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]

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The Real Hustle [YouTube]