Am I Being Scammed?
(c) Richard Bolstad
The original email scams
This is an article about a type of proposal that I, as a traveller and an NLP trainer, get every week. My aim is to caution others in my situation, and help you not to lose large sums of money, or waste large amounts of time, with no actual benefit. If you understand all this, you can also preserve your sense of friendliness and appreciation for humanity in the global marketplace, rather than becoming bitter and suspicious. Since scamming involves many of the same interpersonal processes that motivational training uses, this is also important information for those readers who are NLP practitioners to understand. By modelling scamming, we also reveal some of the dangers we need to avoid in our own field.
Let's start simple. If you open up your emails and see the following message, you know not to reply: "Dear cardholder, your credit card security has been compromised and you need to log in and reset your password urgently or you will be unable to use it." Of course, your bank is not likely to address such an important message to you as "Dear cardholder" since they actually know your name.
Similarly, if you open up your emails and see the following message, you know not to reply: "Dear beloved, I am the auditor for the son of the late Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, and am seeking a reliable person in whose account I can deposit the $32,000,000 which will be forfeited if I do not put it urgently in a safe place. I can see that you are a trustworthy person. Respond immediately to me at email@example.com and I will ensure you receive 35% of this money, plus payment for your expenses setting up the account."
This is a version of the very early "Advanced fee scam" and most people know that once you have replied, the man's next letters will explain something like: "For you to be a party to the transaction, you must have holdings at a Nigerian bank of $10,000 or more. Please help us to transfer this money by temporarily depositing this amount in the following account, which I have set up for this purpose."
This scam is rather well known, and you are unlikely to be fooled by it. However, since it first appeared decades ago, some variations have occurred which are so sophisticated that they blur into the appearance of a "normal" business arrangement. If you are setting up business as a coach or trainer, and you come from a western culture with a tradition of fixed price sales and largely government supervised small business, you need to know that a range of new and unexpected offers await you. This is true via email or phone, and also, as you travel, it occurs face to face.
The modern challenge
There are several reasons why you are likely to experience these innovative offers. The first is simply that the international economy is unfair and there are millions of people who now have access to the internet and to a smart phone, but are in fact desperately poor. They need to think creatively about how to channel some of your excess money to feed them and their families. Secondly, partially due to cultural tradition and partially due to their experience of colonialism, many people are more at ease with less-assertive and less up-front methods of making a business deal than you might expect in "the west".
To manage this it is neither necessary nor useful to try and work out whether the other person is "lying" to you or merely putting a positive spin on things. It is more useful to get clear from the start what you are willing to spend your time, money and energy doing, and stick to your decisions. For example, on Facebook, I do not chat with people who I do not know and who know nothing of my field of work. I explain this in one sentence if they write a message, and treat any further requests as an intrusion, blocking them.
There was a time when a scam email could be detected simply by the fact that it was addressed to "Dear beloved in Christ" or some similar general title, or by the bizarre combination of a colonial English dialect with a claim to be writing from London, or by the fact that you got 4 copies of the same letter. Now, the email is likely to use your personal name, refer to your friends on Facebook by name, and even mention your general area of work. Vast amounts of information allowing the scammer to personalize your proposal are easily accessible, especially if they have been able to "Friend" you on Facebook and study you for a while. In fact, it is easy enough for someone to download a virus into your computer that tells you your full name and the name of the computer you are working on, blocks any other action, and asks you to pay money to them via PayPal as a fine for the "illegal websites" you have been accessing. You may also get a personal email originating from a domain name registrar or IT consulting company that purports to notify you that another entity is seeking to register your trademark or business name as a domain name in say China, and gives you a short period in time in which to secure the domain name for your own.
So new scams are likely to keep emerging, and they do not merely involve emails: they may involve phone calls, and even whole sham organizations that you can visit in another country (spending your own money of course). We have also had several occasions where someone from say India enrols on our training in New Zealand, and then explains that they need a letter to confirm that I have invited their "family members" to New Zealand, so those people can have a holiday while they are training. The many family members turn out to have several separate surnames - they are in fact people who want to immigrate illegally to New Zealand and disappear into the country once they are here (the course booking is likely to be cancelled as soon as my formal invitation is sent). Once a man enrolled on our training, apparently writing a perfect English email, and then I received a phone call from the New Zealand embassy in his country asking if we provided translation (into Bahasa Indonesia) because that was the only language our "prospective student" could speak. Presumably he wasn't really going to come to the training either, since he didn't even know what it was about. In these cases where the payoff is immigration, usually an emigration broker is organizing the deal and charging the actual traveller a large sum of money.
Often, the process begins with an invitation for me to train in this person's own country, and then I discover that I am not being paid for that training, that the person has no idea what I teach that is unique, that I need to do a lot of work to "promote" the training first etc. and that the organizer will need to obtain all my online products to start.
