Psychology of a scammer

7 Oct

Had another of those calls yesterday: Hello sir. My name is Charles and I am calling from the Technical Department of Windows.

Charles has an Indian accent. WindowsTechnical Department is employer of choice for his ilk. I know this from the four or five such calls a month I’ve been fielding for years.

We have noticed your computer has been receiving downloads which compromise its speed and security, and I am calling to resolve the issue. Now if you will just follow my instructions, sir …

If I’d been busy the call wouldn’t have got this far. But I’m not, so play along. It’s amusing and while he’s entertaining me he isn’t scamming elsewhere.

Oh. Don’t know much about computers. Can you fix it then?

And so it goes. I pretend to switch on a PC already on. Warn him it takes a while to boot – could that be trojan spiders? Put the kettle on.

Long minutes of miskeyed instructions between leisurely sips of tea begin to pay off as Charles struggles valiantly to strangle the rising irritation in his tone.

No! Tee!! Tttteee. Tee for tango sir!!

At the point where, should I follow his latest instruction, I surrender control of my PC, I put on my smiliest voice.

Charles, you are a thief. And you are a liar.

Silence. Long seconds of the stuff. Then the protests, denials and outraged incredulity. I go broken record.

No, please Charles. Trust me on this one small point. You are a thief. And you are a liar.

Shoulda recorded the call. Didn’t, so let’s cut to the chase. For five fascinating minutes Charles huffed and puffed his indignant denial. Why? He knew the chances of my ceding control were as likely as Israel handing back East Jerusalem. Ditto his risk of being busted. So why continue in denial, even when I tried to get him to do his job?

Charles you know you are a liar and a thief. I know you are a liar and a thief. Shouldn’t you be ending this call? Haven’t you got people out there you should be scamming instead of wasting time with me?

Still he denied and disputed, tried to get me out of broken record with left field questions. I was having none of it. I mean, how often do you get the chance to say, repeatedly and in a calm voice, you are a liar and you are a thief? It’s liberating. It’s empowering. It probably boosts your sex life and makes you wiser and smarter too. Don’t take my word for it, try it next time you get one of these calls. Nine times out of ten the perp responds to being unmasked exactly as Charles did yesterday.

Finally I read from the screen my warning from Bill Gates not to take this next and irrevocable step unless you know and trust the person.

And you don’t trust me, sir?

Only when I burst out laughing does the line go dead.

So what drove so ludicrous a string of denials? I think it’s what psychologists call our intolerance of cognitive dissonance. The odd maudlin moment aside, none of us – not Hitler, Rolf Harris or Ian Duncan Smith – goes around thinking of ourselves as nasty. We run scripts to reconcile our more questionable behaviour with a cherished view of ourselves as Good People. When I disrupted Charles’s script by pointing out what he does – and what that makes him – his indignation and sense of affront were genuine, I’m sure. Funny old world, innit?


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