Thursday, May 28, 2015

How scammers are using identity theft to manipulate social norms in order to persuade

We all have had our email hacked at least once.  I personally had my email hacked once.  My scammer/hacker did little more than spam my friends with adverts for electronic goods with a personalised message from (supposedly) me, saying that I just bought this amazing stereo system and my friends should use the link to do the same, at a reduced price.  Knowing me too well (I would never brag about a stereo system like I would do about a designer handbag or a nice scarf), my friends alerted me quickly.   I changed the password for that email and that was the end of my advertising. 

However, some hacking is not so innocent and is not done by a computer generated programmes.  Scammers are now so opportunistic as well as astute that they often combine several techniques to get you to send them money, and not small amounts either.   What can start with a simple email hacking can quickly turn into sophisticated persuasion technique and I will explain how. 

We are all brought up to be nice to others and help our friends and family.  Society as a whole is built on those fundamental unspoken rules and this is ingrained in us.   We help our friends and family and they help us, when in need.
Scammers know this.  They also know that, where one would usually be suspicious to get an email from a stranger, asking for money, they would be less cautious if that email came from a friend. 
We are hard wired to help when our friends
need it and scammers exploit this

The scam usually consists of an email from your friend, a person that you know, telling you they have been stranded on holiday, their possessions stolen and they need some money to get new passports and to get home.   Naturally, you are horrified and consider helping.  They tell you to wire money to them via Western Union in a particular country to help them get their affairs in order.  If you do, money is lost forever and there is little anyone can do for you. 

Fraud is still very much a crime that is still largely ignored by police and largely goes unpunished.  This is especially true of personal fraud, so it pays to know how scammers work and be careful online.  

Scams evolve almost daily.  Scammers carefully follow news and as soon as there is anything happening that a scam can be invented around, they invent it.  This is why usual warnings are not always very useful in warning against scams that are yet to come.  It helps to understand how persuasion works and how it is exploited by fraudsters.  So what can you do to prevent being a victim of this type of scam? 

If you ever get an email from a close friend asking for help, if you can, give them a call instead to check the facts first.  If you cannot get hold of them, you could respond to the email expressing your concern but also asking a random question such as " how is your son coping?' - when you know that this particular friend doesn't have a son.  Chances are that the scammer will not know this and will respond saying that the son is distressed etc.  Or something similar.  If it is a genuine request by a friend, they won't mind and you will get a warning sign if it is not a genuine friend of yours.  It is also good to let your friend know by some other means that their account has been compromised and urge them to change passwords connected to that email.  This also means passwords connected to any social media that they use with the email in question, just to be sure. 

People often underestimate scams as something only gullible people fall for until it happens to them.  Scams are now so rife that you cannot avoid them in daily life, especially if you use the internet.  It is often a form of organised crime, where people are employed to converse with potential victims.  You can't stop being a target but by taking time to scrutinise things that reach you in detail, you may prevent being a victim. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How Nigerian scams keep persuading the vulnerable

Nigerian or advance fee - 419 scams have been around for decades (see Glickman 2005).  They usually contain a story of a bank official who has spotted an account with funds that are unclaimed and needs someone to help him get the money out of the account without it being in his name. This is somewhat illegal and he needs help of someone who can receive the money in their account and be paid for it.  Sometimes it is a royal person, a distant prince, rich widow unable to leave money to anyone, someone dying of cancer with wealth to give away and so on.   Once the victim replies, they request conversations, befriending the victim and eventually ask for fees to process legal papers.  The victim never sees the money they were promised.  Worse still, sometimes the victim will receive a fake cheque and cash it, wire the money to the person that is asking them to launder money and then find out the cheque was fake after few days, losing funds they sent. 
Sometimes victims are not even after money but simply believe they are helping the person as the stories are often elaborate.  In the past, Nigerian scams were executed via postal means, incurring a cost to the scammer.  With the invention of the fax and the phone, they became more prevalent and the Internet finally allowed them to become almost an everyday occurrence for most people while not costing much to execute.  Research also stipulates that they are now so well known that they are purposely used to identify the most vulnerable victims, whose details are then sold to other scammers too. 

