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We will all get fooled by online scams one day

I was called this week by a man who introduced himself as Ben. He had a south Asian accent and I could hear in the background what sounded like a call centre a long way away. Ben claimed that I had been chosen by my mobile phone operator to be given a 40 per cent discount.

He said I should wait for two texts and he would then tell me what I needed to do to claim my exclusive prize. After a while of listening to his spiel, I asked why he was so obviously trying to scam me, and the line went dead. “Only a fool would have fallen for that,” I thought, in a glow of self-satisfaction.

Being phoned or texted by one of the multitude of global scammers who often prey on the naive or distracted is very common: almost 45m people in the UK have been targeted by them in the past three months, the telecoms regulator Ofcom disclosed this week. American consumers reported losing $3.4bn to fraud in 2020, much through a range of online scams.

The fraud industry operates on such a global scale, with such mundane and repetitive teases, that it is tempting to blame the victim. Ben and others are not ingenious plotters, investing months of effort in sophisticated stings: they are calling thousands of people with an identical script, or sending millions of phishing texts hoping to get a few bites.

Even some victims blame themselves. “You are driven by greed and anyone who says anything else is a liar,” said one 64-year-old Australian woman who was defrauded of more than $220,000. The study for which she was interviewed concluded that victims of online fraud are seen as “greedy and gullible and there is an overwhelming sense of blame and responsibility”.

Falling for many scams is painfully embarrassing — one reason why many are not reported. Romance scams, in which fraudsters set up fake accounts on dating websites and apps to form virtual relationships, flourished during lockdown: it was the ideal cover to avoid meeting. After a while of wooing victims, they asked for cash to cover supposed debts or to travel.

Losses from US romance scams reached $304m last year, said a report this week by the Federal Trade Commission. Eleven men linked to a crime syndicate originating in Nigeria were charged in Texas in September for using dating sites such as ChristianMingle and Match.com to fool the single and widowed, preying on “their isolation, their loneliness and sometimes their grief”.

So, we should reflect before blaming victims, given the likelihood that one day we will ourselves fall for an online scam. The crudity of many of these approaches is balanced by their sheer scale. Fraudsters can bombard people with enticements from call centres in India, or using automated phishing, fairly safe that they will never be caught or jailed.

Sometimes, when idly talking to callers such as Ben, I ask if they are troubled by their work. But distance dulls the conscience: it is easier for gangs to recruit scammers who will not need to talk to victims face to face. As one psychological study pointed out, “far more individuals are capable of the depersonalised social aggression required for indirect fraud”.

I almost feel sorry for them. It is relentless work in the sweatshops of fraud; some in Cambodia are staffed by victims of human trafficking. The internet and free communication have broken down legal and physical barriers to bring together two groups of vulnerable people — poor scammers and wealthier, lonelier targets.

My sympathy is tempered by knowledge of the harm they inflict. Bank accounts can be cleared and mortgage deposits stolen. Losses to romance scams involving UK bank transfers averaged £7,850 per victim last year, and the emotional toll of having been wooed by an illusion is enormous.

The gangs are run by criminals who target those with the most money and weakest defences. The median loss to fraud suffered by Americans aged 80 and older was $1,300 last year, compared with $325 for those in their twenties. Anyone can be caught at a stressed and distracted moment, but scammers know the pickings are richer with elderly homeowners.

A lot more could be done to stop this criminal and psychological bombardment. The UK government has tightened its online safety bill to make social media platforms more accountable for user-generated scams. Dating apps have been too lax in failing to stop fraud, although Match.com tells users not to send money and claims to “ban and block” scams.

But fraud will carry on flowing, even if social media platforms acquire a conscience. The internet will still exist, hackers will be able to steal millions of phone numbers for fraudsters’ call and text lists and the global business of mass-market scamming will remain dangerously efficient.

Humans are notoriously poor at detecting deceit, if the liar is fluent enough and the story mildly convincing. We are programmed to believe in the fraudster, even when we should know better. When I challenged Ben, he moved swiftly to the next number. The odds are on his side.

john.gapper@ft.com 

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