Research Paper-Report: The Psychology Of Scams – Provoking And Committing Errors Of Judgement

Author: Prepared for the Office of Fair Trading by the University of Exeter School of Psychology
Date: May 2008
Audience: Scam Victims / General Audiences / Government

Keywords: Psychology Of Scams, Errors of Judgment, Cognitive And Motivational Processes, Exploit Different Vulnerabilities, Persuasive Approach, Manipulation

The Psychology Of Scams:
Provoking And Committing Errors Of Judgement

Written In Brittish English


According to the Office of Fair Trading (2006), 3.2 million adults in the UK fall victim to mass marketed scams every year, and collectively lose £3.5 billion. Victims of scams are often labelled as ‘greedy’ or ‘gullible’ and elicit the reaction, ‘How on earth could anyone fall for that?’

However, such labels are unhelpful and superficial generalisations that presume all of us are perfectly rational consumers, ignoring the fact that all of us are vulnerable to a persuasive approach at one time or another.

Clearly, responding to a scam is an error of judgement – so our research sought to identify the main categories of decision error that typify victim responses, and to understand the psychology of persuasion employed by scammers to try to provoke such errors.

Although scams are by definition illegal and illegitimate as the ‘product’ being sold is non-existent, worthless, or of little value, the way in which they are marketed has much in common with legitimate products. A successful scam involves all the standard elements of the ‘marketing mix’ and the building of a relationship between marketer and customer – that is, between scammer and victim.


The present research suggests that the psychological reasons for responding to scams involve a mixture of cognitive and motivational processes. Whilst different kinds of scam do exploit different vulnerabilities to some extent, there are similarities between scams in their content and the use of persuasive techniques. The greatest and most consistent emphasis was on:

  • appeals to trust and authority: people tend to obey authorities so scammers use, and victims fall for, cues that make the offer look like a legitimate one being made by a reliable official institution or established reputable business;
  • visceral triggers: scams exploit basic human desires and needs – such as greed, fear, avoidance of physical pain, or the desire to be liked – in order to provoke intuitive reactions and reduce the motivation of people to process the content of the scam message deeply. For example, scammers use triggers that make potential victims focus on the huge prizes or benefits on offer.

There are also a number of other error-inducing processes that emerged, including:

  • Scarcity cues. Scams are often personalised to create the impression that the offer is unique to the recipient. They also emphasise the urgency of a response to reduce the potential victim’s motivation to process the scam content objectively;
  • Induction of behavioural commitment. Scammers ask their potential victims to make small steps of compliance to draw them in, and thereby cause victims to feel committed to continue sending money;
  • The disproportionate relation between the size of the alleged reward and the cost of trying to obtain it. Scam victims are led to focus on the alleged big prize or reward in comparison to the relatively small


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