Tools of the trade
How do you recognize a new scam? Firstly, remember, you don't always need to - you just need to have clear policies in place about how you spend your time and money. If you run trainings, do you really want to organize family holidays for students? Do you really want to accept bookings with no deposit? Do you really want to carry on a conversation on Facebook with someone who you don't know and who keeps typing "Hello... hello... Why don't you reply?" ?
Secondly, there are some characteristics of all these scams which it is worth being alert for:
1. Cold reading. The scammer suggests that they are able to intuit certain things about you that suggest that their proposal is especially suitable for you. If they are a taxi driver, they may tell you that they can sense that you are very artistic, and would benefit from visiting their friend's (grossly overpriced) art store. If they are a healer they may tell you that they have detected a serious physical illness that needs urgent attention. Sometimes this intuition may involve a pseudo-scientific test. In one healing spa in Asia, our students had a free blood test where the tester passed their blood sample over a flame, coagulating the cells, and them told them that this coagulation (viewed on a screen) showed that they were in urgent need of up to $500 worth of treatment. In one beach resort town, we were approached by a man offering free "scratch and win" cards: when we scratched and "won" (i.e. won a free tour of his hotel that he recommended we advertise to our friends, giving him their email addresses) he then appeared amazed by our luck and "intuited" that we were very lucky people, and would benefit by further opportunities to "win". Most people have no idea how common their own "special characteristics" are, so a cold reader tells you that your parents had many arguments when you were two years old, or that you have had financial challenges in the last three years, or that you have a special gift for art that you haven't yet fully explored, or that you have some pairs of pants at home (in your wardrobe) that no longer fit you and are bringing bad karma. They are right with about 80% of the things they say, because these things are true for 80% of all people, and yet the things seem so specific that you assume the scammer must be amazingly intuitive! Facebook enables the scammer to hone this fake intuition to perfection, especially when they are a person you don't expect to use Facebook (Hint: if they can contact you they can read Facebook). If we are modelling scamming, in NLP terms, then clearly cold reading speeds up the creation of rapport, implying to the "mark" that the scammer can be trusted just as they trust others who know personal information about them.
2. Flattery. The cold reader's intuition can also seem to be "proven" by their flattery. They know that you are very special. I have had many emails which tell me that I have won a special award for my services to humanity. I am to be featured in a book of the great teachers of the world, or the great contributors to society. First I just need to send my full name and CV as I want it to appear in the book, and then I need to decide whether I want my entry to appear in bold or with a photo, which obviously requires me to pay a small fee, and finally I need to decide whether I want to buy the hard copy of the book (which contains a meaningless list of unrelated names and CVs) and/or buy the certificate signed by the distinguished head of this international committee (they each cost $100, and now I discover that if I don't buy at least one, I can't appear in the book). Flattery involves the person telling you that you are especially beautiful, especially charismatic, especially wise, especially intuitive, especially compassionate, and that is why they want to "cooperate" with you in this wonderful venture (for which they simply need a small advance of money, or need for you to present their case to some official person who can then help your cooperation). Most of us, sadly, are so desperate for approval that we eagerly grab onto the possibility that finally someone has "discovered" us. Scammers who are interviewed explain that their aim is to arouse emotions such as fear, guilt, loneliness and pride. People drastically under-estimate how much these emotions knock out their ability to make rational decisions. Since the average age of spam victims is 69, it is clear that age is also a risk factor in disabling humans' ability to detect bullshit and to maintain normal reality-testing in the face of a comforting lie (Shadel, 2012). The elicitation of states such as guilt, pride and loneliness is usually so carefully done that the "mark" does not notice it. "Hello ... why don't you answer? ... what, you don't want to talk to an African?" said one of the people messaging me on Facebook recently. Eliciting these emotions is essential to ensure that the person does not notice the next step in the process of scamming: Bait and Switch.
3. Bait and Switch. Most western countries have a specific law about this, describing it as a type of "false advertising". First, customers are "baited" by a merchant advertising products or services at a low price, but when customers visit the store or reply to the email, or express interest verbally, they discover that the advertised goods either are not available, or are not as good as was expected, or they are pressured by the merchant to consider similar, but higher-priced, items (all of these being examples of "switching"). Therapeutic services are particularly at risk of accidentally doing this, because after an initial assessment the therapist may well decide that the case is "not as simple as the person suggested when they enquired". However bait and switch can be done anywhere. At the airport in Bali, there is an official taxi service with listed prices for taxis to each of the major destinations across the island. For example, in 2016 it said the taxi to Ubud was the equivalent of $30. Once I agreed to take this route, the taxi driver asked which hotel in Ubud I was going to, and I told him. He then said that the price to that hotel was in fact $45 and the $30 price was only to the exact centre of Ubud. I happened to know that my hotel was slightly closer to the airport than the centre of Ubud, and so told him that in that case he could drop me off in the centre and I would walk back to my hotel (a short distance). This is a very small bait and switch, similar to being asked to pay tolls on the road on top of the agreed taxi fare, or being dropped off a kilometre from the airport in Moscow because the taxi driver doesn't want to drive into the airport (perhaps because he's an illegal immigrant). In NLP terms, Bait and Switch, of course, is merely a specific example of Pacing and Leading. After synchronising with your interest in an amazing "offer", the scammer then acts as if you have actually agreed to consider a substantially less amazing "offer".
