Are You Susceptible to Being a Victim of Consumer Fraud?

What may make you vulnerable and what can you do to reduce your risk.

Posted Aug 26, 2019

Have you ever been the victim of consumer fraud? In 2017, more than 47,000 scams were reported to the Better Business Bureau, by both individuals and businesses, resulting in a loss of more than $228 million (Better Business Institute, 2018). The Federal Trade Commission reported that in 2018, imposter scams topped the list of complaints at over one-half million (Federal Trade Commission, 2019).

It’s the rare person who hasn’t been sold a “bill of goods.” Fortunately, most people do not suffer substantial financial loss. However, as some salespeople become more sophisticated in their methods of deception and learning how to target susceptible individuals, the degree of harm to the victim is becoming more significant.

There are various ways people can be taken advantage of; for example,

  • Contract fraud—e.g., a consumer being deceived to enter into an exploitative contract
  • Phishing emails or texts conducted for the purpose of obtaining the individual’s personal information that will then be used fraudulently
  • Telemarketers and other salespeople who pressure people or overwhelm them with information about how this opportunity is “too good to pass up”   

Although you might believe that anyone who takes advantage of another in a business transaction is engaging in unethical behavior, it could be argued that “buyer beware” (a long-held accepted business disclaimer) places responsibility on consumers to know what they are doing. Intentional deceit, however, is not an acceptable business practice.

Do salespeople have an obligation to conduct an “evaluation” as to whether a potential consumer can or cannot make a knowing choice? This becomes a particularly thorny issue when considering the rights people have to make self-determination choices. Moreover, salespeople have an obligation to inform consumers of the advantages and disadvantages of accepting or rejecting the product or service being sold.

Certainly, there are some individuals for whom it is obvious that their mental functioning is so impaired that they do not have the capacity to enter into contracts or engage in other business transactions. Most questionable business practices are generally directed toward vulnerable individuals rather than those who are significantly impaired. According to Black and Woodworth (2014) and Choplin, Pogrund Stark, & Ahmad (2011), these include people who

  • are submissive
  • have low self-esteem
  • are anxious, depressed
  • do not do well with information overload
  • are reluctant to admit confusion or a lack of understanding
  • are not good at detecting lies or are reluctant to question inconsistencies

Age is another variable that can play a role in vulnerability to exploitation. An important age-related factor influencing vulnerability is cognitive abilities. Older aged people may have some processing and decision-making impairments making them less attentive to details (particularly that which are negative) and becoming unsettled by too much information or sensory overload. In addition, older people are frequently targeted because they may have easier access to large amounts of money in the form of retirement savings.

On the other hand, younger aged people are often targeted because of their lifestyle characteristics. Their extensive use of technology and computers may make them liable to electronic scams via the internet and emails. Although people of all ages use these forms of technology, younger aged individuals may be more susceptible because of their less vigilant attitudes toward disclosing personal information. Some have even proposed that “Millennials suffer from ‘optimism bias,’ the idea that other people are more vulnerable to scams than they are.” (Bach, 2016). This, in turn, may play a role in them being less concerned about their potential for risk and thus prone to make poor decisions.

Regardless of age or any other vulnerable characteristics, there are ways people can reduce their risk of being a victim of fraud or even exploitation. These include:

  • not making impulsive decisions or ones based on emotional feelings
  • listening to and heeding warnings of what are fraudulent appeals and how to avoid them
  • being less trusting and engaging in a healthy dose of skepticism with the salesperson
  • researching the product or company and looking for reviews, especially those noting complaints
  • talking to a trusted individual about the product/service and asking them what they think about it
  • not feeling obliged to appease the salesperson or to even continue engaging if you are feeling uncomfortable or don’t need the product/service
  • seeking the advice of people we trust can help us take a step back and hopefully make more informed and better financial decisions
  • never giving out personal information until you are assured this is not a fraudulent situation

Unfortunately, there are people who financially exploit others using methods that can be highly sophisticated and seductive or annoying and obnoxious. “Perpetrators” can be viewed as anything from skilled salespersons to unscrupulous crooks to predators. Given the pervasiveness of financial exploitation affecting all types of people, all of us should become over-cautious in our financial activities and in sharing our personal information.

If a deal or product is “too good to be true,” you probably should refuse it. Think about what those words are actually conveying—“too good to be true”—which, in that situation, may very well mean that it probably isn’t true. Take time before buying products or services or committing to financial terms. Consult, research, deliberate, and bear in mind emotional influences; do all of this before you take any action and possibly become a victim. Consider “buyer beware” as a helpful admonishment to those of us who may be vulnerable.

References

Bach, S. (August 20, 2016). Everyone is vulnerable to scams. Retrieved from https://www.postcrescent.com/story/money/2016/08/20/everyone-vulnerable-scams/88949764/

Better Business Institute for Marketplace Trust. (2018). 2017 BBB scam tracker annual risk report: New trends in scam risk. Retrieved from https://www.bbb.org/globalassets/local-bbbs/council-113/media/scam-tracker/risk-report/bbbscamtrackerannualreport-final-2017.pdf

Choplin, J, M., Pogrund Stark, D., & Ahmad, J. N. (2011). Psychological investigation of consumer vulnerability to fraud: Legal and policy implication. Law & Psychol. Rev, 35. 61-108.

Federal Trade Commission. (February 28, 2019). Imposter scams top complaints made to FTC in 2018. Retrieved from https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2019/02/imposter-scams-top-complaints-made-ftc-2018