'People are gullible to believe whatever’s told to them': Inside the mind of an ex-scammer
Amid the rise in scam cases during the pandemic, CNA speaks to an ex-offender who was involved in multiple scams to understand what makes some people more susceptible to such crimes.
SINGAPORE: The smarter you seem to be, the easier it could be for a scammer to manipulate you.
It is a truth bomb that Jon (not his real name) drops midway through a conversation with CNA. The ex-offender, who served three years and seven months in prison for multiple cheating scams, doesn’t mince his words when asked to recall memorable characteristics of his former victims.
“We stroke their ego, especially when they’re ‘up there’ with a position as a lawyer, doctor, surgeon. So they will feel good about themselves, and when they feel good, they will make decisions that sometimes they don’t think through,” the 34-year-old shared.
Since getting out of prison, Jon has changed his name to start anew - but recurring regrets from having duped individuals prompted him to open up about his past, so potential scam victims can be more aware.
His sharing is timely. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) reported a rise in scam cases during the pandemic. E-commerce scams ranked first among scam types in Singapore, with a “significant number” reported during the “circuit breaker period”, said MHA.
Social media impersonation scams and phishing scams also saw significant increases, while loan scams also rose.
In Jon’s case, his scams involved timeshare membership - a ‘vacation package’ where one pays in advance to use a resort or hotel overseas for a period of time at a price below the market rate. He had conned victims into believing they could recover money from terminating their membership.
But he believes no matter the scam type, victims share similar characteristics that might make them more susceptible to scammers who tend to be “very good in human psychology” and know how to “trigger emotional states”.
WHO FALLS PREY?
Greed is one notable characteristic.
Jon recalled a bulk of his victims as “rich, but want to save so much”. Couples, especially the newly wed, also tended to be more greedy when it came to affordable holidays.
“They would start asking us, how much would it cost to bring my parents or if I were to go every six months? What is the discount? Usually we don’t tell them these things (upfront), but when we observe their eyes light up as we do the price comparison, we know they’re greedy,” he said.
“For young couples, we’d mention the product they purchase can be passed down to future generations. We told them if there were inflation, prices would go up, but this holiday price will stay the same. Now when I think back, that line is very stupid.”
According to joint managing partner of Emerald Law, Keith Hsu, just because you have money doesn’t mean you’re a savvy investor.
"These people also fall prey to human emotion and greed. The scammer knows how to make these victims think they’re making a smart decision by investing with them,” he said.
Mr Mohammad Rizuan, the firm's other joint managing partner who represented Jon in court and who facilitated the interview with him shared that some people may be more vulnerable than others, but there are also victims who normally wouldn’t fall prey to scams.
“The caution of needing to do due diligence every time still holds. Just because everyone seems to be going for something doesn’t mean it’s not a scam,” added Mr Hsu.
However, clinical psychologist Dr Annabelle Chow believes a person’s “cognitive errors” are a greater pull than emotional triggers, at least at the start.
“People often assume that those less educated will be more emotionally vulnerable. But research shows that’s not necessarily true,” she told CNA.
“Scam victims typically invest more cognitive effort in analysing scam material than non-scam victims. For example, someone who has some knowledge about financial securities will more likely fall for a financial security scam than someone with zero knowledge. If you have zero knowledge, you will just throw the information away, and not engage or interact with it.”
Some scams are personalised to the victim, creating the impression that the offer isn’t just unique to the recipient, but also scarce, added Dr Chow.
“During COVID-19, there were many scams about masks and sanitisers. If there’s a guaranteed supply of low-cost sanitiser or face masks, because there’s a scarcity and people want it, then you’re more likely to fall for it - even if you are aware there’s a likelihood that you’re being scammed.”
Once cognitive errors have successfully clouded one's judgement, that’s where emotional motivation kicks in, she added. Often, this motivation is fear, such as a fear of loss of opportunity or privilege, or fear of law enforcement.
Overcoming this requires self-awareness, but it can be “very difficult, because you don’t know what you don’t know”, added Dr Chow.
She noted that the key to being more aware of our cognitive biases is to speak to people. Even if you don’t want to alarm your friends and family about a potential scam, talk to banks or the police.
“The process of talking will help you make sense (of whether something is a scam and what to do),” she said.
If in doubt, the best approach put forward by many is to abide by the common-sense advice: Whenever something feels too good to be true, it usually is.
It’s a warning that’s been shared multiple times by the Singapore Police Force in advisories to the public to protect themselves against scams.
But Jon, who was a police officer during his National Service, has been on “both sides of the spectrum” and knows “the power play”.
Staying away from scams isn’t so straightforward. His days as a scammer taught him that “people are gullible to believe whatever’s told to them without actually doing research”.
For instance, he explained, if someone said you could stay in a suite at Marina Bay Sands for $300 for three nights right now, you might be inclined to believe it without checking, knowing how COVID-19 impacted the tourism industry.
He also pointed out an online job scam that recently targeted him. He’d received an SMS claiming to be from Lazada, which included a URL that would have directed him to “set up a store as a merchant”.
“Usually companies have their own SMS system. And I believe Lazada would’ve sent me a message via the app rather than sending me a private message,” he reasoned.
As such, one of the more general, tangible red flags to look out for is the word ‘today’, he shared.
“Today we have a special promotion ... today we have this price ... if you join today ... everything begins with the word ‘today’. It’s because scammers don’t want you to wait to act. If I tell you any information, you may process it 80 per cent now. But when you go home, you’re left with 50 per cent. The conviction won’t be there,” he said.
This urgency is something Mr Hsu from Emerald Law also highlighted.
“Don’t be too quick to give your money to someone else. If somebody’s rushing you to give your money by the end of the day, if there’s an urgent request, then you know there’s a major red flag,” he said.
Prior to the pandemic, the law firm saw about one or two scam cases a month, although many cases might not be worth engaging a lawyer to pursue, he added.
A NEW START
These days, Jon puts his expertise in sales to better use - by taking up a course in digital marketing under the SGUnited Skills Programme with SkillsFuture.
Asked why he is revisiting his murky past when he could easily move on, he explained that he’d like to use his experience to educate people. He’s even toying with the idea of creating a podcast to raise awareness about scams.
“There are many ways to approach this. I have changed my name. Those people who know me, know me. I can’t run from it; I can’t change my face. But for those who don’t know me, I can educate them,” he said.
“Scammers are getting very creative. Even today, we’re seeing many people being scammed in many different aspects.”
Taking money from people is a decision that haunts him till today.
“Sometimes I think about my next pay day, and how I would feel if my savings were scammed by a person like me; if I needed the $10,000 for my child’s education, for example," he said.
If there was a way for Jon to earn back the amount he'd scammed from his victims, he admitted he "would like to eventually return the money".
“As you grow older, you have this conscience that builds up inside. That conscience hits you every night before you sleep," he said.
And what this conscience tells him is this: “I want people to know you don’t have to make money the ‘easy’ way. You can make it the legitimate way, and it can still feel easy.”