The most successful bait and switch processes escalate the price by a factor of maybe 10-50 times. Bait and switch often plays on another normal human response: your feeling that you are an honourable person who stands by what you said you would do. After all, you did agree that you would look through the person's store and you did agree that they could show you how nice this T-shirt looks on you, so how can you now refuse to buy it, even though you've now discovered that it costs ten times what the price tag seemed to say. I've had the experience of sitting down with a traditional healer and discovering that after specifically arranging a $40 session, I'm told (before I have paid) that nothing can be done for less than $1500 - I've already started receiving treatments so how can I refuse. The important thing for those of you who are highly moral to notice is that the seller expects you to stand by what you have implied acceptance of, but they do not stand by any of the arrangements that they implied.
4. Hidden Haggling and Auctioning. Of course, it is now becoming quite common even in New Zealand for people to bargain for a "discount" price in shops, meaning that the lowest price available is deliberately unclear (buyers may even be encouraged by instore advertising to "Ask me for a better price"). Most people world-wide have also now had an experience of "bidding" for an item on eBay or a similar site, where the price is also deliberately unclear, but in the other direction (you may get a much worse price than you expected). Of course also, in any business context, at times you need to renegotiate a deal. You may book travel arrangements and then realise you need to change them. You may also discover that the person you are cooperating with is unable to fulfil their original arrangement and it makes sense to renegotiate the terms. I may arrange to run a training for a set price, and then at the decision point find that the course has not attracted enough people to pay me that price - now I may decide that I have put aside the time and am willing to do the training for less, and be repaid the money at a later date. So this is all part of normal business negotiation in most cultures.
All of this "normal haggling" occurs in situations where the rules are fairly explicit, even if they may need to change because of a change in the exchange rate etc. However some common business methods also deliberately obscure the rules and expectations. The aim of auctions, which are (for example) used to sell most houses in New Zealand now, is to elicit sudden buying decisions that you would not make if you had the time to think it through. The auction process is thus very close to bait and switch. It starts off looking like you can get this item for a realistic price, and then you feel as if you have committed yourself to purchasing and might be willing to go a little beyond what you previously estimated that you could manage.
Some countries have a much stronger tradition of price negotiation than others. Cross-culturally, misunderstanding can easily occur when a person from a non-bargaining culture is quoted a price by a person from a bargaining culture. In today's world, you don't know when that cultural difference is occurring - you certainly don't have to travel to experience it. Increasingly, you need to understand that the price being presented to you may not be a final offer, may have no relationship to the production costs, and may not be the price quoted to the next customer, but may be merely the seller's best guess as to the maximum that you would be willing to pay, now that you have committed yourself to thinking about it. Your cues that you are totally committed to buying will then have pushed up the price quoted. Buyers in a bargaining culture learn to "keep a poker face" and not to let on how eager they are to buy. They also learn to walk away if the price is not what they wanted to pay. It is a sobering experience to go into a set-price supermarket in Asia and see the shelf price of the things you have haggled over in the night market, and realise that you argued for 15 minutes and then paid 5 times what an item sells for on the supermarket shelf. Maybe that's OK - haggling can be fun, and you paid someone who needed the money ... as long as you understand what is happening.
In what I am calling a scam, prices and products/services offered may fluctuate wildly as the person tries to guess what you are willing to give. This is a clue that the price is unrelated to the usual "value" of the service or product. The scammer may first of all say that they need $10,000 to organise your training, or set up your website, after which you will eventually be paid back twice as much once you are famous in their country ... but when you express shock they may immediately say that $2,000 would be enough to set up their basic training or a basic website. They may explain at first that there is a very specific date when you need to attend their prestigious training event or by which you must take up their offer, but then immediately accept whatever dates work for you. If you come from a non-bargaining culture, you may not even understand what is happening at first. Here's an example I experienced recently: When you book hotels on line, prices are clear and conditions (eg refund policies) are clear. However when we recently tried to book a hotel in person in another country, we discovered the opposite was true. We were asked to agree to pay a non-refundable amount ($2000) several months in advance. When we said that was unreasonable, the required amount dropped by half, and when we said we would find another choice (genuinely, because we knew that cost-free-refund alternatives were available even at this hotel on line), the required non-refundable price dropped by half again. Then we realized that we were not being quoted a price and condition from some hotel policy: we were bargaining. This was not so much a scam as a cross-cultural misunderstanding. Obviously, if you come from a non-bargaining culture, then you have a buying decision-making strategy which is often complete before any conversation with the merchant begins, whereas the person from the bargaining culture knows that speaking to the merchant is only one step in the decision-making process. In scamming, the variability of the arrangement is obscured. Financial uncertainty enhances the scamming process. The scammer is much more flexible than their "mark" expects, and so they easily control the negotiating system. For the client or "mark" the rapid presentation of different or even contradictory offers creates a meta-state of confusion which causes them to further abandon rational thinking.
