"Every year, Americans lose about 40 billion dollars in telemarketing fraud and they lose another 100 billion dollars a year in fraud in general."
In his talk at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry convention held in Nashville, Tennessee last October, Anthony Pratkanis had no problem getting his audience's attention. Pratkanis, a professor of psychology at the University of California in Santa Cruz, is a well-known expert on economic fraud crimes, marketing behaviour, and subliminal persuasion. Along with being the author of several books on fraud, including Weapons of Fraud: A Source Book For Fraud Fighters, he has made numerous television appearances warning the public about the various con games played on vulnerable adults, particularly the elderly.
The consequences of these schemes can be devastating. In a recent court decision, a British judge sentenced three members of a phishing gang to heavy prison time after a British woman lost her entire life savings (US$1.6-million) through a phishing scam. The woman's bank account was siphoned off using an elaborate system of "mules" to withdraw the money without the bank noticing. The gang members then spent the money in an elaborate shopping spree that left little for police to recover. Though the judge ordered the money to be repaid, there seems little likelihood of this ever happening. While the case is unusual for the amount of money stolen from one individual, frauds just like it are being carried out every day.
The con artists can interact with their intended target in any number of ways, whether through spam email, telemarketing, investment seminars, or television commercials. Some of the scams that Pratkanis mentioned in his talk include: charity frauds, investment scams (such as gas and oil development schemes), lottery frauds, etc.
One thing victims share is that they are often too afraid to come forward for fear of being seen as "too gullible." However, Pratkanis and his colleagues' research found that there were no other real pattern to the targets. "Victims come in all shapes and sizes," he said. "Some are active in their community and leaders whereas others fit more stereotypical notions. The only thing they have in common is they have money."