Why your vulnerability to a scam rests on your level of gullibility: Internet Scambusters #525
Gullibility -- it may be hard to measure but it's easy to detect because, to one degree or another, we all suffer from it.
But whether you're susceptible to a scam depends more on your state of mind and your trusting nature than on your level of intelligence.
So that means there's something you can do about it to reduce your gullibility, as we explain in this week's issue.
Let's check out today's...
The Gullibility Factor and What You Can Do About It
The success of nearly every scam that confronts us depends on one single factor -- gullibility, our willingness to believe something that's untrue, and then to take action that involves giving away money or information, circulating untrue emails, or downloading malware onto our computers.
But how susceptible are you and is there anything you can do about it?
Until recently, there's been very little research into the subject, but what we do know is that pretty much every individual is capable of being and, indeed, has been tricked, and that intelligence is no defense against the gullibility factor.
In fact, one of the world's leading gullibility experts, clinical psychiatry professor Stephen Greenspan, who wrote a book called The Annals of Gullibility, admits he was a victim of the Madoff Ponzi scheme that cost him 30% of his life savings.
However, studies do suggest that some of us are more gullible than others and that our susceptibility varies according to our circumstances and even the time of day -- for example, we are more likely to fall for a scam if we are tired.
A gullibility survey by The Ponemon Institute, a well respected privacy and information security firm, identified the following characteristics:
- Among vulnerable categories, younger people are more likely to fall for a scam than seniors.
- Americans are more gullible than the British or Australians -- the three groups the survey covered.
- Bogus prizes and antivirus software are the most successful at fooling people.
- Supporters of the two main political parties are equally gullible when it comes to believing things that are untrue -- not just in politics but in all aspects of life.
Most of us think we're better at identifying scams than we really are.
Four Gullibility Factors
So, is it possible to test how gullible we are and can we do anything to improve our skepticism rating?
Greenspan says gullibility relies on four factors: Our human tendency to follow the crowd -- if everyone's doing it, we believe it must be okay, even if it isn't; our ability to think through the information or situation we encounter, which can abandon us under pressure or if we're tired; a weak personality -- just a tendency to be more trusting and readier to believe what we're told; and our emotional state at any particular time -- which is why scammers try to wear us down or pressure us to "act now" and, why, sadly, they like to hit victims when they are already down.
Researchers have recently located the part of the brain that is responsible for gullibility, showing that it is smaller and less well-formed in young people, grows to full size in most adults, and then begins to shrink with age.
In another project, scientists discovered that the part of the brain responsible for cold, hard-fact analysis is easily overridden by our gullibility when we're told a tale that stirs our emotions.
Unfortunately, there are no publicly available, reliable tests for gullibility.
There are plenty of fun-type quizzes online -- just do a search for "gullibility test" -- but these really tell us little about our willingness to believe things that aren't true in critical situations like scams.
And according to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, a popular test of someone else's gullibility is to tell them the word "gullible" doesn't appear in the dictionary and see how they react.
It is in the dictionary, by the way!
How to Reduce Your Gullibility
So, given all of that, is there anything we can do to reduce our gullibility? Here are seven ideas from Greenspan's book and other sources:
1. Simply being aware of how easy it is to fall for a scam puts you on your guard and lowers your risk of being scammed.
2. Avoid rushing decisions. Refuse to be pressured and allow yourself time to think things through. This can even apply to forwarding emails -- stop and think: can this really be true?
3. Steer clear of situations where you know you're more vulnerable. For example, if you tend to weaken easily under pressure, don't get caught up in conversations with high-pressure sales people.
4. Don't allow yourself to believe you're scam-proof. You're not, and admitting your potential vulnerability will strengthen your sense of skepticism.
5. Practice "disengaging." Forget about being polite and hearing out someone who's trying to convince you. Hang up; walk away; do whatever you need to do to avoid hearing the patter that might ultimately wear you down.
6. Educate yourself. The more you read and learn about the way people fall for scams, the more your own gullibility defenses will be strengthened. Subscribing to Scambusters is obviously a great start!
7. Don't follow the crowd. Realize that people you know and trust may be unreliable -- unintentionally or otherwise. Form your own opinions based on research and what you know to be true.
Don't forget too that you can help others by tactfully pointing out their potential vulnerability, highlighting scam incidents and letting them know that gullibility is not a sign of low intelligence -- it's a fact of life.
That's all for today -- we'll see you next week.