How scammers use psychology to create some of the most compelling internet downsides and what to watch out for

Online fraud is the most common crime today. Victims are often told they are foolish for taking the plunge, but scammers use psychological mechanisms to infiltrate their targets’ defenses, no matter how smart they are.

So it’s important to keep up with the latest scams and understand how they work.

Recently, the consumer protection magazine Which? identified some of the most compelling scams of 2023. These scams all have one thing in common: They insidiously exploit people’s cognitive biases and psychological blind spots.

They included pig slaughter, a way to fatten victims with affection, the missing person scam that involves posting fake content on social media pages, the traditional PayPal scam, and a new scam called fake app alert where the malware is hidden on apps that look legitimate.

Pig slaughter

In our work as fraud psychology researchers we have noticed a trend towards hybrid scams, which combine different types of fraud. Hybrid scams often involve investments in cryptocurrencies and sometimes use trafficked labour. In the United States alone, the FBI recently reported that people lost $3.3 billion ($2.6 billion) in 2023 to investment fraud.

Pig slaughter is a long-term deception. This type of scam combines elements of romance scams with an investment scam. The name comes from the strategy of fattening a victim with affection before slaughter.

It usually starts with a standard scam approach such as a text message, social media message, or introduction on a job board site.

Victims may initially raise their guard. However, these scams can play out over months, with the scammer slowly gaining the victims’ trust and striking up a romantic relationship while learning about their vulnerabilities.

For example, details about their financial situation, stress at work, and dreams about the life they want. Romance scammers often saturate their targets with near-constant affection and contact. Pig slaughter sometimes involves several trafficked people working as a team to create one person.

Once the victim depends on the scammer for their emotional connection, the scammer introduces the idea of ​​making an investment and uses fake crypto platforms to prove the returns. Fraudsters can use cryptocurrencies and legit sounding platforms. Victims can invest and see strong returns online. In reality, their money goes straight to the scammer.

Once a victim transfers a significant amount of money to the scammer, they are less likely to back out. This phenomenon is known as the sunk cost fallacy. Research has shown that people are likely to continue to invest money, time and effort into activities they have already invested in and ignore signs that the effort is not in their best interests.

When the victim runs out of money or tries to withdraw funds, they are blocked.

The victim is not only left with financial devastation, but also with the loss of what they can imagine to be their most intimate relationship. They are often too embarrassed to discuss the experience with friends and family or to report to the police.

Broken heart red paper on white keyboard computer background.
It’s hard to imagine what a romance scam is like if you haven’t experienced one.

PayPal scams

Fake payout requests are a common attack that works on volume rather than playing the game long. Payment requests appear to come from a real PayPal address. Fraudulent messages typically start with a generic greeting, an urgent request, and a fake link.

For example, Dear User: You have received a payment or you have paid too much. Click the link below for details. Users are taken to a spoof website with a legitimate sounding name like and asked to enter their account information and password.

We both received these scam requests and even we found them difficult to distinguish from legitimate PayPal request emails. These scams work through mimicry and play on the human tendency to trust authority. Legitimate PayPal mailing is usually automated bot language, so it’s not hard to mimic.

But remember, authentic PayPal messages will use your first and last name.

The missing person scam

This appears to be a new scam that takes advantage of a person’s kindness. In the past, charity scams involved posing as a charity in response to a recent, real disaster.

The new missing person scam is more sophisticated. The initial appeal is a fake missing person post that generates likes and shares, increasing its credibility and exposure. Then the scammer modifies the content to create an investment scheme that now has the veneer of legitimacy.

This scam can work because the initial consumers are unaware that the content is fraudulent and there is no obvious claim. In psychology, this type of persuasion is known as social proof, the tendency for individuals to follow and copy the behavior of others.

Fake app alerts

People post mobile apps, designed to steal users’ personal information, on Google Play or the Apple App Store.

The app often has a legitimate function, which gives it a cover. Consumers unknowingly put their private information at risk by downloading these apps that use malware to access additional information.

While there has been media coverage of Android security issues, many users assume that the malware can’t bypass app store screening. Again, this scam plays on people’s trust in authority figures to keep Tjem safe.

Discuss any investment opportunities with friends, family or professionals. This is much easier said than done, but exercising caution is one of the best strategies to reduce the chance of becoming a victim of fraud.

Scammers count on people paying little or no attention to their emails or messages before clicking on them or providing any valuable information. When it comes to scams, the devil is in the missing details.

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