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The Phone Scam That Targets Psychologists

Tactics generate almost hypnotic effects and wreak financial and emotional pain.

Key points

  • A phone scam based on proven tactics such as assumption of authority and gaslighting has been successfully targeting therapists.
  • Psychologists would seem to be unlikely victims, but they have key vulnerabilities such as being eager to assist others and problem solve.
  • Like any other targets, the victims of these scams may experience humiliation, depression, lack of confidence, and sleep problems.

Psychologists have been the targets of a phone scam. The scammers call and inform the clinician that they have missed a court appearance related to one of their clients and threaten to arrest them and revoke their license to practice if they do not take immediate action by paying a fine. The scammers then direct the targets to purchase gift cards and leave them at identified drop sites. In some instances, the scammer will even direct the victim to videotape themselves doing a “remote” strip search, claiming that such a video is necessary in lieu of a visit to the police station. Victims of this crime report feeling as if they were almost in a trance-like state and could not disengage from the scammer.

In our research lab at Scripps College, we have seen almost every type of scam. However, this “hypnosis” scam stretched even our conception of what scammers are capable of doing over the phone. We wondered if it was even possible for scammers to manipulate professional clinicians until a colleague reached out to Dr. Wood after seeing local press coverage to share that this exact scam had happened to her earlier in the year. She wanted to share her experience in an effort to destigmatize the experience of scams and warn other clinicians.

The colleague, “Jenny," reported that the experience had been harrowing. She reported that the caller seemed very professional and spoke with almost a military-type bearing. The phone number spoofed local law enforcement’s correct number. There was even a soundtrack of a police station in the background that added to the credibility. The “officer” informed her of the fee, and when she reported that she did not have $6,000 that she could withdraw from an ATM, he began to coach her regarding strategies to extract more money, including merging a call with her bank to raise the daily limit. He then directed her very specifically to different locations. He created all the rules of the interaction and alternated from authoritarian commands to helpful supportive comments. One rule was that she could not hang up the phone at any time. Despite this, at some point, Jenny was able to surreptitiously text her husband who met her at a store and convinced her to disengage. When asked about her experience, Jenny reported, “My brain was hijacked. I was in a state of fear and even though intellectually I understand the role of the amygdala in terms of inhibiting deliberative decision making, I could not access or use that knowledge." The interaction lasted several hours.

This scam relies on classic tactics frequently used by long-time scammers. Scammers induce an emotional reaction, often fear, from victims. Scammers next use the common gaslighting technique of repeatedly switching between positive and negative emotions. In this case, after frightening the victim with the threat of revoking their licensure and jail time, and inducing this emotional, high-stakes situation, scammers become friendly and are quick to provide a solution to alleviate the victim’s fear. The scammers induce compliance by making use of victims’ tendency to trust authority by speaking with a calm and authoritative tone as they explain how purchasing gift cards will end the fake crisis. In the process, they repeat instructions and deliberately make tasks complex by asking victims to drive around, purchase gift cards in different stores, and drop them into different mailboxes. Assigning increasingly complicated tasks, as well as repeating instructions to victims, are common techniques to make people complete irrational tasks without questioning their actions and inducing a trance-like state.

These tactics combine to result in producing the hypnosis effect victims have reported. Jenny also reported that the scammer waited until she was in her car away from her family to make specifics asks for cash. He also evoked “HIPAA” concerns and instructed her not to take incoming calls. Even though these tactics are not new, the fact that psychologists are being successfully targeted raises concern that anyone can be susceptible to scams, even highly-educated professionals.

When I asked Jenny why she thought that the scammers were targeting psychologists she reported that therapists are trained to assist others, be open, and problem solve. In addition, she reported that psychologists may be less likely to report these crimes because of feelings of shame and humiliation. She said, "We are supposed to be experts at reading other people and tactics like those used by the scammer," and acknowledged that victimization could impact her professional “brand." When asked for practical suggestions, Jenny reported that if individuals find themselves in this situation, they should try to evoke deliberative reasoning such as eating a snack. She found that when she took a second to eat, she thought of strategies to buy time—sharing her location with her spouse, and pretending to enter a cell “dead space” to buy time and contact others.

In addition to the financial implications of being scammed, we are finding that trauma symptoms are a common consequence of being a victim. Of course, all fraud victims are distressed regarding their financial losses, which in this case would have been significant, but the emotional effects, which can include humiliation, depression, lack of confidence, sleep problems, and anxiety, are often reported to have a greater impact on victims. Jenny was fortunate enough to disengage prior to any loss of funds but she still reported avoidance, sleep problems, and shaken confidence following the incident. She reported that even visiting the same stores where she was supposed to purchase gift cards causes significant anxiety and that she had sought support after the incident. At present, group therapy for fraud victims is uncommon. However, because trauma symptoms are common, we recommend that victims consider seeking therapy so that they can speak openly about their experiences in a safe non-judgmental environment.

Spread the word to colleagues about this dangerous scam.

This post was a collaboration between myself and Scripps Lab members Sophie Liles and Judith Zhao.

References

https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/phone-scam-therapists-16483…

Said, Carolyn. "He Held me hostage with no guns, but his words. New scam gaslighting therapists. San Fransisco Chronicle, September 27, 2021.

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