Recently I have been contacted by someone asking me to warn about a scam purporting to be a girl from a refugee camp, but upon reading the email, I realised it was a spin off, a Nigerian type scam with a new twist to fit the current times. 
Briefly, the story is about a girl who is in a Syrian refugee camp and needs someone to help her get the money that her late and wealthy father deposited in the bank. This is a complex story and I decided to explain why it is complex and how it is written with a view to persuade in the future.  The initial emails asks only that the victim listens to the story but even acknowledging the email might be dangerous if you are uncomfortable saying no. Here is why:

The story starts with an account how the girl lost her mother and father to a violent murder and her consequent life in a refugee camp.  She prays to get out of her situation.  Without explaining what she wants from the victim yet, she asks for trust and not to be betrayed and asks to know more about the potential victim.  This part is likely to elicit empathy towards her situation - who would not feel empathy when someone tells you about their parents' murder.  Asking to know about you is likely to induce feelings of familiarity and closeness, as if you are friends, once you share this information and people help their friends.  She asks for trust and not to be betrayed. You may not think about these words at this point but when the request comes you may feel uncomfortable saying no, because you will feel as if you are betraying her, despite the doubts you might feel. 

Second part tells more about her situation in the camp and the pastor who is helping her to email a random person across the globe.  It also gives the pastor's telephone number.  The victim will probably not use it but if they do, it will add credibility to the story. Here is a quote;

"My Dearest, please I want to go back to my studies because i only attended my first year before the tragic incident that lead to my being in this situation now took place. Please listen to this, please it's a secret, even no one knows about it except the Reverend that knows about it"

The endearments used are to evoke feelings of closeness, the mention of the secret too - we tell secrets to those we are close to so potential victim might feel privileged they were entrusted with the secret.  She then explains about her father's fund that contains millions, that she cannot access and makes a request.

"So i will like you to help me transfer this money to your account and from it you can send some money for me to get my traveling documents and air ticket to come over to meet with you. I kept this secret to people in the camp here the only person that knows about it is the Reverend because he is like a father to me. So in the light of above i will like you to keep it to yourself and don't tell it to anyone for i am afraid of loosing my life and the money if people gets to know about it."

Scammers often put victims in a position of trust, by making themselves appear vulnerable. This gives the victim a feeling of power but in reality, the scammer holds all the strings.  The girl in this story follows up by reminding you that she requested you to be trustworthy.  I particularly like this sentence;

" Remember i am giving you all this information due to the trust i deposed on you. I like honest and understanding people, truthful and a man of vision, hardworking and GOD fearing people."

We all like to think of ourselves as honest and understanding people. And hardworking. Some people are also religious and they will relate to this aspect.  Scammers are good at altercasting. Altercasting, a persuasion technique, is where a person puts the victim in a specific position, often targeting the ego of the person (look at the quote above, calling for a man of vision) or social norms (understanding and honest people). 

There are people out there that may not be very Internet savvy, such as elderly people, who would see this plea and think of ways of helping.  At this point the letter does not ask anything but to get in touch for her to tell you her story but you can bet your life at some point the victim will be asked to part with some money, usually to pay a solicitor to prepare legal papers to transfer the money.  The scammers build up a rapport before they ask for funds, in order for the victim to feel they have to help as they have some sort of relationship or a friendship by this point.  

What I wanted to show with these few bits from the lengthy email is how scammers lay the ground. The email is often benign and mysterious and someone who is not very familiar with phishing emails and scams might respond to find out more.  Often these scams are praying upon social norms of being being helpful and nice.  By replying to the email, the target enters another stage where the familiarity and reciprocity are played upon. They will tell the potential victim about themselves but also ask about the victim's life, which often appears sincere and goes to enhance the trust.  By repeating they asked for trust over and over, the potential victim will unconsciously start to feel uneasy every time they feel they want to stop the process.  It is called priming.  They are priming the victim to comply at a later date without  them being conscious of it happening.   If they want to exit by this point, the potential victim will feel they are betraying someone who is vulnerable and feel uncomfortable about it, often despite seeing the warning signs as the story becomes more complicated.  In many cases the scammers will drown the victim in fake legal papers and documents and there have been cases where people have signed power of attorney to their finances without being aware of it due to the amount of the paperwork they were asked to sign. 
Successful scammers play a long game.  That is why they are successful.  The best thing you can do is try to understand how different scams work and what they target.  Nigerian scams tend to target desirable human traits such as being helpful (when a widow asks for help with finding honourable causes to donate her wealth to) and sometimes greed (when the corrupt bank official asks for help to extract money out of the bank, for which the victim is promised a payment).  Different scams target different things.  One universal advice would always be in control. Don't reply if you are uncomfortable saying no when you start suspecting something or having second thoughts. Change your number if they are harassing you or ask your relative or a friend to call them and tell them you rang the police and reported it.  Share your doubts with friends and family who will advise you.  But most of all, if a stranger emails you out of the blue, ignore the email. 

