt to cast some light on this process. I’m not claiming this will protect you from all scams, but at least if you read this article the next scammer will have to work harder.
All scams rely on exploiting human nature, specifically the strong motivators: greed, sex, compassion, and fear. We all want money. Most of us want to have sex from time to time. Most of us want to be good people. Most of us are afraid of things. Scams prey on these motivations and add a critical component: hope. Scammers offer hope that we can either gain good things or avoid bad things by engaging in a particular activity that is profitable to them.
The key difference between scams and solutions, of course, is that scammers are lying. Otherwise this is just a good business model.
People like money. This is a statement on par with “water is wet,” or “the Pope is Catholic,” or “dogs exist.” People really like getting lots of money for very little effort. Any good scammer knows this, so watch out for any message, job, ad, or phone call that offers you a lot of money for not very much work.
The classic scam in this arena is, of course, the Nigerian Prince. This is a scam that’s been around for more than forty years, yet still manages to snare new victims in its modern incarnations. In short, the scammer poses as a Nigerian Prince or similar foreign, unknown, but seemingly high-profile figure, and contacts victims with an offer too good to be true: just give him your bank account number, maybe some personal information, and possibly a small amount of “good faith” money, and he’ll use your account to move his money out of Nigeria… and leave you with a cut.
In reality, of course, the scammer is just after bank account numbers, personal info, and the “good faith” money, and once these are provided they use this info to empty your bank account, steal your identity, or just walk off into the sunset with free cash.
These kinds of scams work by preying on hope and greed. The victim hopes the “business offer” is is their ticket to more money, or more power, or more fame.
So, repeat after me: “If it’s too good to be true, it’s a scam.”
No one is likely to give you money for nothing. There are no Nigerian princes who magically found your address. You did not win the lottery if you didn’t buy a ticket. People aren’t going to reach out to you unless you are already known in your field or famous. This simply isn’t how the world works. Keep it real, and don’t fall for these scams.
Sex is probably the most powerful motivation for most people, at least at certain points in their lives. Young men, in particular, are horndogs. This makes lonely people of all stripes, but particularly young men, very vulnerable to certain kinds of scams — specifically catfishing, gold-digging, and honeypots.
Catfishing refers to a scam where the scammer pretends to be someone they aren’t for the purpose of getting the victim to send money or information. And catfishing is absolutely rampant online. For example, does anyone remember Manti Te’o? He was a football player who famously got hooked by a fake online persona. This can happen to anyone online, but particularly people who are involved in online dating.
Catfish scams are all identifiable by a few factors:
- The scammer doesn’t want to meet in person.
- The scammer asks for money or personal information without ever having met the victim in person.
- The scammer asks the victim to join a website in order to exchange information.
Also keep in mind that some sites are more vulnerable to catfishing than others. Free dating apps like Tinder, for example, are rife with catfish because they’re free; it costs nothing to join, and the catfish can simply spam out a profile and wait for the money to roll in.
Avoiding a catfish scam is all about knowing when to cut bait and run, so to speak. Lads of the internet, listen up: no real woman is ever going to ask you to join a different site for the chance to meet up with her. And pen pals aren’t worth money; if someone says they love you online, they need to be prepared to meet in person. Otherwise, just remember there are more fish in the sea.
A gold-digging scam is one where one member of a relationship extracts money or favors from the other party in exchange for promises of physical or emotional intimacy. This might include demands for food, money, jewelry, work, or other favors.
The difference between gold-diggers and catfish is that the gold-digger has met their victim in person, and is in fact banking on the fact that their victim desires them or feels affection for them personally.
The primary difference between a gold-digging scam and a transactional relationship¹ is that a gold-digger never or very rarely follows through on their promises.
In general, I would advise being very wary of any relationship that is built on a transactional foundation. These all carry a risk to slip into gold-digging territory. Otherwise, it’s enough to simply recognize that some people are gold-diggers, detect that behavior early on, and then once again remember that there are more fish in the sea — unless paying for sex was your idea from the start, you shouldn’t be paying for sex.
The Honey Pot
A honey pot scam is when the scammer seduces and then blackmails their victim. This usually occurs when the nature of the relationship is illicit or socially frowned upon — affairs, in particular, carry a honey pot risk, and this is also a favored espionage technique.
