Why Are Lottery Scams So Powerful?

Applying theories of undue influence to lottery scams.

Posted Jan 23, 2019

Interviewing chronic victims of mass-market scams like lottery or sweepstakes scams has often been frustrating as a clinician. At the time of my involvement as a consulting neuropsychologist with Adult Protective Services, the older victim expresses almost unshakable beliefs in the scheme and seems unable to process the much more likely realty that they have been scammed. These initial interviews have led me to initially assume that the older adult must have some underlying cognitive impairment or mental illness to have been tricked for so long. That is, I tended to look toward understanding the victim.

Further investigation of these cases, however, has led me to a different conclusion: While some of the victims certainly have vulnerabilities, much of the behavior we observe can be understood based on principles of undue influence and power differentials.

At the beginning of the relationship, the senior has all the power, to respond or not. The scammer needs to work hard to gain her attention and to maintain it for any length of time. Frequent tactics include ingratiation and affection plus affinity. These tactics may pay off with the start of a relationship.

Once a relationship has been established, client vulnerabilities and psychological needs are assessed and noted by the scammer. These inventories assist in crafting later pitches that will be deemed legitimate or credible by the victim.

Over time, the victim begins to value the relationship and begins to pay out money toward whatever “collaborative” scheme has been pitched. As the money adds up, the scammers power grows based on principles of sunk costs and reciprocity.

As the scammers gain authority and power in the relationship, they can add tactics such as coercion and intimidation to affection and ingratiation. They may use psychologically complex tactics that combine positives (your winnings will allow you to send all your grandchildren to college) with negative emotions (you will deeply regret failing to take this step). As it develops further, complex schemes and threats may be used to keep the senior in line. For example, I saw a case in which the victim believed relatives in Lithuania would be hurt if he did not comply with some complex set of instructions. The scammer also has considerable financial leverage at this point, with victims having paid out thousands of dollars.

Website Michael May  2014
Understanding Undue Influence
Source: Website Michael May 2014

Over time, the scammer becomes more knowledgeable about the life of the victim, slowly inventorying their relationships and assets. As they build their web of schemes and threats, the story often becomes overwhelming and exhausting to the senior. They are afraid to share the details and believe that they are complicit in the illegal activity. Sadly, they often do become complicit in money-laundering schemes we have talked about before in this blog.


Quinn, M. J., Goldman, E., Nerenberg, L., & Piazza, D. (2010). Undue influence: Definitions and applications. Salt Lake City, Utah. The Borchard Foundation for Law and Aging,