The Three Common Strategies Behind Most Scams

The Three Common Strategies Behind Most Scams

Scammers are everywhere using manipulative tactics and snake oils to weasel money out of your pocket. Most of these scams aren’t particularly complicated, and Consumer Reports was able to break them down into three main strategies. Photo by Bryan Rosengrant.

We all hear about scams, from classics like the grandparent identity theft scam to donation scams, so it seems like they’re easy to avoid if you’re simply paying attention. Yet they continue working because they tap into three motivating factors: fear, greed and generosity. Consumer Reports looked at hundreds of audiotapes of scammers pitching their deals and found a common set of strategies, regardless of the scam:

  • Creating a connection. A scammer’s first task is to gain your trust so you will not question his motivations. Scammers look for hot-button issues they can use to create a connection. They will ask benign questions about your health, your family, your political views, or your hobbies…
  • Establishing credibility. Scammers use lots of techniques to make themselves look legit. They may claim to be from a real business or organisation — say, the Internal Revenue Service if they’re pushing the IRS scam, or a government agency purporting to award you a grant. They may “spoof” a real phone number to fool your Caller ID or hand over a fake business card….
  • Playing on your emotions. Scammers leverage your emotions to get you to make a quick decision before you have time to think. The lottery scam preys on the desire to get rich quickly and easily, the grandparent scam plays on the natural instinct to help a relative who’s supposedly in trouble, and the natural disaster scam exploits our generosity for people in need.

Of course, it’s not just silly, easily avoidable scams here. The above list of strategies is pretty common in the sales world, from shady software to pushy salespeople. Either way, it’s a nice little checklist that’s worth mentally running through if you ever feel like you’re in the midst of a scam. Head over to Consumer Reports for the full details.

The Science of Scams [Consumer Reports via Consumerist]


  • Here’s something thats bothered me for ages about scams in general. Firstly, I work in the public service. Part of my job is to cold call clients to let them know whats going on. By the way, the public service DOES cold call, dont assume they dont.

    That process includes a requirement that I establish proof of identity, FROM THE CLIENT, before I can discuss my needs. That POI means asking some specific questions, which (and heres the problem) are very very similar to what a scammer would be trying to get out of you.

    Confirm the account number on file, your postal address, even your date of birth may be asked. The standard questions should be ones that send alarm bells to anyone we call.

    Yet strangely, they dont. I’ve only ever had a couple of clients question my authority, and ask how I can prove who I am. It’s not hard, I give them the switchboard number, available publicly, and my extension so they can call back, but its surprising how few ask.

    So when I hear about these scams, the techy side of my thinks that only ignorant or naive people would fall for something obvious, only to be reminded by the work side of me that its not much different to the questions I ask.

    If done right, that trust is a pretty significant reason these scams work.

    • I hear you. And am always uneasy when giving details to a caller. But I do when:

      a) I have an account with the organisation
      b) They state why they are calling
      c) They have an Australian accent
      d) There is no initial click/pickup delay

    • I pretty much refuse to ever confirm my details to anyone who cold calls me. If they can give me a way to reconnect to them via a publically available number ensuring it isn’t a scam, then I might call back. But really, if you’re cold calling me, I probably don’t give a crap what you want, and you’re either trying to sell me something or just being annoying.

      • Well thats the problem. If I’m cold calling you, you probably want to give a crap, which is what I’m trying to get across. Government departments arent calling without a reason.

        99.9% of calls are scams, so its easy to miss that 0.1% that arent. But the repercussions of missing it can be just as dramatic as falling for a scam call (or worse), and as I said, when I’m calling for legitimate reasons, the call is very similar, so I can see why people might ignore the call.

        • Well the most likely scams are going to pretend to be a government department, telco, or similar, who are the most likely to actually cold call you. Sorry, you have my number, you called me, I’m not confirming my details I don’t know if you actually have in the first place. Sending an official letter requesting I contact you is far less likely to be ignored.

    • My typical approach is to ask the person calling to either email or leave a message on myGov. Most companies/agencies seem happy enough to do this.

      Or I ask them to authenticate themselves first. This can easily be done by confirming non-personal details like the date or reference number on their last correspondence.So far I don’t seem to have had any resistance to using this approach.

      • That works. For what its worth though, I’d have absolutely no idea how to leave a message on myGov 🙂 An email with a formal letter is the standard process here, which is really just a pesky 5 minutes to put something together.

        Annoyingly though, the emails look different these days, and may just make people more likely its a scam. It would be from a legitimate email address though, which would be enough. Reference number, probably not a problem, but with the system we have it may also be annoying to locate.

        If I called you, and you asked for that sort of confirmation though, I’d happily go out of my way to make it work. I’d rather people question this sort of thing than just bumble along and get caught out by a scammer.

  • Sounds like your in the ATO. Im an agent and I have pointed these issues out to so many Officers and they cant see an Issue. ” Well you could call the ATO and ask for my ext if you think Im not from the ATO. ” I think every call from the ATO is a scam.

    ATO Proof of Id is a joke and they need to fix.

  • They’re gonna need to perfect an Aussi accent before I take any notice of them. Just Sayin’

    • Considering the amount of poms/Asians/Indians/etc in Australian call centres that doesn’t really work. Hell I’ve had people written up before for racially abusing my indian staff on internal helpdesk because the douchenozzles think we’ve outsourced.

      • My point is that every single scam call I’ve had and I’ve had an awful lot, had an Indian/Asian accent. Never had a scam call that I can recall, that had an Australian/English accent. So whether a call is a scam or not, as soon as I hear that accent, I’m on guard for the worst.

        • I just trashed the ringer in my house phone. I can dial out for 1300/1800 numbers because they’re a ripoff on mobiles, but I’ll never know or care if anyone dialed in.

  • Yeah but the half share of $27 000 000 I’m getting from this guy in Dubai who manages this account of a relative with the same last name as mine but who died without a will or any immediate relatives is totally legit.

    He said the money should have arrived by last Monday but I’m sure it’s just some last minute paperwork snag as to why it’s not there yet.

    Yep any day now….

    Maybe I should buy a boat?

  • Don’t you need to pay him money upfront as there is some sort of problem with the transaction and they need money to clear it. No wonder you haven’t received your inheritance yet!

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