Can you spot a scam? Why our minds are more susceptible than we think

Stay alert: With scams constantly evolving, the most sustainable defence is to cultivate a healthy sense of scepticism when presented with an unexpected scenario. — FAIHAN GHANI/The Star

HAVE you ever seen one of those magic shows where a mentalist appears to read the mind of an audience member, or engages in some sort of how-did-he-do-it mental trickery? I had always wondered if the volunteers were planted – until I found myself onstage as part of a mentalism performance at a luncheon earlier this year. I started out sceptical and wound up befuddled. My task was simple. Seated with my eyes closed, I was to raise my hand to indicate how many times I felt contact on various parts of my body. I could have sworn I felt them – taps on my arm, knee, lower back and a brush on my cheek. Yet when I watched a friend’s recording of the performance, the mentalist remained a good three feet from me for the duration of the show. No one and nothing else came close to my chair. Where had those sensations come from, and had my mind conjured them up? I chewed on it for weeks before seeking out the mentalist, full-time performer Ferris Yao. He did not reveal how he pulled off that trick, but he let me in on one clue. “When someone from the audience comes up, no matter whether it is a CEO or someone in authority, they are always a little unsure. I use that to my advantage and keep them in a heightened emotional state,” he said. “This preoccupation, stress and anxiety makes people more receptive to whatever I am suggesting.” Indeed, my mind had reeled with the instructions Yao doled out. In my head, I was afraid of getting it “wrong” and ruining the performance. Great for the show, but sinister in the wrong hands. So I was not surprised when Yao said scammers take a similar tack – whether in targeting one’s wallet on a busy street or casting their net for the next cybercrime victim. In Singapore, fraudsters are on the rise. Scams went up by about 32% from 2021 to 2022, with victims losing a total of US$660.7mil (RM3.1bil) last year, according to an annual report released by the Singapore Police Force. Younger folks assume it is the elderly who are vulnerable, but 60% of victims in 2022 were aged below 40. Only 8.8% were above 60. Complacency can be dangerous. Scammers evolve rapidly and keep pace with trends. During the pandemic in 2020, I reported on the rise of impersonation scams after fraudsters did just that to my Instagram account. These include soliciting one-time passwords (OTP) of e-commerce accounts to wipe out stored funds and masquerading as government officials to collect Covid-19-related fines. Three years on, the impersonation scam has evolved. A current version is the fake friend call. This is where a caller pretends to be someone you know. They typically ask you to guess their identity before requesting an urgent loan.The power of emotions Regardless of the method, at the heart of most scams is a play on emotions, which means even the smartest, most tech-savvy of people are not immune. For instance, those naturally empathetic may associate closely with someone experiencing difficulty – a process known as identification, explains clinical psychologist Shawn Ee. This makes them more likely to buy into the story of a loved one in trouble or a friend locked out of his Internet banking account, and assist accordingly. Other methods include the ruse of job offers and investment opportunities. What hasn’t changed is the unfortunate refrain among victims, who genuinely thought they were talking to someone they knew. Humans tend to lean towards confirmation bias, a tendency to seek out or interpret information that is in line with our beliefs. For example, if one has decided that his online paramour is real, he may place inordinate weight on “romantic” gestures and make excuses for the scammer’s suspicious behaviour, such as disappearing for hours at a time – something experienced by victims of the pig butchering romance scam who were duped into making fraudulent investments. In such scams, victims admitted to letting their guard down because scammers played the long game, devoting weeks to building a relationship before moving in for the kill. “Gaining your trust is the hardest part but once scammers can do so, it’s smooth-sailing for them,” says Dr Ee. Then there is the element of preoccupation, too common in our busy, multitasking lives. Multiple victims say they were too distracted to cross-check scammers’ claims before sending money or OTPs. “I considered myself vigilant,” one of them told me. Indeed, there are parallels between the work of mentalists and scammers. Draw one’s attention to the spotlight, and he is less likely to notice nefarious activity in the wings. As a journalist, I too think of myself as vigilant. It is part of my job to suss out when a newsmaker is giving me only half the story, or to ask enough questions until I derive the facts. Yet perhaps my mind was more susceptible than I thought. Once I was onstage and appropriately unnerved, Yao deliberately showed me a long feather while describing what I had to do. Is that why my brain remembered the first brush on my cheek as a tickle? Perhaps the power of suggestion is that great. Certainly, there are many who have spotted and avoided a scam. Just think about how many bogus Health Ministry calls you have hung up on. On Instagram, I regularly receive messages from various accounts, purportedly run by baby-faced Korean men who attempt to strike up innocent conversations – the first step of a romance scam. This is precisely why scammers cast a wide net. Contact enough people, and you will eventually find someone vulnerable. One woman who lost around US$2mil (RM9.2mil) in the pig butchering romance scam was in a dark place when “Jimmy”, her scammer, contacted her. “Within four months of having my stomach removed, my cancer had spread to my liver. On top of that, my marriage of 16 years was pretty much done,” she said in a BBC documentary. Paul Maskall, fraud and cybercrime prevention manager at trade association UK Finance, observed in a report for British bank Barclays: “You may be having a tough time at work or at home. This can colour the world around you – making you more susceptible to not thinking objectively and clearly.” What can we do? A good starting point is to be aware of how scams are evolving. Beyond what is reported in the news, there are other sources of alerts such as the National Crime Prevention Council’s, an online repository of scams. It includes lesser-known cases such as the Wangiri scam. The term means “one ring and cut” in Japanese, as victims receive an overseas phone call that rings once and ends, and are charged a hefty amount when they return the call. The website also compiles stories from victims others can learn from. Tech solutions can also be helpful. For instance, there is the Scamshield app that detects and filters scam calls and text messages. I installed this for my parents and it has given us some peace of mind. But with scams constantly evolving, the most sustainable defence is to cultivate, in children and oneself, a healthy sense of scepticism when presented with an unexpected scenario. This can start from as young as Primary 1, the age many children are exposed to mobile phones, smart watches and similar technology. Dr Ee recommends describing scenarios to your children. For instance, ask if they would reveal their real name and mobile number to someone they met online. Explain the dangers involved, and how they might avoid this by giving a nickname instead. The modern-day version of “don’t talk to strangers” is helping children discern better. Done right, it can help them mature into adults able to think calmly, look for red flags and evaluate a situation before they act. Certainly easier said than done when one’s money or well-being appears at stake, but as with any good habit, clarity of thought is a muscle that can be trained. Beyond scam prevention, it has its benefits in virtually every aspect of life. — The Straits Times/Asia News Network Complacency can be dangerous. Scammers evolve rapidly and keep pace with trends.

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