How to disarm a scammer

Buried unfortunately deep in August’s Social Engineer podcast was some outstanding advice from British TV star R. Paul Wilson, who turned scamming into prime-time BBC TV for several seasons.

Wilson, who literally has sold someone a bridge that he of course didn’t own, has lots of experience on both sides of scamming, so his experience is invaluable. I was just disappointed that we had to listen to 45 minutes of Christopher Hadnagy and David Kennedy arguing before we could hear it, so I’ll cut through the garbage.

Scammers prey on perceived strength. One of the things they do is build you up and get you overconfident because that makes you much more vulnerable to their scam.

Wilson’s advice, therefore, is dead simple. Admit weakness. Say you’re out of your element right now and before you agree to anything, you need to talk to someone.

The scammer will probably be prepared for this and will be very eager to share contact information for an expert for you to talk to. Wilson’s retort is predictable: “Well, of course you want me to talk to your guy.”

Don’t talk to the scammer’s guy. Talk to people you know.

Another thing scammers do, especially with the elderly, is to try to get between their prey and the prey’s family. “They don’t want you to have financial independence because then you’ll be able to continue to make your own decisions,” is a common line.

Unfortunately I can speak from a bit of experience on this one, as I had to get intimately involved in my parents’ finances when I was still in my late teens. Of course we want our parents to be financially independent for as long as possible. But I can tell you that as soon as you’re the least bit vulnerable, people come out of the woodwork to try to get a piece of whatever it is you have. Some do indeed have your best interests in mind, but many do not.

I trust my mom, but 99% of people don’t have any idea what to do with a dollar. So when her phone rings, I don’t trust whoever it is. And when it’s my mom’s welfare on the line, I don’t care if the guy on the phone is evil or just incompetent. Either way I don’t want Mom talking to him.

But not all scams prey just on the elderly. Financial scams unfortunately are common for all ages, and they’ll turn up in all the wrong unexpected places. At my old church several people tried to sell me sketchy financial advice. I wriggled out of their scams by telling them the story of how my wife and I paid off a mortgage in five years, which of course blew their promises out of the water because we did everything they were trying to sell, on our own, without their overhead.

But if you can’t refute a scammer with your own experience, that’s OK. Go back to Wilson’s advice and tell the scammer that you have a colleague at work who really knows this stuff and you’re not signing anything until you run it by this colleague. The scammer will quickly turn up the pressure, but that’s desperation.

Sometimes it’s an outright ripoff, sometimes it’s a pyramid scheme, and sometimes it’s just a bad deal. But if the person turns up the pressure when you say you want to get a second opinion, that’s a big red flag that the person doesn’t have your best interests in mind.