I recently learned that the old saying, “it’s too good to be true” doesn’t account for something important: scams don’t go through the intelligent, thinking part of your mind.
Instead, they land directly in a more primitive part of your brain.
Sometimes it’s your fear center.
“The bank is on the phone saying that my account has been hacked! They just need to verify a few things before they fix it...” (And so, without thinking, you “confirm” your account number, and maybe your Social Security number and birthdate, and they clack a few keys to make it sound like they’re fixing the problem, when in fact your problem is just beginning.)
Or maybe it’s your instinctive love and protection for your family.
“Our grandson is calling from Mexico... He’s been arrested and needs us to send bail money or it’s going to get really bad for him...” (Which grandson? It’s so hard to hear over the phone line. I’m not quite sure, but he needs our help...)
And sometimes the scam scoots straight to the big cauldron of greed that even the best of us have hidden somewhere deep inside.
That’s what hit me a month or so ago, when I came just a few moments away from chomping down on the big fat worm dangling in front of me.
The scam started on Facebook.
A friend of mine shared a post from a local woman. I won’t identify her, but it’s a name that I vaguely recognized. We’re not friends in person or online, but I know her to be an upstanding and beloved member of the community. The post had tagged almost 100 other people, including people I do know and trust.
“Hello everyone,” the post said. “Due to my husband being promoted we are moving out and we are selling some items to reduce the heavy stuff.”
That seems reasonable enough. I scanned briefly through the list of items and photo gallery, and my interest grew. There were some pretty nice things in there, and the prices were really good: $700 for a trailer, $175 for a chest freezer, a riding mower for $600, a Chevy Cruze for $2,500.
I did a little Internet research. That mower is going for $2,000-plus new.
This was a deal! But wait, there’s more.
“We are not willing to hold the items without receiving payment,” the post noted. “Whosoever is interested should be able to make a deposit and we will mark the item as sold under his or her name. Money will be fully refunded in case you decide not to make purchase anymore.”
This was a race. I didn’t want to miss out.
My interest had turned to greed. The scam had taken root and my normal healthy skepticism was no longer engaged.
I messaged the person who had posted the account, asking about the mower and cars. She replied that someone had already made a down payment on the Chevy Cruze, but the mower and a 2013 GMC SUV were still available. She had attractive details on each and lots of photos.
She sent me her Venmo details and said she was local.
I was about to make the $100 Venmo down payment on the mower, and was excited about the SUV, when finally my long-neglected brain started working just a little, activated by the fact that a few people had posted “laughing” emoji responses to the Facebook post (comments had been turned off).
I sent a message to one of my friends who had been tagged in the original post.
The response: “She’s been hacked.”
This poor woman’s Facebook account had been nabbed. (I’m not sure how, but it’s a good reminder to turn on what they call “two-factor authentication,” which adds a second layer of security and makes it harder for someone to steal your social media account or email address.)
The scammer was posting in this woman’s name and taking advantage of her reputation to steal from her friends and neighbors.
Disgusting. But the buyer needs to beware, and I wasn’t.
I tried to keep the scammer on the line (via Facebook messenger) to get details that I could turn in to police, but she (he?) was cagey and didn’t reveal anything useful other than burner Venmo account information.
I should note that I mentioned all this to my 12-year-old son. His first response: “Why would she be selling a car or trailer if they’re moving? They could just move them, too.”
Well, well. The kid is smarter than his old man.
Regretting what I ‘lost’
What surprised me most about this scam is that this offer had so activated my emotions that for several weeks I found myself idly regretting that I didn’t get that deal on the car or the trailer.
I was mourning the life I’d already imagined with stuff that never actually existed! These scams take advantage of our natural desires. They weaponize our greed.
Yes, that selfish, deal-seeking old corner of my brain was kicking myself for not taking a deal that my smarter self had realized was a scam.
That’s how they get us, folks.
The scam was recently re-posted on the stolen local account, and there are countless more out there.
Don’t let this happen to you. Even when your monkey brain has fully latched on to a screaming deal, or is terrified of bad news coming in over the phone or email, remember that your human brain just might help keep you from a scam, if you let it. Take a pause and check in with someone else — especially if the situation has a rush-rush feel to it. Protect yourself by slowing down.
The better the deal, the worse the unexpected news, or the bigger the hurry, the more important it is to double-check yourself. Consider the strong possibility that what looks urgent might just be a scam trying to dodge your intelligence and latch onto something much deeper — and dumber, or more desperate — inside of you.
Brian Mittge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.