Neuronarrative: Quack Attack

How to avoid three common rip-offs and scams.

By David DiSalvo, published July 3, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Rip-offs come in many flavors. Though the stakes are often monetary—and the means at times illegal—they can center on any behavior someone wants you to engage in that's in their best interest, not yours. By keeping an out eye for three all-too-common mind tricks that invariably accompany them, you'll save your wallet and your dignity, too.

I The Buffer Buster

Whenever you meet someone new, you put up a psychological buffer that helps you evaluate the other person with a measure of protective detachment. Your brain then calculates whether it's safe to let down that shield. The more you sense that the person has much in common with you and "gets" who you are, the more likely you are to lower your guard.

You've probably experienced the feeling while talking to someone who grew up near you or who's battled the same illness you've faced: Commonality and empathy put you at ease. But a swindler contrives to establish the rapport that unfolds naturally among like-minded and well-intentioned people. He'll pepper his speech with sentiments and opinions that match your own, making you feel comfortable when you should be on alert.

Seasoned criminals instantly read people and determine whose armor will be easiest to pierce. A downward gaze, slumped posture, or shifting tone of voice tips predators off to a submissive personality. So it is wise to stay congenial but assertive at the same time. A healthy detachment is nothing to feel bad about.

Over the long term, a buffer buster knocks down your deeper defenses in order to obtain the level of trust reserved for loved ones. He may find out what you want and take on the role of a "friend" whose priority is to furnish it. In a classic swindle, a man gets close to an older woman. He offers her the company she says she's been missing—then starts asking to "borrow" money. Haven't I been good to you? he says. Then why can't you lend me more? He's exploiting the affection she's developed and siphoning her savings.

(News stories often focus on senior citizens being targeted—but that's based more on the bottom line than statistics. When it comes to consumer fraud such as Ponzi schemes and false credit card insurance offers, a Federal Trade Commission study found that people 65 or older did not experience more fraud than younger folks.)

Everyday salespeople use a similar "I'm your buddy" tactic—though to less criminal ends. Once they see a person to whom you're emotionally attached, they'll work the connection. If, for instance, you bring your child to a car dealership, take note of the free toy or coloring book: The gesture is meant to curry favor with you.

II The Regret Racket

"If only I'd chosen the other option!" Psychologists use the term "counterfactual" to explain how regret, one of the most uncomfortable emotions, works in our minds. When you second-guess a decision, or even start regretting the outcome of making (or not making) one later, you're engaging in counterfactual evaluation: "If I had done X, then I would have received Y. But instead I did W and it resulted in Z."

Counterfactual thinking helps us learn from poor decisions (hot stove plus hand equals very bad). None of us likes feeling regret, but from an adaptive standpoint it's absolutely necessary.

Because it's a powerful dynamic, however, regret is a great tool for wheedlers. They'll make it seem as if choosing one option over another will lead to lasting remorse.

Perhaps you've heard this line before: "The insurance plan is less than 5 percent of the total cost, and you'll have peace of mind that your new laptop is covered. Imagine you don't buy insurance," the pitch continues, "and a year from now your $2,000 computer is destroyed by a sudden power surge!"

Your mind races to the future: a smoldering computer, $2,000 gone. Never mind that you use a surge protector; you don't want to overlook what appears to be an imminent risk. When someone sets up a decision that forces you to feel "pre-regret," it's easy to be swayed.

Sometimes nudging someone to examine a potentially regretful outcome is warranted, as in the case of preventative medicine. But in the consumer arena, it's better to avoid hasty decisions based on imaginary regret than risk a more costly lament.

III The Compassion Con

They may be the oldest trick in the book, but emotional pleas are still alarmingly effective. Embarrassingly, I myself have been taken by a sob story.

One night I was walking from the supermarket to the parking lot when a college-aged young woman approached me. She looked frightened and like she'd been crying. Her car had run out of gas, she said. Though someone had helped her push it to a gas station nearby, she didn't have the money to get home. The attendants said she couldn't leave her car overnight or they'd have it towed. They also told her not to ask their customers for money—or else they'd call the police.

"Would you be willing to help me?" she pleaded. While the buffer buster shows concern and care for you, the compassion con artist gets you feeling sorry for her.

This was not the first time I'd been approached for "gas money." I was wary. Yet in this case I was convinced that the girl's plight was real. Her story was delivered without a hiccup, and she seemed genuinely scared. I gave her five dollars and offered to drive her back to her car. She couldn't accept the ride, she said, as she was afraid of getting into a stranger's vehicle (a legitimate concern).

I drove by the gas station; neither she nor the car were there. I asked the attendants if they'd talked with someone who'd run out of gas. No such girl.

Nonverbal cues, including microexpressions, may be vital to sniffing out bogus tales. Trouble is, we often fail to pick up on the subtle facial movements that betray a faker's facade. Research shows that most of us detect lies at roughly the same level as chance—even those whose work hinges on accurate detection, such as judges and FBI investigators. Oddly enough, empathy can both enhance and hinder awareness. An empathetic person might be more tuned-in to subtle signals and thus able to perceive that something's "off." On the flip side, "emotional contagion" (what I experienced) can lead you to "feel" the other's pain—and get duped.

It's sad that well-intentioned concerns, like not wanting someone to get hurt in a parking lot at night, can so easily be used to rip us off—but they are used, all the time. Rather than feel hopeless about the difficulty of recognizing crocodile tears, let that knowledge inform your decision to exercise skepticism. Better to amp up your wariness and protect yourself than become the kindest of victims.

Read author David DiSalvo's PT Blog: Neuronarrative.