Glickman, H. (2005). The Nigerian “419” advance fee scams: prank or peril?.Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue canadienne des ├ętudes africaines39(3), 460-489.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Why scammers target elderly people

I thought it would be good to make a post about why so many elderly people fall victim to scams.  This is not a new fact and the government, predominantly Trading standards, are doing good work at raising awareness of the issue but I felt it might be beneficial to explain why it might happen. 

The reason why scammers target elderly people so aggressively has to do with cost effectiveness to the scammer. When the scammer invests the time to go around houses, selling bogus products, or calling around, they make sure they target the specific audience that is likely to produce a yield. With age, just as our bodies slowly develop aches and pains and we can no longer drink like we used to and not suffer the effects, we also experience diminishing cognitive functions. This varies across people and is also exacerbated by things like dementia or Alzheimer's, something more prevalent as people age.  Even without those present, ageing affects our information processing power, sometimes also affected by hearing loss, we get more easily confused, need more time to make decisions and so on.  You could say we are no longer so finely tuned as we once were. This is precisely why scammers target elderly people, usually with door-to-door scams that need instant decisions or creating urgency, such as the courier scam. 

Elderly population also might not be so internet savvy, where most of the scam prevention advice lies. Or if they do use the internet, they might not be using social media, again, where this advice is abundant. Even if they are, the amount of the advice that is out there can be overwhelming, therefore it is often after the scam has taken place that they seek help and their family become involved perhaps. 

The problem with the declining cognitive functions is that they decline very slowly and are difficult to diagnose at first. Most people notice when it is happening but, because they were once a competent and intelligent, highly functioning person, they feel ashamed to admit this to their loved ones and they try to hide it.  Some elderly people are also bereaved after a long marriage or have relatives living far from them, making it hard to 'talk things over' with someone who might offer a different perspective or advice.  Loneliness has been found to be a factor in scam compliance across all ages, not just the elderly but this is even more pertinent with regards to ageing population due to other factors that contribute to scam susceptibility mentioned above. 

Scams are now designed to fit almost anyone. Students, working people, businesses, people of certain age, marital status etc... just as much as elderly people and the important thing is to understand WHAT makes us vulnerable.  With age, we acquire experience and wisdom but often 'thinking on our feet' goes.  This is not the end of the world, it just means that you may need to implement some rules in order to protect from scams.  I will mention few tips below but these are by no means exhaustive.  They also apply to anyone, not just the elderly. I have concentrated on door-to-door techniques though. 

1. Always delay decisions.  Go away and give yourself a day to think about anything.  If you are dealing with a salesman that is pushy and tells you the deal is off the table if you don't act straight away - be sure that this is a scam or at least a technique to get you to comply. 

2. Lie. A white lie goes a long way. My favourite is: " I just want to run it past my dad who is a police officer.  Please call me tomorrow." You can bet that if it is a scam - they will not ring you back and if it is a legitimate deal, they will.  Same with people calling you, ask them to tell you who they are and say you will ring them back after you seek advice. 

3. Never buy from people who come to your door.  Ask them to leave you some information and Google the company before you call them back.  If they say they have no information to leave you, it is likely that they rely on aggressive sales tactics. 

4. Ask your neighbours, friends and family for advice before you make a decision to part with your money.  Don't be ashamed to admit you made a mistake or have been scammed.  By talking about it, information is shared and you are more likely to hear of similar scams, which may protect you in the future.  If you don't have many people to talk to, call your council and check with Trading standards or call Citizen's advice.  

It is important to remember that there is nothing wrong about not being sure about something and asking for advice is always good, if nothing, to give you time to think about it.  Often we are put under pressure to buy something we don't want to buy and allowing some time to pass, it is easier to say no, especially when dealing with pushy scammers or salesmen. Often just saying you need to run something past your family will make the scammer leave you alone as they drop people that seem non compliant with their requests.  It is also normal to get confused as we get older and as long as we are aware this is taking place, we can make sure we allow for this by putting simple rules in place.  And my advice always is; if you have even a tiniest doubt - walk away from it. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Reviewing customer feedback online - how trustworthy is it?