5. The Pyramid: Another common aspect of the scam is that you are invited to join in the game. Contact your friends, or better yet let the scam artist contact your friends, and you will get an even better deal. Once you are putting in the work, the scam works so much better, because your friends think they can trust you. In the beach resort town I mentioned earlier, we were told how if we got a small number of our friends to book into the hotel over the next year, we would get a free few days holiday at the hotel ourselves. They, of course, will be told the same thing, but since their most likely-to-travel friends have already been invited in, the scheme quickly becomes unsustainable. This is known as a pyramid scheme. At its simplest, the person who "friended" you on Facebook can now convincingly get themselves "friended" by your friends. You may not even be the target. Since pyramid schemes are illegal usually, it is not a smart move to offer people free training once they collect in a certain number of their friends! The pyramid scheme is the ultimate expression of the scam, in that it replicates the process, and converts the "mark" or client into a scammer. You may have experienced a fairly harmless version of the pyramid scheme with the "chain" letter. You get a letter with a list of people's names. You send the person on top of that list a gift, take their name off, add your name to the bottom of the list, and send it to ten friends. Within weeks you should get hundreds of gifts. But usually you don't.
This pyramid scheme structure is dangerously close to what happens in motivational training. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn was himself a door to door salesman and trained several other motivational speakers such as Tony Robbins, as well as Mark R. Hughes, the founder of Herbalife International. Herbalife, which sells nutritional supplements, has previously been convicted for running a pyramid scheme in Europe and is currently under investigation in USA for this charge. As an NLP trainer, I know that the elicitation of emotions that enables scamming also enables other significant experiences such as religious conversion and motivational training. We owe it to our students to educate them about this process so that they can make sensible decisions in the NLP world as well as elsewhere. A few years ago, I attended a training in the NLP community designed to qualify me to run specific NLP trainings, which I consider very valuable. The (one day) trainer training cost me $2000, and consisted entirely of sitting at a desk listening to the trainer. That was the deal: I accepted it. But when I got there, I discovered that I also needed to pay another $1000 to get a digital copy of the manual to print for my students (otherwise my day of training was useless), and that if I did not train more students and pass them into the parent organization every year, I would lose my right to run the training from that point on. That is, I suggest, on the edge of being a scam.
Enjoying your business transactions
To summarise, scamming is getting more personalized and merging into daily business practice. Scammers achieve their results by creating rapport with cold reading and flattering. They elicit states of fear, guilt, pride and then confusion, as they shift the price and bait-and-switch the deal to reach objectives that may include money or collusion in illegal activity. Finally they may even involve you in the scam by use of pyramid schemes. Your best defence is not to focus on second-guessing them, but on knowing your own outcomes and limits, so you remain calm and check what actually works for you.
Being sucked in to a deal that you would never have agreed to openly, and becoming angry about the trickery of the world ... both these responses are based on lack of information. In her book Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert tells a simple story about this (it didn't make it into the film). She feels compassion for a single mother struggling in Bali, and raises $18,000 to buy the woman a house. The woman then explains that she now needs $40,000 to get the only land that is suitable for her house. Gilbert discusses it with a friend who understands the Balinese culture and he says that of course the woman is pushing for whatever she can get - this is her only chance to make that kind of money. No need to be angry, and no need to go into debt to raise the extra money. So Gilbert simply explains that if the woman doesn't buy a house soon, she (Gilbert) will be under pressure from the donors (her friends) and may need to cancel the deal. The land was bought within the next few hours (Gilbert, 2006). It's the equivalent of walking away from a seller in the market with a smile and a gentle apology, rather than paying beyond what you wanted to or becoming angry and blaming the person for their "greed". People are just doing the best they can. Sometimes, understanding their situation and their expectations makes it easier for both you and them.
- Gilbert, E. (2006) Eat, Pray, Love , Riverhead Books, New York
- Shadel, D. (2012) Outsmarting the Scam Artists, Wiley, New York
Richard Bolstad firstname.lastname@example.org