January 22, 2013

From Sandy Hook Truthers to Scientology to Manti Te'o: How To Be Less Gullible


You’ve got to feel sorry for Manti Te’o: the poor guy appears to have been caught up in a tragic yearlong hoax. What I found interesting was while I was watching coverage on the TODAY Show, Matt Lauer seemed to have trouble believing the guy could be tricked for a year, but then had no issues with his next guest who argued that Scientology had been tricking large numbers of folks into believing it was a religion for over a decade. In my mind, that is like not being able to understand a child’s belief in Santa Clause and then entering into a credible debate on the pro side of the world being flat.

If you can believe Scientology is a scam, then believing that a young man could be tricked for a year isn’t that big a stretch. We are an incredibly gullible race: from the 9/11 and Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists to how well “Get rich quick” e-mails work, suggesting there is a ton of money that can be easily had out of Nigeria, suggests it is only a matter of time before someone scams you, either because they are a scam artist, or because they were scammed and want company.

Let’s talk about how to avoid being scammed. 

Scam Radar

First, if you know how a scam works, you can develop a kind of scam radar that wakes up your brain to the chance that what you are reading, seeing or hearing may be a scam. A scam works typically by leading with something you want to be true or coming from someone you trust (sometimes both). You see you can’t be scammed unless you believe, and the easiest way to get you to believe is either by giving you information from what you believe is a trusted source or that relates to something you want to believe. 

For instance, if you get an e-mail from your bank, a relative, or a friend, you think it is a trusted source.   If you get an e-mail that says you are entitled to something for nothing, or confirms a view you already have (there are too many guns in the world, the government is out to get you) you want to believe that is true and thus are more likely to trust the source.

So the radar works like this, if you get an e-mail from someone who knows you (friend, relative, bank) but doesn’t seem to know you (addressed to sir, bud, my dear friend or doesn’t relate to you personally), it likely isn’t them, and if they are asking for something they should already have (address, account number or password) then they are likely not who they say they are either. However, I have received e-mails from a financial institution that began with, “Dear Sir,” so it could be legitimate.  

If the correspondence appears to be from a company or person your trust (and you want to act on it), contact the person outside of the note. What I mean is use a known working contact method (phone or known Web address), not anything that is in the correspondence, to contact and confirm the request.   Never click on the link in a note, even if it is to a funny YouTube video. If you do and it tries to install anything, don’t let it. 

Now, if the correspondence isn’t from someone you trust but it is something you want to be true, you are safer just to ignore it. Often if you engage that will validate the address/contact method and that alone can make you more vulnerable. While there is often the temptation to give the folks a piece of your mind or to see if it is real, it either leads you into increasingly unsafe waters and you are better off just hitting delete and moving on.  

Snopes is Your Friend   

Snopes was set up to address Internet scams like conspiracy theories and stories that appear too good to be true that folks are tricked into circulating. Some are harmless, some are designed to harm others and many are designed to get you to believe something that isn’t true. Before acting or forwarding a story, even from a trusted source, that seems incredible, go to Snopes and look up whether it is a known hoax.  

With Sandy Hook there is a ton of false information circulating about the victims, about celebrities and what they said and about what actually happened. Much of it I think is intended to forward either a pro-gun or anti-gun agenda, but being tricked by either side is still being tricked and while we are more likely to believe arguments that we agree with, allowing ourselves to be tricked by either side can lead to a false conclusion, and have people who find out we’ve been tricked thinking less of us.  

Once you are tricked your mind will tend to lock in and believe the spam is true because you don’t want to believe you have been tricked (Confirmation Bias). That’s why folks continue to believe the Sandy Hook conspiracy stuff even though it has been debunked. Often in a scam we are our own worst enemy because we want to believe and if that lock in takes place, we are pretty much screwed. This isn’t new to the Internet -- the moon landing hoax and 9/11 had a lot of them associated with it (it is kind of fun to read up on these so you can mumble “BS” when someone repeats one at a party).

Wrapping Up: Scam Radar

As we get older, we become more vulnerable to being scammed and the tools people are using to scam us are getting more sophisticated. There are likely two kinds of people today: those that know they have been scammed and those that haven’t figured it out yet. I’m fortunate now to be in the former group, but I’d like to make sure we are all in a group that doesn’t get scammed once or again. I have little doubt that we, and I include myself, will fall for a scam. If we develop the skills needed to see these things coming, they should help prevent us from doing incredibly stupid things at some future date.  

One final warning, one of the common tricks in negotiations or scams is to get you to think you must act quickly. While it may be true, it is also likely a ploy to get you to act first and think later, and that is generally how a scam works. Good luck!






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