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The Psychology of Scams

Jet lounging on a red chaise lounge Psychology of Scams

Scammers often use psychological triggers to get an automatic response from you without you realising it. Watch out for them next time you're approached, or even next time someone asks you for a favour. Some of the tricks they use are outlined below. When we're up against these influence strategies, getting caught up in a scam is not necessarily a reflection of our gullibility or poor judgement. It just shows how good the scammers are at manipulating us. Don't be clouded by influence triggers. Recognise them for what they are, and keep a clear head when making decisions.

Scammers use the following tricks


Scammers give you something, such as a 'free' gift or assistance, to get something in return, such as your agreement later on. You are caught up feeling obliged to do something. Protect yourself from those sentiments by recognising the gifts and favours as nothing more than devices to influence you to return the favour.

Commitment and consistency

Someone will get you to commit to something early in the piece, and later recall that initial agreement to get you to agree to something further. This ploy can make you feel ill at ease. To protect yourself, you should treat each commitment separately and ask yourself whether, under the circumstances, you would make the same choice as you did earlier. Your instinctive gut-feeling will provide the answer.

Social proof

‘Everybody does it, so it must be right’ pretty well sums it up. The other person will refer to what the majority does to get you to agree. Objectively check the facts, your experience and judgement. 


Good looks, similar interests or background, humour and other attractive characteristics are standard tools for the con-artist as well as of course for honest people who want to generate good rapport with you. If you like someone, you're more likely to go along with what they are suggesting. Your defence is to separate the issue on offer from the person offering it or associated with it.


Authority, in or out of uniform, will cause an automatic response in almost everyone. We appeal to and use authority all the time to justify or support our position. Scammers do it deliberately to hoodwink you into agreement. Your protection here is to ask whether the authority is relevant to the context.


The fear of missing out! Being told that this is the last chance or that there are only so few still available, leads most people to agree hastily before they have had the opportunity to think about what they're doing. Some people have found themselves in horrible financial situations because they rushed into agreements or purchases in the fear of missing out. Your protection here is to separate your emotions from your decisions

Personalised scams

Personalised scams occur when a scammer gathers your personal information and uses it to specifically target you with a scam. The fact that the scammer knows so much about you may lead you to believe they are legitimate. View this video to see ACCC Deputy Chair Peter Kell discuss some specific examples of personalised scams and how you can avoid them.

Personalised scams video transcript

The following examples of a real scams, are  annotated so you can educate yourself about the tricks the scammer might use.

Other good sources of information on the psychology of Scammers include:

Australian Institute of Criminology's  paper on advance fee fraud (risk factors for victimisation)

The psychology of scams: Provoking and committing errors of judgement Prepared for the Office of Fair Trading UK by the University of Exeter School of Psychology

Risk factors for advance fee fraud victimisation from Australian Institute of Crimininolgy reviews victim characteristics and behaviours to determine what might have contributed to a victims willingness to respond to unsolicited invitations.