I always prefer to give scam advice that gets people thinking about motivations of others as I feel this is what ultimately protects against any scam, although it is not foolproof. But I decided to write some practical ways of checking if good review online are what they say they are. This list is in no way exhaustive but I thought it may give you some pointers what is good to do before you decide to trust someone/something online. I have already written a post about how feedback on websites can be faked so let’s expand on that across other websites. 

Online recommendations and reviews
Word of mouth is one of the best advertisements one could ever have. I am sure you have heard this one before and with the internet, word of mouth has been transformed into feedback. Often, sites will have options for reviews that customers can leave but how reliable are they?  I generally take online reviews with a pinch of salt. Some websites are better than others.  Retailers like John Lewis or Ocado fair better at publishing honest reviews because it is in their interest to see if the chosen products sell. However, this is not foolproof as the manufacturers often have marketing teams that work hard on promoting products and sometimes this means playing dirty – like leaving reviews that are not from ordinary customers. So what can you do? Read negative reviews first and then read the positives. Click on the username of people leaving positive reviews. This is handy as it will show you other reviews they left. If they just left the reviews for that product or just that brand, disregard it. You may be disregarding an odd honest review but generally people fall in two categories; those that love leaving reviews – these will have left reviews for other products they bought and those that only leave reviews when they are unhappy. 

If you are reading great reviews on the website that only sells their own brands, think very hard about who gets to choose which reviews go up before you trust them. What you can do in that case is to reference the product you want to read a review for in Google and other, independent sites will come up. You will notice that often products that are rated excellent on the original website will be rated lower on sites like Make up Alley or Google reviews. Always look for independent feedback.

Hiring a good workman
The feedback sites like MyBuilder, Checkatrade, Rated people and so on are extremely popular as they allow customers to see feedback from other customers. But it pays to be careful despite this. I found few loopholes that can be abused.
For example, what is stopping any tradesman impersonating a customer? Or their friends and family leaving a review where details are asked of you before you post a review. What you can do is click, again, on any usernames that left them feedback and see if they have hired other people from the site. If they haven’t, disregard that review. Again, you may make a mistake and disregard the good review but better to be safe than sorry, in my opinion.
Finally, put the name of the company in the Google and really give it a go at looking at everything that pops up. Sometimes information about previous companies they had pops up for free. If they have had several companies in the past few years, this might be telling you something. But please remember, information on Companieshouse, for example, is not checked by the government. I have heard of a case where a scammer set up a fictitious company up there with false details and identities to add to their credibility. It is good to check stuff like that but also cross reference it. Often, putting the phone number and the address the person gives in the Google by itself might give you a clue if the information lines up. If there is a discrepancy, it could be that the person is dishonest or they are hiding something. I tend to walk away from those.

I will give you a solid example. Recently someone I know had a bad experience with the dentist overcharging. Simple Google unearthed a good review by a satisfied customer. Cross referencing the person leaving the review, I saw that he left a review for all their branches and that he is a website developer by profession (probably hired by them). He probably did not have dental treatment in all of their 4 branches.  Often, someone who is unhappy with a certain company will discuss it somewhere. I find that very good information is to be found on Forums too, however, again it is not foolproof. If someone is gushing about a particular company, check what else they have posted. Scammers often will do some stuff to add credibility but they don’t have unlimited resources so there will be tell tale signs if you invest the time.

It pays to cross reference things in Google before you decide to trust someone you have never met.  I also cross reference people’s mobile phones. If I cannot find it online, I am a bit more cautious. A good tradesman will have a phone number listed somewhere and he will not need to change it. I also cross reference emails. This is a useful tool to use in Facebook as scammers often have several emails. If you cross reference the email address in Facebook and someone else pops up, chances are this person is not honest. It takes a bit of time but it can save you a lost of grief in the long run.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Is lack of time making us vulnerable to scams?

