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Monday, June 06, 2005

Just How Gullible Are We?

Phish Why do we keep getting that Nigerian money scam email?  Who could possibly fall for it?  One would think that by now, the gig wouldn’t work – people would be on to it – and those pesky spammers would move on to another scam.  But alas, somebody out there must be falling for it.  A recent national telephone survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania reveals some startling statistics about gullibility in all its splendor:

49% could not detect illegal “phishing”—the activity where crooks posing as banks send emails to consumers that ask them to click on a link wanting them to verify their account.

Phishing is not really all that new.  It’s just con-artistry in the digital age.  Other studies reveal that offline, people are just as gullible.  According to an article in The New York Times:

Alas, we appear to be no better equipped in the real world. In a survey conducted alongside the Infosecurity Europe trade show earlier this year, more than 90 percent of roughly 200 people approached on the street were duped into giving away enough information to steal their identities - all for the chance at winning some theater tickets.

We often hear the refrain that people must be more careful with their personal data, and we like to think we’re above being duped.  After all, one has to be really dumb to fall for these scams, right?  Perhaps not, if these studies are correct.  So next time you fall for the email from the eBay billing department that says you need to re-enter your membership data in order to prevent the termination of your account . . . well . . . it appears you’re not alone.  Oh, and by the way, please don’t forget to wire $1000 to our PrawfsBlawg bank account in the Cayman Islands.  We promise that if you do, you’ll we'll get very rich. 

Posted by Daniel Solove on June 6, 2005 at 11:18 PM in Daniel Solove, Information and Technology | Permalink


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In the securities area, some scams are hilarious, but people fall for them. Through a computer dialing program, I leave a phone message on thousands or people's answering machines. The message goes like this, "Sarah, is this your new phone number? I can't quite read what I wrote down last night. Anyway, remember last month when you got mad at me because I gave my dad that stock tip that doubled his money but I didn't tell you about it? Well, let me make up for that. I just heard about this great stock, Company, Inc., and it's guaranteed to at least double this week. My dad has already bought 1000 shares." It sounds stupid, but thousands of people bought the stock, thinking they had gotten a hot tip. Stupidity is part of it, but greed is the driving factor. These people want something for nothing. If that value was not out there in abundance, then these scams would never work.

Posted by: Christine Hurt | Jun 7, 2005 2:54:10 PM

Ariela: The 419 scam begins the familiar way, "We'd like to put $25 million into your bank account and then leave a third of it for you when 2/3rds is sent back to us." Then, just before the $25 million is released, oh no, there is a small banking fee that must be paid, and so on, etc. It goes on until the victim quits.

Sometimes they invite you over to Nigeria, in which case you are at serious risk.

If you google "nigerian bank scam" or "419 scam" you will find lots of pages by reposnsible government agencies explaining how it works.

I represented someone who was coerced into lending money to a victim so he could keep paying small fees. He reneged on his personal debt and we won the trial.

Posted by: John Steele | Jun 7, 2005 10:32:42 AM

After all, one has to be really dumb to fall for these scams, right? Perhaps not, if these studies are correct.

Or perhaps 49%+ of the population is just really dumb... that might explain east coast drivers, TV, and George W. Bush too.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 7, 2005 8:36:42 AM

What happened in the trial? And I guess I'm missing something here, but why was the guy who was SENDING money to Nigeria the defendant? Wouldn't he be the plaintiff suing the person collecting his cash? Did he organize the scheme? Sorry to interrogate you, but I figure I and my immediate family members have wasted at least 3 hours of our collective lives deleting those e-mails, and I HAVE always been curious about who's behind them.....

Posted by: Ariela | Jun 7, 2005 7:50:59 AM

You write, "After all, one has to be really dumb to fall for these scams, right?" I had a trial involving the Nigerian scam (a/k/a the 4-1-9 scam) and, as it turns out, stupidity really helps but greed is absolutely essential. The defendant had sent about $150,000 to Nigeria, in little bits of $1-4,000 at a time, and kept falling for variations of the line, "the $25 million will be released if you pay one more banking fee."

Posted by: John Steele | Jun 7, 2005 12:05:14 AM

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