For many years I had a psychotherapy practice in a large British city. One client who came my way had worked since his teens as a fraudster and thief. He was trying hard to leave a profession that burdened him with a complicated, frightening life.
Over three years, the man I'll call Ron revealed many tricks of his trade to me - things he did to make people hand over their money. Since I've just had another encounter with online villains employing similar tactics, I've decided to share what I learned from him with you - alongside a few observations about this "profession."
Tricks of the Trade
1) A thief will tell you he's a thief. Somewhere during that first encounter with a trickster, he'll tell you he's a thief. Doing this is part of the excitement for him - a way to feel superior to his victim. He may say it straight or in code, but it's almost certainly there.
For instance, he may tell you that he is, or was, a hacker. Or he'll say that his "system" is fool-proof because it operates below the radar of the search-engines, or only steals information from big websites with lots of profits and traffic.
All this means that no-one's information is safe with him. If he steals from others, watch out: there's nothing to stop him doing it to you. He feels contempt for his "mark," not loyalty. Engaging with someone who makes this boast means you need to stay alert.
2) A fraudster will avoid identifying himself with any verifiable information. The trickster probes skillfully for information about your you and your financial and/or personal affairs without sharing anything verifiable about himself, his location, or his company. But you need ALL this information, and to have researched it with due diligence, before you buy any major purchase like a training course. Such tactics are the cyber-version of that old con-trick, the shell-game.
3) A fraudster won't let you talk or engage in a real conversation. At some level, you KNOW you're being conned. He's trying to fill all the space in the "conversation" so that you don't use your judgment. He may defend what he does as something that will help you and teach you - but such hard-sell tactics are almost always shady.
4) A thief wants you to act without thinking. He'll pressurize you about acting NOW, losing out, missing this one-time-only deal. These pitches are often very psychologically sophisticated - but no-one on the level rushes your decisions or tries to makes you put your doubts aside.
5) A thief appeals to your vulnerabilities, your dreams... and your vanity. We all like to be flattered and sometimes we're more open to flattery. Spotting these moments is one of the thief's core skills. That "work from home" link you hit last week, late at night, led to this come-on. It told him you're a "warm prospect."
He may try to entice you to become part of his elite. He may claim that the only people he targets are big companies, not from fellow "rebels" like you and him - the smart ones who know how to seize an opportunity when they see it.
When a thief speaks like this he wants us to collude with what he's up to so afterwards we'll only blame ourselves. The embarrassment and shame of being caught out, recognising that it was our own greed, fear or vanity that led us to take the bait, means we're less likely to report what happens if the trickster succeeds.
6) A thief wants your money. However he begins, a thief will bring the conversation round to what he can get from you as soon as he thinks you've bought his spiel. Whether he's "just" pumping you for information or is probing about your credit card balance, this is a sure-fire sign that you're dealing with a trickster.
So, What Can We Do?
7) Learn to listen closely. Pay close attention to those sales videos, and to any follow-up telephone calls you get if you've swallowed the pitch. If you listen closely, you'll hear the bullying, or the flattering, collusive tone, or the attempt to establish what you're worth to him. Or you'll hear straight out that he's a thief - because he just can't help telling you.
8) Verify, verify, verify. When straying into new territory on the net - away from the safety and security of the big merchants, dealing with people posing as individual traders, establish who you're dealing with right away, what they want, and why they're acting as they do, every step of the way. (Read those boring terms and conditions, too!)
9) Never invest more than you are prepared to lose. Just in case you get it wrong.
10) Report these incidents. Sadly, the difference between legitimate sales tactics and high-pressure fraud is diminishing as business goes global. There are no laws yet to protect someone in Coventry adequately from criminals and con-men (apparently) calling from California.
Most losses that result from tricksters hooking up with or hacking into the information of legitimate online businesses are very small. We chalk these up to "experience," grit our teeth and move on. But we shouldn't - these operations are already big businesses. Fraud is theft.
If someone online has cheated you, sold you a worthless product, pressured you on the phone, bullied or hurt you in any way, complain. Complain to the credit card companies, ClickBank and PayPal for a start, to the Better Business Bureau if the company (apparently!) is in the States, to your local police,* to the FBI. Blog about it, Twitter about it, shout about it. Nag Google and the other search engines, too - they have the resources to do something.
File That Complaint!
The rule of law makes transactions between parties possible, and sustains any civilized society. Cyber-fraud is impinging upon our freedom to act onilne. If we can't stand up against it, we'll soon find the Net strangled by regulation and restrictions.
Ron never found his way back from the edge. He couldn't give up his illusion - the idea that he was part of a brotherhood of the clever, living dangerously at the expense of the naive. This myth kept the truth of his isolation and fear at bay for a while; he left therapy when substance abuse overwhelmed his life and caused him to despair.
We're all human, sometimes vulnerable to temptation. We have fears, hopes and dreams, want our lives to be a little different. We all buy a bit of dreamland occasionally - but let's not let our dreams become a feast for those who want to prey on them.
* Here's a good source of advice from a joint venture by the UK government, leading merchants, law enforcement and money men: http://www.getsafeonline.org/.
© 2011 Alexandra Brunel, all rights reserved.