"In my day..." is something I hear a lot of from very old people and the sentence usually ends with something that the very old people had that we as a society no longer have and one of those things is TIME. Time has become a commodity, a resource that many of us just don't have. We now work longer hours, chauffeur our kids to and from numerous parties and activities, keep up with social media and so on. And we commute to and from work.  And despite the fact that we are have less time, the world is getting more complicated.  Once upon a time, you might have come across a skilled scammer, someone who could 'sell ice to Eskimos', someone who would make you buy something for way more money than it was worth.  That scammer had to knock on your door or intercept you somehow to offer you this deal and this was a precarious work for the scammer as they would have to invest their time, which may or may not pay off. 

But now, you only have to log on to your email to encounter numerous scammers that are out to get you in the moment of irrationality, moment of weakness, that moment of wandering attention.  And they don't need to invest a lot of time to do it.  In other words, scammers have managed to cut the time it takes them to scam you and we have less time to evaluate offers and information we are presented with.  If you are buying something online you probably have to wade through lengthy terms and conditions that take an hour to read, generous updates to existing terms and conditions that you have already read and absorbed (such as PayPal updates) so on. Often there is just not enough time and this lack of time makes us vulnerable to scams.  Often, investing just a bit more time into looking for clues of authenticity in an email or a website can make us suspicious.  But time has become like a currency.  Because sometimes it is in short supply, some people report making rational decisions to risk money in certain situations where they are not completely sure that the website is legitimate.  In other words, they feel the time they would have to invest to read all the information out there is not worth the amount they are spending. 

This fact is known to scammers who often inundate their websites with information, making you more likely to engage in peripheral route of processing (skimming rather than reading carefully and thinking about the information). And many keep the amount low enough to make it insignificant to you so you will not spend too much time evaluating the information.  
Often, companies engaging, shall we say in shady or unethical practices, use this tactic. The small print is out there but there is so much to read that it is lost somewhere in other persuasive methods, such as testimonials from people (often fake), shiny graphics and useless scientific data that is rarely followed up by the buyer and often not even correct.  How many of us have the time to Google the ingredients to that slimming product, or that magic anti ageing cream or a miracle cure for cancer?  But if we did invest the time to gain the relevant knowledge, we would find that often this would be enough to save us from being scammed by these companies.  The same goes for real scammers, the people who will take your money and not give you anything for that, i.e. they will just run away with your money, change the website and scam another person tomorrow. 

There is no easy advice here.  Optimally, all of us would be motivated enough to want to read and know as much as we can about things that go on in our lives but sometimes that motivation is just not there.  And time seems to be one reason for that.  But that extra half an hour verifying information you are reading might just save you some money in the end. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why eBay is not doing enough to prevent fraud and why feedback is completely useless

I love eBay like the next shopaholic who gets tired of designer handbags. A friend introduced me to eBay in 2004. I have just split up with my ex who moved out having left lots of DVDs and CDs and quite frankly, Rod Stuart was asking to be sold.  Since then I have eBayed often and apart from being scammed once when buying a phone, I have had a pleasure to deal with some great eBayers.

Before I go into eBay’s reluctance to ‘clean house’ I will acknowledge that they do offer money back, if you paid through PayPal and you get scammed, but quite frankly the fee charged by both companies is steep enough that this is to be expected. However, I don’t think eBay is an honest business and whilst some responsibility falls on ever evolving scams, some of the responsibility falls on how eBay deals with customer complains.

Here is my example. Recently I was selling lots of old stuff and have sold one of my items for a good price. When I went to send an invoice, I noticed that PayPal asked me to recalculate the postage. Upon closer inspection I realised that my buyer was Romanian and I have specified clearly that I do not ship outside UK.  This is bad enough, surely a filter according to shipping could be put in place so that timewasters who clearly don’t read the listings would not be able to bid.  Having raised a case to cancel the transaction, I am still waiting for the buyer to respond. Needless to say that relisting an item is dodgy in itself as it raises red flag over possible shill bidding and thus is often avoided.  And this is what happened to me.

So having looked closely into the buyer’s feedback I find some shocking truths.  Let’s first look at his feedback at the glance.

This person has a score of 45 feedbacks. Looking at the positive feedback, it appears that he has 50 in the last 12 months. Where are the 5 missing feedbacks?

Going deeper into his feedback, they have no feedback as a seller or any feedback left for others. This person’s account was opened in May this year and they already have 45 feedbacks. Now I go into feedback as a buyer. Remember, eBay changed rules about leaving negative feedback for buyers. Initially a good idea as I have heard of cases where bad sellers retaliate and leave negative feedback for paying buyers, this feature is now a hotbed for fraud because it allows inflation of feedback. Even if your buyer has not paid, you cannot leave them negative feedback. So the angry sellers can only leave a positive feedback and use the text box to vent their frustration.

