Deconstructing a Scam

Common elements and tactics used in mass marketing scams.

Posted Sep 04, 2018

Mass Marketing Scams (MMS) are highly effective, persuasive pieces of communication. In my last post, I wrote about Helen, a chronic compliant scam victim and some of the scientific findings from a large project examining susceptibility to scams. This week, I thought I would dig in more to the common tactics used by scammers and share some insights gleaned by interviewing victims like Helen.

Scammers are aware of the findings from the scientific literature on persuasion.

We have conducted  informal and now formal content analysis of over 100 sweepstakes scam letters. Based on our work, these are common elements seen in mass market scam materials:

Calls to authority. The materials may include well known brand names, or some other “authority” to give it credibility. In a similar vein, you may accept a new Linked-In contact if the individual works for a “known” company or you share at least one connection.

Scammers often use repetition in their materials to put across the main message, which is the benefit you will receive.

Personalization. Scammers are much more sophisticated now and can use social media to personalize their pitch to you.

Scammers design their letters to maximize the likelihood that consumers will engage with the material. In our research we have seen scammers engage consumers with the use of color and big font emphasizing the rewards.

Affinity. Scammers want to connect emotionally. Affinitiy scams work especially well when they are personalized. For example, imagine a fake charity raising money for animal protection on a vegan or vegetarian site. Or as I see with my elderly clients, connections to World War II and to veterans.

But also, sometimes scammers play it straight and sell legitimate looking products on business type letters with legalese on the back that often contradicts the offer on the front.  

Do scammers misspell words or use poor grammar? Yes, we do see these types of errors. Particularly with online solicitations, suggesting individuals may not be native English speakers.

Scammers use tactics such as sunk costs (in for a penny, in for a pound), regret, and the meeting of psychological needs to keep individuals on the hook.

* All case examples used in this blog are “teaching cases” that are based on real cases but have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the client. As such each case example may contain elements from multiple cases and/or have demographic changes to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.