When it comes to mass-marketing scams (MMS), people who “see the glass as half-full” are more likely to take the bait, according to a new study.
MMS, otherwise known as mass-marketing fraud, is a ploy that uses mass-communication methods, such as telephones, the internet, mass mailings, TV and radio, to receive money or information from innocent victims.
Researchers at Scripps College in the U.S. and the University of Plymouth in the UK found that people who perceive the potential benefits of an MMS, such as winning a large amount of money, are more likely to disregard the risks and fall victim to fraud.
The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
The study involved over 500 adults in two experiments designed to interpret the psychological factors involved in responding to MMS.
The researchers used 25 real scam solicitations offering consumers the chance to win a large sum of money (e.g., $25,000), which were successful in and around the Los Angeles area.
In the first experiment, the researchers asked 211 adults to review a MMS and rate their willingness to contact an “activation number” for the monetary prize.
In the second experiment, they randomly assigned activation “fees” to each participants, ranging from $5 to $100, and asked them to report if they would be willing to pay that amount of money to receive the prize.
In both studies, the researchers found that the most important factor for deciding whether or not to respond to a MMS was a person’s risk versus reward assessment.
“On the one hand, consumers are for the most part able to recognize potential scams. But the lure of the prize is largely driving individuals’ behaviours, leading many of them to discount the possible risks. The sentiment seems to be, ‘after all, what harm can be done by just responding to a letter?’ ” said Yaniv Hanoch, a professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Plymouth and co-author of the study.
In the first experiment, 48 percent — almost half — of participants indicated their willingness to contact an activation number to receive a prize.
Furthermore, nearly one-fourth of the participants in the second experiment still reported an interest in responding, even with the addition of an activation fee.
“We were very surprised that so many people were willing to pay to be scammed. But if you believe the scams and the possibility that you have won such a large sum of money, then paying a token amount (such as $100) might not be a high price to pay,” said Hanoch.
He equated this reasoning to playing the lottery. Even though the probability of winning the lottery is miniscule, each day people continue to take their chances and buy lottery cards.
“In other words, people are possibly accepting the chance that the proposal might turn out to be a scam, but they are more focused or driven by the possibility that they will win a large sum of money (such as $50,000 or $500,000),” he said.
In both experiments, the researchers found that age and education levels independently predicted responses. For instance, older adults and highly educated participants were less likely to both call an activation number, or pay a fee.
However, the researchers concluded that age was not a significant enough factor regarding the way people assessed risk and reward.
“In addition, and contrary to popular belief, our data shows that age was not a significant risk factor regarding the promise of a reward in this study,” Stacey Wood, professor of psychology at Scripps College and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “That said, future studies may be designed to sample larger groups of elderly participants. Numeracy, loneliness and financial status were not relevant factors in the MMS results.”
The researchers found that, generally speaking, consumers with lower levels of education and high perception of benefits are more likely to be at risk for MMS.
However, they remained clear in assuring that it can happen to anyone.
“So far, we have found no specific personality type that can be identified as more susceptible to fraud. What we do show is that how people perceive the benefits and the risks associated with these scams to be the key driver in their responding (or not) to these offers,” said Hanoch. “Awareness, of course, plays a factor. But I think many of us can be ‘tricked’ into believing that these solicitations are real and reducing response rate is proving to be a major challenge.”
MMS is a major financial threat with estimated losses of tens of billions of dollars around the world every year.
To combat it, the International Mass-Marketing Fraud Working Group (IMMFWG) was formed in September 2007.
IMMFWG is a network of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Europol, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Spain, the UK and the U.S. It is co-chaired by the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission and UK law enforcement.
Measures include civil and criminal actions as well as public education.
Hanoch believes that understanding the way people view and respond to MMS can help initiate preventative measures in the future.
“Gaining a better understanding of the underlying factors that propel people to respond to these frauds/scams has the potential to help us develop more precise and effective preventive measures, tools and educational material,” he said.
Natalie Colarossi is a recent graduate from Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. She is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has covered a number of topics including art, culture, politics, music, and travel. Her greatest passion and priority is to travel, and she hopes to experience as many places and cultures as possible.