Sucker Genes?

It seems that the easiest people to scam are those who have been scammed. According to Doug Shadel an expert at AARP: “It’s pretty well known in the fraud world that the best list to get is the list of people who have already been taken.”

That might suggest a genetic vulnerability to sweet talk. But it is more likely that the explanation is entirely psychological and rests on a powerful and irrational desire to believe in a special relationship with another person who wants to help you.

Such a desire in most cases is probably rooted in early disappointment. Having faith in someone who lets you down – when you are particularly needy or inexperienced – leads to one of two likely consequences: you become cynical and mistrustful, generalizing from that experience to others, protecting yourself from being hurt again.

Or else you deny that it has happened. That denial can stem from feeling that the person who disappointed you is too important for you to give up, like an inconsistent parent whom you still need to offer protection. So you soft-pedal your hurt, explain it away, or you refuse to remember it, preserving the offender, while also sparing yourself the embarrassment or shame of having been gullible.

If one is prone to that response, one is all too likely to establish a pattern of vulnerability to fraud. In other words, sensing the possibility of fraud, that person will look the other way. Remembering the earlier experience of disappointment and hurt – often unconsciously – he takes that as a signal to spare himself a painful repetition. He also then is able to retain his belief that someone, someday, will want to help him.

“Mr. Shadel said he was surprised at first to learn that con artists preferred to focus on investors who had already fallen for scams because he expected that victims would be on guard. . . . But during interviews with con artists over his career as a consumer advocate [he] learned that, in the view of criminals, the victim who has lost $10,000 in an energy scam has passed the test.”