This is the positive feedback of this person as a buyer. Hardly positive.

Needless to say that I have reported this seller when I have not heard from them regarding cancelling of the transaction. Polite automated email from eBay ensued informing me that they may or may not take any action against the person reported. That they carefully balance my feedback with those of other sellers to make a decision.

Well, I have calculated that out of the 50 feedbacks, only roughly about 12 are those of happy sellers and the rest are from people like me, complaining about this person ruining our sales. Also I never quite know if eBay charges me for auctions that end in people like this bidding and not paying. 

Two weeks later, the same person has notched up several more negative-positive feedbacks.  I doubt that eBay reads any reports sent by the customers, and if I am wrong about that, it then beggars belief why they are not doing anything about it. They are openly condoning fraud as well as causing hours of unnecessary nuisance and stress to sellers and buyers. When I became an eBayer, the concept was clean, simple and it had credibility. There was a sense that it is professional, that auctions are binding. Now, it seems that one can pretty much do anything.

As for, as one of the angry sellers eloquently put it in their feedback, Di*#head buyer, it is not hard to guess that this is someone who is expertly building their feedback so they can use it to add credibility to other scams. There is a small chance that they have no clue how to use eBay but in either case, eBay should strive to remove people like this swiftly, making the experience what it once was, a professional business.  Scammers often weigh scams in terms of cost effectiveness, so why is eBay making it so cost effective to use one of their platforms to commit fraud? 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Why you should not blindly rely on scam advice found on the internet

Over the course of my research into scams, I have read many interesting journal articles, research done by companies such as Microsoft and large-scale research studies commissioned by the Office of Fair Trading (see links below for these and more).  There are scams warnings advertised on various websites that purport they are experts on scams, calling themselves ‘experienced scam baiters’. I had to laugh a little at that, to be honest, simply because I see no reason, except from wasting time, in scamming a scammer. It might provide light amusement but the laugh is always on those falling for the same scam.  There are scams reported on those websites, emails of scammers exchanged, experiences shared by victims. This is all good, it is important to be aware of different scams out there. It is important to share your experience so that a quick Google search may help someone else but the real trick is to be smarter than a scammer. And I feel scam baiters are just not experienced in providing advice on how to learn to be smarter than a scammer.

So what is my advice?  You need to rely on yourself.  Yes, yourself.  Your intuition, your gut feelings, your intellect. Why?  Because scammers invest time and effort into their craft, coming up with new scams all the time.  And because, despite of all the warnings, forums and help agencies out there, you are pretty much on your own if you get scammed, so it pays to rely on yourself.

Successful scam relies on the element of surprise, something you can’t Google, something that is not flashing up anywhere.  Just have a look at some of the forums, the plethora of scams on offer is both ingenious and deadly.  But let’s first unpick some of the advice given to people on such forums.  
First of all, most users of such forums report scam emails and the name of the scammer who is contacting them. Perhaps they communicated with this person (on a dating website, or just through another type of scam), exchanged details or photographs and want to warn others.  How useful is having the name, email address or even a fake photograph of the scammer?  Not very.  Unless that particular  scammer is not very bright, he or she will have several emails, names and photographs they regularly use for scamming purposes.  Even if you reported all of them, one can get a picture from Google and a hotmail email address in a split second and start again.

What would be better advice, better warning then?  Know your stuff.
Know the background of the scam.  Do check the name of the person who emailed you or whom you are dealing with, but don’t neglect to check the facts of the offer too.   If someone is contacting you out of the blue about a job, ask yourself why?  Unless you are someone with a niche ability or knowledge, or you are a public figure, why would someone be desperate enough to contact you through a site you belong to and offer you an amazing position that pays 4 times more than what you are currently paid.  I am not saying that things like that don’t happen from time to time, but generally if someone is offering a top salary, they are not randomly emailing people they don’t know.  Always think about the reason why you would be the one chosen for this offer.

