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When we refer to the psychology of scams, we’re talking about what it is about human nature that makes us vulnerable to scams and how scammers use these characteristics to trick us. We’re all vulnerable to scams whether we realize this or not. One common misconception about scams is that only foolish people fall prey to scammers. This is far from true. In fact, overconfidence in your own abilities to avoid being scammed could put you at greater risk of being scammed given the constantly evolving scam landscape.

Learning about the psychology of scams can help us be better prepared to spot different scams, including situations that we didn’t anticipate and red flags. In this post, we’re going to discuss four aspects of the psychology of scams. Understanding these principles can help us understand why we are vulnerable to scams and hopefully help us avoid being scammed.

The Emotional Response

Scammers purposely try to get us worked up emotionally. When we feel stressed or intimidated, our rational mind goes offline. Feelings of pressure due to fear, excitement, or a sense of obligation mean that we simply don’t think as clearly. Scammers know this and they employ tactics designed to take advantage of this. When we aren’t thinking clearly and rationally, we’re more likely to fall for a scam and do whatever it is that the scammers are telling us to do.

Scammers often try to keep us on the phone and use high pressure tactics to get us worked up. The scammers try to get us to act quickly and do whatever it is that the scammers are telling us. They do this because they know that if we have a chance to pause and think about what the scammers are asking of us. When we slow down and think, we may recognize that something weird is going on, doesn’t make sense, or feels off. The scammers are scared that when we do this, we won’t follow through.

The Principle of Similarity

The principle of similarity describes the idea that we tend to like and trust people who seem similar to ourselves. Scammers understand this and take advantage of this by using information about us to trick us into thinking that we have something in common with the scammer. For example, a scammer may ask us what our date of birth is and then tell us that they have the same birth date. Or the scammer may claim to have similar interests or a background that is similar to ours. When scammers make us feel like we have something in common with the scammer, this has the unconscious effect of making us feel more comfortable with and more trusting of the scammer. When this happens, we’re more likely to let our guard down and more vulnerable to falling for the scam.

The Principle of Scarcity

Human nature is such that we typically fear missing out. We fear missing out on an opportunity and we want to avoid that future feeling of regret that we didn’t take action when we had the chance. For example, if we are told that an offer is for a limited time only, we’re more likely to be drawn to it. If we believe that our options in the future will be narrower because a particular investment opportunity or a sweepstakes prize is going to go away at the end of a phone call, we’re more likely to act quickly to ensure that we don’t miss out. Scammers want us to act quickly because it means we haven’t taken the time to think things through. Scammers know that when we act slowly and think about what we’re being asked to do, we’re more likely to grow suspicious and spot the scam. Scammers take advantage of the principle of scarcity to make us fear missing out in order to get us to take action quickly.

Incremental Commitment

Incremental commitment refers to the idea that when we take little steps, we can get in deeper than we intended to. We like to think of ourselves as consistent and reliable and taking small steps makes us more willing to move on to that next step. Scammers take advantage of this by getting us to commit to little steps. Before we know it, the nature of those little steps has escalated and we’re in deeper than we wanted to be. For example, when we start out answering trivial questions, it becomes harder not to answer additional questions about non-trivial, personal, and significant subjects, such as where we do our banking. This principle makes us more willing to do things or divulge information than we otherwise would be. Once you’ve taken the step of sending money to a scammer, you can actually be more vulnerable to doing it again, particularly with romance scams.


If you’re scammed or your identity is stolen and you’re not sure what to do, call Contra Costa Senior Legal Services at (925) 609-7900. We can help you figure out where to report the scam and how to protect yourself in the future.

Click here to report a scam to the Federal Trade Commission.

Click here to learn more about scams and reporting scams.

Click here to report identity theft.