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Five Ways to Avoid Getting Ripped Off

Thinking critically and acting assertively can protect you from getting scammed

Rip offs come in many flavors. Often they are financial, but they can also be related to any behavior someone wants you to engage in that, in truth, isn't in your best interest. Below I offer five ways to avoid being ripped off financially or otherwise.

Keep your psychological buffer in place

Whenever you meet someone new, both you and that person put up a psychological "buffer" that serves the important purpose of allowing you to evaluate the other with a bit of detachment. We popularly call this our "guard" (as in "be careful about letting down your guard"). As your evaluation continues, your brain is calculating multiple factors that are fed into your decision-making process for whether to continue developing a less detached connection with the person, or keep your guard well in place (perhaps even fortify it).

When someone is trying to persuade, cajole or flat-out take advantage of you, the first thing they'll often attempt is to short circuit your buffer. One way of doing this is by using something (or someone) with which you have an emotional link and leveraging it to make use of the connection. For example, if you have your child with you when you go to a car dealership, it's a safe bet that the sales person will do as much as she/he can to win your kid over. Your emotional connection with your child provides massive bandwidth for a skillful sales person to leverage against your psychological buffer.

That's just one example, and this tactic certainly isn't exclusive to sales. Research shows that one of the skills seasoned criminals possess is to instantly "read" people to determine whose guard will be easiest to circumnavigate. Keeping your buffer in place necessarily entails being assertive, perhaps more than you usually are. Unfortunately, cons and criminals prey on the niceness of others to get what they want.You can be congenial and assertive at the same time--and don't feel bad about it. Better to amp up your assertiveness now and protect yourself than become a nice victim.

Don't uncritically accept someone else's framing

If you've ever been in an argument and suddenly realize that the ground has shifted and your points are losing their bearings, it may be because the other person has cleverly reframed the argument. For example, let's say you are debating whether a tax increase is warranted to better fund the public school system. You're in favor of the increase and have offered several solid points to support your argument. But your opponent argues that if public schools benefit from a tax increase, then private schools will be disadvantaged--thus, the tax increase will create a terrible inequity. This leads to an argument about the efficacy of public vs. private education, and suddenly most of your original points no longer apply.

The problem here is obvious (at an objective distance): the inequity issue was never germane to the argument. Public and private schools by definition do not have equal footing; one is funded solely by tax revenue, and the other is funded by tuition and private contributions. The funding mechanisms are distinct by design, and whether one mechanism provides more or less funding depends on a slew of additional factors. But by reframing the argument to focus on whether one should be privileged over the other, your opponent has deflated your points and forced you to shift focus to a different argument. It's important to note, however, that by not catching the shift and calling the other person out, you unwittingly consented.

When someone is trying to persuade you, for instance, to give them money for a purpose you are not convinced is worthwhile, watch out for this reframing trick. The other person may be shifting the discussion to a topic you are less equipped to argue, which puts you at a disadvantage and increases your chances of being ripped off.

Don't be shy about challenging emotional pleas

They may be the oldest tricks in the book, but emotional pleas are still alarmingly effective rip-off tactics. Here's an example taken from my personal portfolio of rip offs: one night a few years back I left a grocery store and was walking to my car when a girl approached me in the parking lot. She looked like any average college student, and her face was flush and it seemed she'd been crying. She told me that her car had run out of gas and someone helped her push it into a gas station a couple blocks from the grocery store, but she didn't have any money for gas to get home.

She said the person who helped her push the car wouldn't lend her money, and the gas station attendants told her that she couldn't leave her car there or they'd have it towed. They also told her, she claimed, that she couldn't ask the gas station's customers for money or the attendants would call the police. Without any other options, she walked to the closest parking lot in hopes that someone would lend her any amount of money just to get enough gas to drive home a few miles away. "Would you please be willing to help me?" she pleaded.

This was not the first time I'd been approached for "gas money" so I was instantly wary, but I'm usually pretty good at seeing through the facade. In this case, though, I became convinced that this girl's plight was real. Her story was delivered without a hiccup, and she seemed genuinely frightened. I decided that I couldn't let her stand in a parking lot at night asking people for help, so I gave her $5.00 and offered to drive her back to her car. She couldn't accept the ride, she said, because she was afraid of getting into a stranger's car (a totally legitimate concern), so she thanked me for the money and started walking in the direction of the gas station. I loaded up my groceries, got into my car and sat there for a couple minutes wondering if I'd just been scammed. I decided to drive by the gas station to see if she actually walked back there and was putting gas in her car. You can already guess that neither she, nor the car, were there. I went inside and asked the two attendants working if they had spoken to a girl that night whose car had run out of gas. Nope.

It's a sad commentary that well-intentioned concerns, like not wanting someone to get hurt in a parking lot at night, can so easily be used to rip people off--but they are, all the time. Don't be shy about challenging the emotional plea, digging deeper, and watching for any signs of a con.

Don't fall for counterfactual manipulation

Psychologists use the term "counterfactual" to explain how regret, one of the most dreaded emotions, works in our minds. When you regret a decision, or even start regretting the outcome of making (or not making) a future decision, you are 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 serves an important purpose: it enables us to learn from the outcomes of poorly made decisions. This is, in fact, the usefulness of regret. None of us like feeling it, and sometimes it hurts like hell, but from an adaptive learning standpoint, it's absolutely necessary.

Because regret is such a powerful dynamic, it's one of the main tools used by cajolers of every stripe to get us to see things their way. Someone (perhaps a sales person, though it doesn't have to be) will set up the factors in a given decision such that it appears making one choice instead of the other will amount to immediate and lasting regret. This is how stores sell warranty and "product insurance" plans, which are really just sources of pure profit because seldom does anyone use them.

Maybe you've heard this line before when you've purchased a new TV or computer: "The insurance plan on this item is less than 5% of the total cost, and you'll have peace of mind that your investment is covered if, for example, a power surge blows out the equipment." "Power surges" are a favorite tool to elicit counterfactual thinking because they're so mysteriously dangerous. You never know when one might strike, and you'll never know what caused it. "Imagine," the pitch continues, "if you don't buy the plan and a year from now your $2000 TV is destroyed by a sudden power surge." The customer's mind races to the future, a smoldering TV in her living room, $2000 gone just like that. "A mere 5% now to avoid that terrible fate later? Sure, it's the smart thing to do."

When someone sets up decision factors in such a way that you are forced to experience a sort of "pre-regret" for not making the "right" decision, ask yourself whether you are being manipulated. In some cases, forcing someone to examine the potentially regretful outcome of a decision is warranted (like what could happen if you don't get an H1N1 flu shot). But when something is being sold, or anytime money is involved--particularly when one party gets all the upfront benefit from the transaction--the chances that you're being manipulated increase significantly.

Don't allow anyone to push you into a category decision

This final rip-off tactic is the most holistic of the bunch because it can hit you from multiple angles. Take political affiliation. Let's say you've voted Republican for several years, but this election year you find yourself disagreeing with positions taken by a few Republican candidates. You tell a Republican friend what you're thinking, and get this response: "But aren't you a real Republican? Or are you becoming just another RINO (Republican In Name Only)?" Political parties thrive on persuading you to stick to your category because it's part of your identity.

Same goes for race, ethnicity, social class and hundreds of other categories that others may try to convince you are integral to your identity, and thus should dictate how you make a given decision. But any decision made so uncritically is a bad idea. Perhaps in the end you will choose to decide in favor of the category position anyway, but doing so just because you are "in" that category is much different than doing so because you've evaluated all of the relevant factors and determined that the decision is in your best interest.