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FDIC Consumer News - Spring 1998

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Subtle Signs of a Swindle

To learn how to avoid a crime, you talk to crime victims, right? Not always, says psychology professor Monroe Friedman, who studies financial crimes against seniors. That’s why he believes many educational materials from law enforcement and consumer protection agencies have one big limitation. “They’re often based on the actual stories of fraud victims — of people who, when accosted by a scamster, failed to detect a red flag or didn’t know how to escape from the situation,” he tells FDIC Consumer News. “I decided to look at the people who avoided becoming victims — the successes, not the failures. That shows a very different picture of how people cope.”

Friedman, a researcher at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, used a grant from the AARP Andrus Foundation to study 304 older people who sidestepped financial swindles. His most recent analysis, reported in the summer 1998 edition of the scholarly “Journal of Consumer Affairs,” shows that it sometimes pays for consumers to look for a combination of small, subtle danger signals — not just one or two concrete developments (such as a request from a stranger for your credit card number).

“It might be something fishy early in a conversation that makes you leery, then later something else, that in combination make you say, ‘I smell a rat’,” he adds in our interview. “People who are successful in avoiding a fraud often look at these bits and pieces and, once they add it all up, decide to say no to a questionable offer.”     

These are some of the 25 danger signals Friedman’s psychological research identified and that, in combination, should make a consumer suspicious of an offer:

•    You’re told you’ve been specially selected for an offer or that you previously accepted an offer and you know you hadn’t.
•    The person was “more friendly” than seemed appropriate given that he or she didn’t know you.
•    The suspect said something you knew or thought wasn’t true.
•    The conversation appears to be “high pressure” or intimidating.
•    The method of contact (mail, phone or in-person) seems inappropriate for the kind of offer being made.

Friedman gives this example from his research: A person in Boston is approached by a young woman selling magazines, supposedly to earn enough money so she can realize her lifelong dream of going to college. When asked which college she plans to attend she responds, “The University of Boston.” What’s the problem here? “If you live in Boston, you know that’s not the name of the school; it’s just not something a local person would say,” says Friedman. “That one answer wasn’t enough to shut the situation down, but it was enough to raise questions.” And that, together with other danger signals, ended the conversation before a fraud was committed.

Are you a success story or do you know someone who is? Click here.

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Last Updated 08/03/1999 communications@fdic.gov