What Makes A Person Good Scam Bait?

We all like to think we’re basically scam-proof, and that our reason and skepticism will protect us from even the most talented hustlers. More likely, we just haven’t encountered those hustlers yet.

In this report from the University of Cambridge, the authors review a series of short cons run by pros on the UK series The Real Hustle, then they summarize what they believe are seven principles of human behavior that work against us when we’re being targeted in a scam.

  1. Distraction – When we’re distracted, we miss important cues.
  2. Social Compliance – We’re trained to obey authority, especially in tense situations.
  3. Herd Mentality – We look to others to see whether we should consider something risky, but that’s not always the best way to gauge risk.
  4. Dishonesty – If we’re willing to engage in dishonest behavior, we’re more likely to take on risk–and less likely to report a scam to authorities.
  5. Deception – Once we believe something to be true when it isn’t, we’re easy marks.
  6. Need and Greed – What we want makes us vulnerable, especially once the scammer figures out what it is.
  7. Time Compression – The less time we have to make a decision, the more likely we are to use a simpler, less accurate reasoning process–one that makes us more vulnerable to scams.

That’s all great, but you should really grab the 22 page report and read it yourself, especially if you like reading about con artists and scams. The actual scams described are just plain fun to read, but the authors also use the short cons shown on The Real Hustle to illustrate how these principles work in the real world.

Here are couple of examples. Under Social Compliance, the authors talk about the “home alone” scam, where a person is lured into a home to buy a car. After handing over money, fake cops show up and “arrest” the seller. The cops take the money and the car and warn the mark to sit still and shut up while they sort things out. He usually does just that.

The second author recalls his impression of the victim’s “deer in headlights” reaction in home alone: while observing this particular mark, he quickly noticed that the subject was extremely easy to manipulate
and very open to suggestion. The sudden change in circumstances, his respect for authority and, most importantly, his desire to “sort things out” and get away gave the author a very powerful influence over him. Despite his protests and complaints, it was clear he could be made to do anything in order to get out of this situation. In the end Wilson ordered him to stay in his seat until further notice: “if not, I’m going to arrest you!”. Wilson then walked outside, jumped into the car and drove off. The mark sat in the chair for over 20 minutes.

Here’s another fun part from the Dishonesty section:

There’s a certain look every mark gets when they really bite into the hook. They realize they apparently stand to make a lot of money, or get an amazing bargain, and they immediately try to hide their excitement. Some hide their feelings better than others but that moment when the scam “gets them” is always the same. The second author of this paper studied
con games since he was a kid, but found that executing them requires a much deeper understanding. The lesson from taking down this mark was that people accept their own ideas and thoughts more readily than
ideas presented to them by others. Through scams like this one, we understand how hustlers can lead a mark to a conclusion. This is why many con artists patiently groom their marks before slowly building a con around them.

“Understanding scam victims: seven principles for systems security” [Cambridge Computer Laboratory]
“The Psychology of Being Scammed” [Schneier on Security via BoingBoing]

The Real Hustle [YouTube]


Edit Your Comment

  1. umbriago says:

    I really think it’s the same thing every time, the old something for nothing: greed.

    • floraposte says:

      Then you might find it valuable to read the paper, because they have several examples of people who became victims without having any greed at all.

  2. xsmasherx says:

    I noticed that a lot of Nigerian scam letters don’t tell you directly what your “cut” is – they tell you the amount of the transaction and that you’ll make 10%, or something like that. Also, the numbers are usually spelled out, not written with numerals.

    I wonder if that’s an attempt to engage you by making you do the math yourself.

  3. Cat_In_A_Hat says:

    I watched every clip of the Real Hustle online before going to study abroad in Europe and every lesson I learned I still use today. It amazes me how easy one can be scammed into handing over money or letting a stranger convince you to do something you normally wouldn’t. The only sad thing about this show is I’m sure some slimey person out there has studied every second of it in order to learn how to scam others, the main reason why the US pulled the American version of it off of tv.

  4. Nytmare says:

    “More likely, we just haven’t encountered those hustlers yet. “

    I think it’s more likely that those hustlers aren’t going to bother targeting people who aren’t going to fall for a scam. And some people just don’t put themselves into situations where they can be turned into marks. Scammers go after the easy marks, and the high success rate with their targets makes it seem to the outsider like everyone’s a sucker.

    • flugennock says:

      “More likely, we just haven’t encountered those hustlers yet. “

      Oh, I sure as hell have; they try and bait me in every four years. They’re called the Democratic Party. They try and soften me up by appealing to my progressive values before they pull the classic bait’n’switch. They suckered me just once — in 1992. Taught my ass a lesson, but good.