Have you really won a lottery?
Let’s look at the lottery scams or scams that reach your inbox claiming to be from someone who won several millions and wants to share it with you. Don’t look at the email it came from, instead ask yourself  if you entered any lotteries? If not, you have no chance of winning the lottery.  Or the other type, ‘wealthy lottery winners giving money away’ scam.  What would you do if this was you and you wanted to share the money you won with people. Would you sit at the computer, guessing people’s emails, like a creep, and emailing strangers saying you want to give them money? Or would you choose a charity of your choice and donate the money, or perhaps buy your friends and family presents?

Phishing scams
Have you ever received an email from PayPal that began without using your name?  Such as ‘hello’ or ‘dear friend’ 'dear customer' or simply ‘to whom it may concern’.
Companies sometimes do send general emails but those are rarely about your account being closed down or you going over the overdraft limit.  Whatever companies you regularly use online; Ebay, PayPal, your bank etc. will always have security information.  Read it, familliarise yourself with it.  They often include information on what they will never say in an email, what you should do if you suspect the email not to be genuine and so on. 

‘Hello, is it me you’re looking for?’ scams
Another popular scam is a phone call about your computer. Scammer rings you and tells you there is something wrong with your computer.  Ask yourself; how do they know this?  And even if that is true, what would their motive be for calling you?  Kindness?  Probably not.  Ask them to tell you your name and how they got the information about your computer. This usually leads to them putting the phone down.

In love and war...
The most dangerous scam is a romance scam.  Once you invest your emotions into something, it is hard to pull away and you are likely to enter a state of denial at some stage if you fall in love.  When you are getting to know someone through the medium such as the Internet, you never know who this person is.  Even if they are not out to scam you, they are telling you their version of themselves.  This is the version you may be attracted to but it is also a version that can be very far from reality. This is why it is important to meet.  Meet up as soon as possible.  Meeting a person generates impressions and gut feelings and these are sometimes important in decision-making.  If the person turns you down or can’t meet for whatever reason, and they live in the same town, you should give up on that.  If they say they live across the globe and this is a reason they can’t meet, think carefully what you want out of the dating experience.  If you feel you want to keep a long distance relationship going, keep it light.  Space it out a bit.  A scammer may realize you will not be easy to scam and may move on.  If you like them, instead of giving them money for a plane ticket, offer to visit them instead.  If they say they are fighting in a war torn city at present, ask yourself how come they can spend hours on Skype talking to you when legitimate soldiers cannot contact their families in similar situations, sometimes for weeks.

Whatever happens, just stop to ask why? Analyse the situation, not the email it came from, not the name you were given, analyse if what you were told makes sense, if you would do the same in a similar situation.  Would you ask a practical stranger for money, even if you were stuck somewhere, or would you call your best friend, your mum, your family in general?  Would you, if you had the money,  offer a job paying 4 times the going rate for an au pair to someone you found yourself on a free website? Or would go to a professional au pair agency and ask them to source a candidate that is vetted, reference and police checked in order to get value for your money.  Generally, would you email strangers telling them about your family, your name and surname, names of your children, all in the hope to attract a good au pair?

You get the point. Yet no one is telling you this, at least I have not come across any advice that points in the direction of teaching people to analyse the offers in a rational way, rather than rely on the reported types of scams.  Some scammers are stupid and baiting them is really not such a great skill at all.  You should beware of those scammers that cannot be baited, those that are skilled, witty, educated, those that can spot a victim, adapting themselves to each scam and each victim.  Being one step ahead of a smart scammer is what you should aspire to as this is the only way to protect yourself, unless you give up the Internet.  But even then you are not safe.  What do you do when you get a professional roofer, ringing your doorbell, who just happened to be passing your house when he saw that your roof is in a dangerous state?  Or a an insurance broker with a really good insurance deal for anything you may need, who has no brochures to leave with you, no T&Cs you can read and no good deals on any other day but the day they just happened to be in the neighborhood.  

No one will ever predict all the scams. Scams are evolving fast, they fit the needs, the time, the budget and an emotional state of their victims. It takes a smart person to be a successful scammer.  Don’t underestimate them.  Learn to think critically and pay attention to all the details you are given.  Even that is not foolproof but it is a good start.

Here are some useful links from the real experts

If you have been affected by a scam, I am currently running an academic study into psychology of scams and would love to get first hand insights from the victims.  The study is private and confidential, run by University of Portsmouth and adheres to the code of ethics issued by British Psychological Society. Interviews can be done on the phone.