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Scams: greed and the search for happiness

feature theo main scams are even more poignant when people’s feelings are being exploited
Scams are even more poignant when people’s feelings are being exploited

Frauds are as old as the hills, but they’re proliferating in the age of hacking and data harvesting

Every day seems to bring news of another online scam, inevitably followed by police urging people for the umpteenth time to be wary of fraudsters.

Among the most recent was a Limassol man who was scammed out of over €17,000 after placing an order with a foreign company claiming to trade in used cars. He’d received an introductory email from the company and placed an order for five cars, sending an advance to a bank account supplied by them. He only realised he’d been cheated a month later, when he found there was no record of the cars ever having been loaded for transport to Cyprus.

That’s a classic financial scam, the kind that’s been amplified – but not really invented – by the internet; the world of business has always been prey to shady characters.

What’s different today is the way even ordinary people – who live their lives online to an extent undreamt-of by previous generations – are pursued by highly organised, sophisticated scammers, preying on their inexperience and vulnerability.

Just a day before the car scam in Limassol, for instance, came a warning about ‘romance scams’, a type of fraud that relies on manipulating victims through dating websites and social media. And a few days before that came news of another scam, where victims receive fake emails purporting to be from the Cyprus police, informing them that they’re being investigated for sex offences and have 24 hours to reply.

file photo: automobiles are shown for sale at a car dealership in carlsbad, california
A Limassol man paid over €17,000 to a company purporting to trade in used cars

Those who do reply receive another email, as Sofoklis Panayiotou, an officer with the Cybercrime Subdivision, told the Cyprus Mail. The second email informs them that a decision has been taken not to prosecute them – but instead they have to pay a fine, at which point the scammer asks for their credit-card details.

One wouldn’t think this scam would be very successful. After all, most recipients won’t reply at all, because they know they’re not sex offenders – and they certainly won’t agree to pay a fine. That’s the point, however, the industrial scale at which these scams operate: all it takes are those few who may have a guilty conscience, for whatever reason.

This is the age of data, and data harvesting. Scammers have lists “with thousands, maybe millions” of phone numbers and emails worldwide – often with contact details, making it easier to gain people’s trust. Unlike the crooks of old, who picked their victims carefully, online crooks are indiscriminate. They toss out the bait, and see who bites.

Even so, says Panayiotou, “the truth is that most people won’t fall victim to any scam”.

Everyone’s a target, but not everyone is equally susceptible. “One study showed that 48 per cent of people could potentially fall into this trap,” psychiatrist Georgios Mikellides told the Cyprus Mail. “More often young adults, and not very well educated.” That’s a lot – yet it still leaves 52 per cent who are likely (or likelier) to resist temptation.

That said, age isn’t really the biggest factor. Older people can be easier to fool, if anything, since they’re still bound to old ideas of authority and “assume that everything that appears on their screen has been checked and approved”, as Panayiotou puts it.

What defines the vulnerable 48 per cent is more a mixture of personality traits and personal circumstances.

Impulsiveness is a major factor, recklessness is another. These are gamblers’ traits, and scams do indeed feed the thrill-seeking side that comes out in gambling. It’s crucial to note that victims almost always sense that something’s off. “It sounds too good to be true, and it’s not true,” says Mikellides – yet people get carried away and take a risk, like the gambler putting money on a long shot in irrational hopes of receiving a windfall.

Most scams prey on greed – or not even greed but the lure of easy money, the same thrill you get in casinos.

“You’re making money, and that buzz is stronger than anything,” says Chris (not his real name), trying to explain why he fell for the ‘GBK scam’ that was all the rage about six months ago.

This was actually a pyramid scheme, with participants recruited through Facebook then later recruiting each other. People put in money – €100 initially – and got it back in 20 days, €5 a day, as long as they performed some online promotional work (the scam seemed legit; there were even ‘mentors’ one could talk to in a Viber group), after which they kept earning but were also encouraged to move to the next tier, with a €200 buy-in, and meanwhile new members kept coming in. It was a bubble, and everyone sensed it was a bubble – yet they kept buying in and moving up, hoping to make a profit before it collapsed. One day the site simply vanished, leaving most of its members in the red.

There are all kinds of scams, indeed the biggest worry at the moment is their sheer proliferation. There are phone scams, hacked accounts on Instagram, plus the old ‘letters from Nigeria’. Some promise to invest victims’ money, or offer various services that never materialise. Many involve cryptocurrencies, a subject that baffles people while also being synonymous with insane profits.

One might say there are two general types: scams that work on fear, like the fake email accusing people of being sex offenders – and scams that work on hope (but a kind of irrational hope), like the ones that promise money and happiness. The latter are perhaps the more dangerous – and it’s one thing when victims have Euro signs in their eyes but it’s even more poignant when their feelings are being exploited, as in the case of romance scams.

The 48 per cent (or whatever) are the most vulnerable among us, hence the most susceptible to manipulation. Scammers, meanwhile, are charming, says Mikellides: “They’re polite, they’re nice, they appear ‘compassionate’… And people in their loneliness, people who have difficulties in their social life – they might be very isolated – feel a false hope, a hope that ‘You never know’ or ‘What if…?’.”

The victims of romance scams are usually single, older women. The scammers make contact through social media and may pose as international doctors, or charity workers, or US soldiers stationed in Iraq or Syria. “I’m in love with you. I’m going to leave Syria and come and get you, and we’ll go to the States and build our dream house,” they might say, according to Panayiotou – but then, after a while, they add that it’s hard to get money out from a war zone, and could the woman send some money herself, to put down a deposit on the dream house.

It’s an obvious scam; the man won’t even show himself (they chat online), making excuses when she asks for a video. Yet the victims are often in denial – and “even at the end”, says Panayiotou, “when relatives find out and try to persuade them, they refuse to accept that it’s a scam, that they’ve been living a fantasy… Because psychologically they feel good.”

If you’re insecure, adds Mikellides, “and someone’s out there trying to make you feel good, then you start to appreciate that person – and you start to fall in love with them”.

In the end, the scariest thing about online scams is that so many of them – the ones built on hope, specifically – aim for the same pleasure centres that are activated by social media in general: the buzz of connecting with a stranger, the thrill of being loved and rewarded, the promise of escape to a more exciting world. The old financial scams were just business – but the new ones are personal, intertwined with the way we live now.

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