The Psychology of Scams: Why People Fall Victim And How to Protect Yourself

We all know the feeling of dread when the notification telling us that we’ve been hacked comes through. What’s worse is to find out that the hacker has access to our bank account or any other personal details. Best believe, the fear in that moment is real.

3D illustration of a cybercriminal.
Photo by Growtika on Unsplash

However, did you know that you may have been scammed without actually realizing it? By that, we mean way long after the scam took place. Don’t believe this? Find out from those who have fallen victim to online dating scams.

It’s unsettling to imagine that the one you’ve grown close to might turn out to be a catfish, which is why it is important to understand the psychology behind the common scams in our society.

How Do Scammers Operate?

Most people think that scammers are “low-life” individuals who are out to get people in any way. But it isn’t always the case. Scammers come from all walks of life, and most can’t be seen as typical fraudsters. They’re just normal people like everyone around who have come up with the idea of making a quick buck by manipulating gullible individuals.

Scammers typically go for bank account credentials, social security numbers, or any other crucial particulars that could be used to commit fraud. To get you to give them this information, they run a background check on you to confirm if you are a potential victim, and then employ the psychological trick that matches your personality or situation.

Techniques like spoofing, phishing, smishing, fake profiles and photos, computer pop-ups, and robocalls come in handy to scammers. They help them create fictitious scenarios that make you believe their schemes. And more often than not, these fraudsters hit the spot.

As proof, the latest data from the FTC reveals that in 2022, consumers reported a staggering loss of almost $8.8 billion due to fraud, marking a significant increase of over 30% from the previous year.

Why Do People Get Scammed?

Scams are more than just a matter of ignorance or carelessness. After all, nobody wants to lose their hard-earned money or personal data to a fraudster. There are many reasons why people become victims, all of which hinge on the fact that they are intentionally misled into accepting what is not real. This happens through:

Emotional Vulnerability

Being at your lowest, facing financial difficulties, battling health issues, or feeling lonely are all scenarios that can be exploited by scammers. Like how sharks can smell blood from a wounded animal a quarter mile away, con artists can sense your vulnerability over the phone or online.

Picture this scenario: a con artist comes across a divorced male’s Facebook profile looking for love again. In response, they create an appealing female profile with a similar background and start a conversation to build a connection. Throughout their interactions with the divorcé, they’ll exhibit qualities that endear them to him.

Say, the victim's ex-spouse was rude and indifferent. The scammer, in turn, might play the role of a gentle, caring, and supportive lady. They’ll text him all day, support him and make him laugh, creating a sense of security. This earns them his trust.

Before long, a financial crisis, health issue, family emergency, or a planned visit comes out of the woodwork, justifying the request for cash. The victim bites the bait, and it becomes a never-ending cycle of emotional and financial exploitation.

Social Engineering

A fraudster can pose as a family member, friend, employer, or colleague to manipulate you. In doing so, they learn about your likes and dislikes, your current relationship status, and personal experiences. Some of them build rapport with you on the pretense of helping you in a personal or professional capacity.

For instance, a hacker can impersonate a manager to persuade you to send your banking details or a list of confidential employee records. Such information can be used for illegal purposes such as identity theft and money laundering.


Pressuring you to make a quick decision on an investment, opportunity, or even a date in online chats and phone calls is a common way to get you to invest in fake situations. These are all aimed at getting you to hand over your hard-earned money and credentials as fast as possible.

You may get an email telling you that you’ve won a prize and must pay a small fee to receive it in the next 24 hours or risk losing it to someone else. This leaves little time for you to verify the claim.

It may be common sense to just say “no,” but that’s easier said than done, as humans are naturally inquisitive and, to an extent, greedy.

Lack of Vigilance

Fraudsters can prey on your failure to be vigilant and spot red flags or verify facts, especially when you are under pressure to take quick actions, desperate for a solution. Here is a case in point: while driving, you get a text alert from your bank about suspicious account activity and a request to verify your information. Worried and distracted, you enter your credentials via the provided link, and shortly after, your phone is flooded with debit alerts.

Now, you’re having a panic attack. You decide to pull over and examine the text, only to discover that it’s riddled with spelling mistakes, an unfamiliar URL, and incorrect contact details. You’ve been scammed.

The Four Stages of a Scam

Although the way a scam plays out varies from case to case, most of them generally undergo these four phases:

Before a scam is carried out, a fraudster conducts in-depth research on their victims. They find out where to locate them, the best way to contact them, and the best way to convince them to part with their money. They are more likely to pull off their tricks if the victim is at a vulnerable point in their life.

The Bait

Once they’ve done their homework, the fraudster casts their line with convincing fabricated stories, spoofed phone numbers, online ads, or fake reviews. They patiently wait for someone to take the bait, often succeeding after a few failed attempts. In some cases, the unsuspecting victim naively introduces the scammer to other potential targets.

The Big Catch

The moment they hook their victim, they’ll act as though they care about them and their situation, and then reel them in with false promises of a solution. This is often done with a sense of urgency. The victim may be invited to provide their credentials for a fake job, make purchases from a fake business, or invest in a shady money-making scheme. Bingo! One victim in the bag!

The Dump

It’s a done deal at this point, and the scammer is riding off into the sunset. The victim realizes the ploy and is distressed, disappointed, embarrassed, and sad. Unfortunately, there’s little the police and banks can do about it.

How to Avoid Falling Victim to Scams

Now that we’ve understood how scammers operate, here are some tips to help you prevent falling victim to their schemes:

Be Proactive About Your Personal And Financial Records

Keep them safe by practicing good cybersecurity habits and regularly monitoring all activities on your accounts. If you suspect any signs of fraudulence, contact the concerned authorities and take steps to limit the damage immediately.

Be Wary of People And Their True Intentions

Don’t be swayed by seemingly genuine claims. Scammers may sound nice and caring, but their actions often tell a different story.

Be Aware of Your Emotional Vulnerability

Don’t make yourself easily susceptible to anyone you meet or come across online. If someone makes an offer that seems too good to be true or says that they want to help you in any way, they’re most likely scamming you. To know who you’re talking to, run a background check on the person who reached out to you on Nuwber, a people search engine with hundreds of millions of records of US citizens.

What to Do If You Have Been Scammed

Nine times out of ten you can’t get your money back from scammers, but there are some steps you can take to limit the damage. They include the following:


The methods scammers use to prey on people vary, but the end goal is always the same—to steal your money, credentials, or both. As such, you should be extra careful when interacting with a stranger online or on the phone. If you suspect that something is off, discontinue the conversation and report the incident. The sooner you do, the less severe consequences you will face.