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The anatomy of a sucker

Or why smart people fall for stupid cons.

By Karen Datko Feb 22, 2010 3:55PM

This guest post comes from Pop at Pop Economics.


Sometimes it mystifies me that so many people can fall for the oldest tricks in the book. Bernie Madoff’s operation was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme -- you know, that scam that was invented in the 1920s. Do people really think that a random Nigerian prince selected them to handle gigantic sums of money? Does it really never occur to a tourist that a street-side card game probably isn’t on the up-and-up?

It mystifies me, that is, until I fall for one. Then the excuses get rolled out. Even in hindsight, you try to convince yourself that you’re not a sucker: There was no way you could have seen that coming.


So why is it that we fall for these silly cons? Researchers at the University of Cambridge decided to figure it out and boiled down their findings to seven principles that make us more prone to being tricked. I am simmering those down to four, because I found them the most interesting. But check out the whole study (.pdf file) if you’re curious. Here they are, with direct quotations in italics:


The distraction principle. While you are distracted by what retains your interest, hustlers can do anything to you and you won’t notice.


Here’s what I want to know: In "The Wizard of Oz," what took Dorothy and her friends so long to notice the man behind the curtain? I bet the giant, green, booming head had something to do with it. If you think about it, the man was really nothing more than a high-tech magician. Set up a big distraction, and you’ll keep their eyes away from where the real magic happens.


In the scammer world, this takes many forms. The street performer holds your attention while a pickpocket works behind the crowd. A thief runs off with a woman’s purse at the airport, and while you’re in pursuit, the woman takes your luggage.


It’s often hard to distinguish between a real distraction and an illusory one. So my advice would be to assume that they’re all fake, especially if you’re a tourist.


In the legal-but-shouldn’t-be world, you’ll get annuities salesmen trying to focus your attention on guaranteed returns, instead of high back-end fees and surrender charges. Or maybe you’ll get a car salesman who lures you in with a low base price, but shows you the “delivery charge” after you’re already committed.

In one world, the perpetrator gets arrested, but let’s face it, it’s all the same.


The herd principle. Even suspicious marks will let their guard down when everyone next to them appears to share the same risks. Safety in numbers? Not if they’re all conspiring against you.


In the scammer world, the “herd” is the group winning money in the street game you’ve stumbled upon. You think the game must be honest, because these guys win, right? Of course, it turns out that they’re all in on the con.

It wasn’t the study’s authors’ intention, but it’s oh-so-tempting to turn this into an investing lesson, too. As a species, we get a lot of comfort in knowing that there are others succeeding or failing with us. Even if you think tech stocks are overpriced, if your neighbors are all making a killing in the sector, you’re tempted to buy in. Yes, you’re also jealous of their success, but if you fail, they fail. That feels good. It feels safe.


Of course, the scammers take it a step further. Not only are they playing off that safety-in-numbers, prehistoric mentality, they’re not actually sharing the risks.


The deception principle. Things and people are not what they seem. Hustlers know how to manipulate you to make you believe that they are.


One of my favorite scenes in "Casino Royale" is when a tourist in a hurry throws James Bond his car keys, thinking he’s the valet. I’ve got to admit, I don’t think I’ve ever questioned whether the man in uniform in front of the hotel worked there. Even if I did question it, I’d probably be too embarrassed to ask.


The BBC apparently tested a scam where they set up a fake ATM machine to see if pedestrians would be fooled and use their cards there. Of course, if they were real fraudsters, they’d get all of the customers’ debit card info and PINs. The operation worked better than they'd hoped for. You see, before they had even finished building the machine -- that is, even while the machine’s back was exposed to the air -- people kept walking up and trying to use it. Talk about “blinded by familiarity.”


Ever see an ad proclaiming “8% yield! Better than a CD!” in big letters and “Not FDIC-insured” in small letters? The bringer of this great investment opportunity is lowering your guard with a comparison to something you’re familiar with.


The need and greed principle. Your needs and desires make you vulnerable. Once hustlers know what you really want, they can easily manipulate you.


Ooh, it’s tempting to turn this one into an investing principle, too. But staying on point: Find out what your mark wants more than anything, and then offer it to him. If your target is bankrupt, offer him money. If your target is lonely, offer him companionship. Afraid? Offer safety.


I could go on and on. But people do stupid things when they need something desperately. And that’s why even though we all roll our eyes when we hear about someone falling for the Nigerian prince scam, none of us are safe from it -- not if we were put into the right predicament.


Not all cons are illegal

I hope you find ways to apply these principles in everyday life. People are trying to sell you all the time, and even though it’s not classified as fraud, oftentimes the sell works off these tenets. Everyone’s running a con. And knowing yourself goes a long way to stopping it.


Related reading at Pop Economics:

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