      It’s like you said, though — they know who can’t be suckered, and stick to the easy marks, and there’s millions of ’em in this country.

  5. metsarethe... says:

    being old…

  6. Telekinesis123 says:

    What about narcissists? They are incredibly vulnerable to scams.

  7. Bunnyhat says:

    I got caught in the short change scam once. Even while it was happening I kept doubting I was doing something wrong, but the end the deer in the headlights is a great anagoloy cause I ended up giving the guy an extra 20$ anyway.

    Right after he left I counted my register and knew it was short. I knew what he did and just got caught. He gave me 20$ to start and then just kept switching out what bills he wanted to pay with in a classic example of the scam.

    Of course it failed for him because it was a video rental store and he did the scam while renting movies on his account. We knew his name and his address. Wasn’t worth us calling the police over, but we did close down his account, blacklist him from opening a new account through that video chain.

    • GuyGuidoEyesSteveDaveâ„¢ says:

      And who was this taker of too much change? Why none other than Mitch Lowe, who went on to become the President of RedBox. And now you know…the rest…of the story.

  8. TheDoctor says:

    Is it just me or do numbers 2, 5, 6, and 7 also seem to apply to buying cars?

  9. Scuba Steve says:

    Well, to be honest, I recently purchased a DVD Collection, which had at other online places gone for 300-500 dollars, for a staggering $125. Now, I knew that whole deal with “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” routine, and it was on EBay, notorious for scammers. I was very close to not doing it.

    But I did it. I used a credit card, which has charge back protection. I figured, the worst I could lose was some of my time, and a bit of hassle for getting the money back.

    And I know you’re thinking “Well? What happened?” I got the collection in the mail, everything’s in order, and I’m as happy as a clam.

  10. Ben Popken says:

    Greed is the biggest one.

    • floraposte says:

      Sure, but I think it’s important to note that there are plenty common scams that you can fall for without being greedy. Greed-null doesn’t mean scam-proof.

  11. JessPress says:

    I once almost been victim of a scam.

    When I was 16, I spent the summer at my uncle house in Mexico. I was at the beach with my aunt, and being a good tourist, i bought jewelery from a vendor. He then went back to us and claimed that I had given him a fake 20 pesos bill. He kept saying to my aunt (since French is my first language, English my second, and Spanish… well you see where I’m going here…) that he knew the bill was fake since it did not have the little windows on it. He wanted another bill. That was odd because I clearly remembered saying to myself while paying the guy : ” Wow, there is a windows on this bill… I can see right through it “.

    My aunt argued with him, refusing to give him another 20 pesos bill to replaced the “fake” one. He finally shrew the “fake” bill and walked away.

    Now, I was with my aunt, who is a local, but have I been alone, not speaking Spanish very well, it is very likely that I would have felt for it.

    This is not a very big scam, since 20 pesos was worth 2 US dollars at the time (5 years ago) but it can be quite profitable if you catch many tourists.

  12. quail says:

    I can’t wait to read all of this. For my two cents worth, I know a fair number of salesmen who’ve been suckered by ‘deals’. Transactions that scream that they’re shady, and these guys walk right in and take the hook. You’d think a salesman would be the last to fall prey to a crooked scheme. But they’re not. I guess the characteristics that make up a typical salesman — greed, narcissism, etc. — are easy fodder for the con.

  13. HogwartsProfessor says:

    Oooh thanks for the PDF. What a great research opportunity for future book characterizations.

    I have a little book about cons, but it’s not all scientific.

  14. cambook2 says:

    I think everyone probably is scammed at least once in their life. For my sister, it is all the time. She is so trusting in people that I think is the reason why she’s scammed all the time. There are even people who claim to be her friend, but never take vacations with her or call or go to a movie but yet they are there when they need money (which she doesn’t really have but will give to them anyway). I’ve tried talking with her about this, offered to help teach her how to avoid scams. But she doesn’t seem to want my help plus said that it’s just the way things are done in the South (she lives in South U.S.).

    So sad that fraud and scams are so commonplace that a person thinks it’s just a way-of-life and just the way things are!

  15. cambook2 says:

    I used to work identifying fraud in loan files. So I love this article and reading about how to avoid scams and identify fraud in anything.

    These are perfect examples of my sister. She has been a mark for probably her whole life. Lost out on thousands of dollars over the years. I’ve tried getting her to let me help her understand and avoid these scams but she seems to not want my help and just gets angry at me. So I’m leaving her alone now and just try to be quiet and look the other way. Nothing I can really do for a person who doesn’t want the help.