In a honey pot scam, the scammer will extort money, favors, or information in exchange for a promise to keep the relationship secret. Of course, as is the nature of all blackmail, this promise can be retracted at any time, thus keeping the victim on the hook.
Honey pot scams work because the victim is almost implicitly doing something they consider wrong, and are fearful of having it revealed. This makes them very hard to get out of; the best, but still awful solution in most cases is to come clean and take the consequences. But since that sentence used the word “consequences,” most people will just stay in the honey pot until they are squeezed dry.
Additionally, it’s nearly impossible to see honey pot scams coming — the only warning sign is that someone is attracted to you, and most healthy people view that as a positive thing. As trite as the advice may be, the best way to avoid honey pots is to not engage in activities that confer blackmail potential. Sometimes being good really is its own reward.
There is an old saying: if there’s blood in the streets, buy property. Scammers often take this advice a little too literally, capitalizing on natural disasters or other instances of human suffering in order to con well-meaning people out of their money.
In the aftermath of hurricanes, for example, scammers often set up fraudulent charitable websites and campaigns that seek to trick people who think they are providing relief funding. These scams may take the form of email solicitations, fake web addresses, redirects from real charity sites, and robo-calls soliciting aid.
The best way to avoid these scams is to do research, pay attention to web addresses, and never provide financial information in response to solicitations. Researching relief scams will provide an immediate list of sites and organizations to avoid. Paying attention to web addresses can help you notice if you’re being redirected or sent to a fraudulent site. Real charities are happy to point you to web donation sites, and won’t push too hard for donations over the phone.
As a general rule, remember: if you didn’t initiate a call, the call is suspect; and if a website looks suspicious, don’t give out your credit card info. If something feels weird, always walk away. You can always donate later, in more comfortable conditions.
Few things motivate people as well as fear — particularly fear of the unknown. Fear-based scams all rely on the same basic tactic: reaching out to the victim, convincing them that something awful is about to happen, and then offering a “solution” to prevent it.
For example, many, many people fall for the “virus removal” scam. This is when someone calls you or you see a pop-up ad claiming to have detected a virus on your computer, and offering to remove it. Please note that no legitimate business does this; it would technically be hacking for them to access your machine remotely, which is legally frowned upon.
Another example is insurance scams where someone claiming to represent an insurance agency calls in the wake of a disaster demanding a premium increase. And still another, similar example would be someone claiming to be from the IRS calling or emailing to demand immediate payment as the result of an “audit” around tax time.
All of these scams, and many others besides, rest on a similar pattern: someone reaching out to you with news of an impending disaster, and asking for or demanding money to resolve it. The easiest way to avoid these scams is to decline immediate payment and do research. The scammer is playing on your panic to force you to make a snap decision — so don’t panic!
Note that no legitimate business will call you demanding payment² — everyone, including the IRS and other government agencies, will send a bill or invoice by mail.
Note also that any legitimate business will allow you to contact their home office or follow up at a brick-and-mortar location in order to verify their claims. Be very wary of anyone claiming to represent a business without a brick-and-mortar location.
Scams rely on keeping you off-balance and pushing your buttons. In almost all cases, your best ally is to stay calm and do some basic research. The internet is full of examples of scams and warnings about ongoing scams; usually a Google search is all you need to figure out whether a business or charity is legit, or whether Microsoft is really calling you to tell you about a virus on your PC.
Finally, there are numerous resources for reporting scams, including government sites like usa.gov’s scam reporting site and the Better Business Bureau. Nearly every major corporation and every government agency will also have their own scam reporting options. If you encounter a scam, one of the best things you can do is report it. It’s a bit like playing whack-a-mole, but it’s the only way to shut the scammers down.
Eventually, we will all fall to a scam. That’s just life; someone will get the drop on you sooner or later. The important thing is to avoid most of them, mitigate the damage from the ones that do hit, and shut down the ones you can identify.
¹I.e., a relationship characterized by tangible exchanges — prostitution may fit this description, but then so do some long-term relationships where the partners view each other in a more businesslike than romantic manner. The classic “sugar daddy” relationship fits this bill.
²There is an exception here for debt collectors, but they will almost always refer you to a website or mailed bill. In any case, always be suspicious of debt-collection calls. You don’t have to pay your debt over the phone.