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What Makes People Fall for Online Fraud?

Isolation, layoffs, and pop-up clicking, among other predictors.

By Rick Paulas


(Photo: 23905174@N00/Flickr)

In 2014, AARP conducted a phone survey of more than 11,741 American adults 18 and older to figure out the risk factors involved with falling for Internet scams. The released report, “Caught in the Scammer’s Net,” is a fascinating read, not least because of the finding that one’s emotional state plays a huge role in whether or not one falls for a scam. If you have feelings of isolation, have recently been fired from a job, or are more likely to engage in “risky” behavior in real life, you’re more likely to be robbed online.

“We speculated that these negative life events weaken your immune system,” says Doug Shadel, senior state director of Washington’s AARP and one of the study’s authors. “If two people go into a room and there are cold germs, and one person gets a cold and the other doesn’t, what’s the difference? One person has a stronger immune system. We speculate when you’re coping with some stressful event, you’re just more likely to catch the fraud germ, if you will.”

Those willing to post their birth dates or relationship status on social media are 8 percent more likely to be victims of online fraud than those who keep mum.

Beyond the user’s emotional state, there’s a correlation between fraud victims and the activities people perform online. For instance, those willing to post their birth dates or relationship status on social media are 8 percent more likely to be victims of online fraud than those who keep mum. Those who sign up for free trial offers are 10 percent more likely to get swindled. People who click on pop-ups are 16 percent more likely. “Victims tend to be more open,” Shadel says. “But people wise up. They realize you shouldn’t be clicking on every pop-up you get.”

The findings also highlighted the fact that fraud victims don’t know as much about how the Internet works. Nearly two in three victims believe banks send emails to customers asking them to click a link to verify account information — no, they do not — while half of victims were unaware that a website’s privacy policy doesn’t mean they won’t share your information. Knowing about these key issues (let’s call it “Internet smarts”) only comes through sustained use.

As people work to close the digital divide, how can we keep new users from getting scammed as soon as they log on? One solution is to focus on more than teaching new users how to use online tools: Spending some time making them aware of their own emotions can be just as important. “Don’t make any financial decisions in the heat of the moment … wait until you cool off,” says Marti DeLiema, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford Center on Longevity’s financial security division. Beyond that, it’s smart to live online as one would off. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch. If the offer is too good to be true, it is.”

New Internet users are not necessarily more susceptible to online fraud than anyone else — that is to say, no studies have examined the correlation quite yet — but they’re definitely more susceptible to a certain kind of online fraud. They’re the ones falling for the Nigerian prince scam, while everyone else has learned to delete those emails.

“There are areas of desire we all have, and scam artists are good at finding the people that fall for those particular scams,” DeLiema says, before listing a few examples. For instance, if you’re a middle-aged man, you’re more likely to fall for penny stocks or Ponzi schemes. If you’re a middle-aged woman, you’re prone to falling for bogus weight loss cures, and your targeted scams will reflect that.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch. If the offer is too good to be true, it is.”

One way to make the newly online simply more aware of the possibilities of Internet scams is to talk about it. As DeLiema notes, statistics regarding fraud are nearly always going to be an underestimate because the reports are generated by people self-reporting losses. And unlike theft or burglary, fraud victims often don’t report the crimes because of the weighty shame.

“People feel embarrassed, particularly older adults, because they have a lot to lose,” DeLiema says. “If this guy came to the house and said he had a great investment, and [the victim] gave him $100,000, that older person is at risk of having their family take away their financial autonomy.”

Hooking someone new up to the Internet is a lot like settling into life in that first ratty city apartment of your own. “Keep an eye on your wallet” translates to “don’t share your bank account login info,” while “lock your doors” morphs into “change your passwords regularly.” Even with digital literacy classes becoming part of the blueprint to close the digital divide, it takes a more open conversation in everyday life to keep the newly online on their toes.

The more we talk openly about the scams we’ve fallen for, the more vigilant we’ll all be in this weird online world.