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How to Scam-proof Your Brain

Learn the skills you need to become a human scam detector

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How to Scam-proof Your Brain
Photo: Comstock / Getty

Scams seem to come from everywhere these days, e-mail, direct mail, text messages, and every other possible avenue. No matter what the communication medium, the goal is the same. Scammers want to dupe you into giving up personal and financial information, or trick you into loading malware so they can take over your computer to use it for their own purposes.

Scammers aren't going away. The best thing you can do is educate yourself on how to recognize the tools and techniques used by scammers so that the next time you encounter a scam, your brain will realize it and you won't end up a victim

Scams come in all shapes and sizes. There is no way to possibly catalog all the types of scams out there, but there are things that they all have in common. Once you learn to recognize these common elements you will be able to pull back the curtain to see them for what they really are.

Here is a training plan to help you scam-proof your brain:

1. Recognize that scammers prey on fear and create a false sense of urgency

Most phishing scam e-mails state something to the effect that there has been some fraudulent activity with your account and they need to "verify" your information "immediately". Many people fall for these types of scams because they are afraid of the perceived consequences of not acting. The sense of urgency created by the scammers makes the victims want to act quickly.

Scammers want quick action because the more time a potential victim has to analyze the situation, the more likely they are to realize that it's a scam.

2. Develop mental self-defense skills

When I was in sixth grade (I can't believe I still remember back that far), our teachers taught a class on propaganda techniques. I know that propaganda techniques sounds like a very Cold War topic and I'm not sure why this was part of our sixth grade curriculum. However strange a topic it may have seemed, I'm glad they taught this course because it helped me develop the critical thinking skills that I use every day to tell when someone is trying to influence me or scam me in some way.

Propaganda Techniques were first described in 1937 by Edward Filene along with his colleagues who helped found the Institute of Propaganda Analysis. Their goal was to shed light on the propaganda "tricks of the trade" that advertisers, politicians, and other media used to influence and persuade people by appealing to their emotions and attempting to override rational thought processes. Scammers also make use of many of these same techniques.

Study the Propaganda Techniques mentioned in the article above and then sit down and watch TV for awhile. I can practically guarantee that you will be able to take almost every commercial or political ad you see and find the propaganda technique that is being used. The same goes for phishing scams and other cons.

3. Filter out distraction and misdirection to find out what the scammer's true motives are

If a scammer sent you an e-mail that said "please provide me your bank information so I can rob you blind" this would obviously set off bells and whistles and you would not comply.

Scammers must try to convince you to do something without setting off any mental alarms. Scammers do this by appearing to be credible. One way to appear credible is by using facades such as e-mails with bank logos and professional formatting. Once credibility is established the scammer must then use misdirection, much like magicians do, to confuse and distract you.

While you're focused on the fear associated with something being wrong with your account you may forget the fact that your bank has told you in the past that they will never contact you by e-mail. You might also overlook the fact that the core message in the e-mail is that someone is trying to get you to enter in personal information that you would not otherwise give out.

The key to avoid getting scammed is to filter out the distraction and skip to the core message. Ignore the logo and official looking formatting, ignore everything and skip to the part of the e-mail that says they want you to give them something. Then use your critical thinking skills to ask yourself things such as: "Why would my own bank need my account number?" or "Why do they need my password when they have administrator rights to everyone's accounts?"

4. Never blindly trust any message, always verify it

Before you ever act on something, always confirm its validity. If an e-mail says it's from your bank, get your most recent bank statement and call the phone number on it to see if there really is an issue with your account.

If one of your friends on Facebook says they are stranded somewhere and need money wired to them, check with a family member to see if the story checks out.

5. Study current threats and techniques used by cybercriminals

You would be shocked to learn about how well organized cybercriminals are. There is a huge shadowy world of criminals out there that have formed their own criminal economy, paying other criminals to infect computers as part of malware affiliate marketing programs. Infected computers are sold into virtual slavery as part of bot nets which are sold to other criminals to perform large-scale attacks.

You should educate yourself on these threats by learning the tools and techniques used by the bad guys. Here are a few to start with:

The Shadowy World of Malware Affiliate Marketing
Bot Nets Explained
How to Avoid Clickjacking Attacks
Should you be Afraid of Scareware?

Check out our Fight Cybercrime section at the top of this page to see many more articles on the subject.

The key to scam-proofing your brain is to not let your emotions cloud your logical thinking. Avoid being rushed into any decision. Use critical thinking skills and always analyze the message and verify its source before acting.

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