Need to know
- Two-thirds of Australians over the age of 15 were contacted by a scammer in the 2021–22 financial year
- People are most vulnerable to being scammed when they exceed their 'window of tolerance'
- The Australian National Anti-Scam Centre calls it being in a 'hot state'
If you haven't been targeted by a scammer in recent years you're in a special club whose numbers are rapidly diminishing. And it seems likely your day will come – which is why it's so important to maintain a scam-resistant mindset.
This means slowing down and thinking twice, or even three times, before responding to any contact that could be a scam.
Stress and exhaustion make people more vulnerable to scams
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, two-thirds of Australians over the age of 15 were contacted by a scammer in the 2021–22 financial year.
And there's a good chance that some of the proportionately small but numerically large segment that responded to the scammer (2.7%) were in a vulnerable state of mind when they found themselves on the receiving end of the sinister phone call or text.
When you're stressed, tired and feeling the pressure from multiple sides, you're more likely to slip up and start engaging with a scammer
The evidence shows that when you're stressed, tired and feeling the pressure from multiple sides, you're more likely to slip up and start engaging with a scammer.
A 2022 report by the UK consumer rights group Which?, titled 'The Psychology of Scams', makes a convincing case that people are most vulnerable when they exceed their "window of tolerance", due to factors such as relationship troubles, isolation, job stress, money stress, insecure tenancy, or just plain fatigue.
This is when the scammers can override your impulse to ignore, check things you ordinarily would, hang up or delete.
Dr Kam-Fung (Henry) Cheung, a lecturer at the School of Information Systems and Technology Management at the University of New South Wales, says his research on the topic has also found that being in a stressed state plays into the hands of scammers.
"Stressors such as illness in the family, relationship troubles, isolation, job stress, financial strain, and insecurity in various aspects of life can indeed make an individual vulnerable to scams," Cheung says. "These stressors can impair an individual's emotional wellbeing and decision-making process."
These stressors can impair an individual's emotional wellbeing and decision-making processDr Kam-Fung (Henry) Cheung, School of Information Systems and Technology Management, University of NSW
"Stress may lead to heightened emotional states, making an individual more susceptible to manipulation by scammers who exploit emotions like fear, loneliness, or urgency."
Rental scam preyed on international students
Cheung cites the recent cases of international students desperately trying to find a place to live in Sydney falling prey to rental scams. Scammers posed as landlords on messaging apps to convince them to send money to secure rentals they had never seen.
"In such circumstances, individuals may become more trusting of seemingly authoritative figures and less sceptical of suspicious offers," Cheung says.
Scammers aim to get targets into a 'hot state'
If you're not feeling particularly stressed due to life events, the scammer's job is to change that in a hurry.
The Australian National Anti-Scam Centre (NASC) calls it being in a 'hot state'. (The NASC launched in July 2023 and is part of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, or ACCC.)
"A well-known scammer tactic is to create a sense of urgency, which essentially puts their intended victim in that hot state, where they feel the need to respond or act quickly," an ACCC spokesperson tells CHOICE.
A well-known scammer tactic is to create a sense of urgency, which essentially puts their intended victim in that hot state, where they feel the need to respond or act quicklyACCC spokesperson
"An example of this is a scammer could tell their intended victim there has been suspicious activity on their bank account, prompting them to transfer money to another account for safety."
A NASC priority is to "educate consumers about the tactics scammers use to put them in a hot state and to communicate ways to navigate their way out of that hot state," the spokesperson says.
Emotional vs rational mind
Another tactic scammers use, according to the Which? report, is to manipulate the intended victim into acting either too emotionally, or too rationally.
Key to resisting this is maintaining a "wise mind", where your decision-making is well-balanced between emotionality (drawing on feeling and intuition) and rationality (drawing on logic-based analysis).
But staying in the sweet spot can be a tall order when the scammer is pretending to be someone you know.
'Anyone can be scammed'
The Which? research reveals that spoofing phone numbers (using numbers that match real numbers the victim would be aware of) is one of the most common and effective scammer tactics in the UK, and it's prevalent in Australia as well.
Many of the scam victims profiled in the Which? report were dealing with multiple stress factors, and thought they were interacting with a family member or a legitimate business.
The seemingly trustworthy friend, family member or business on the other end could always turn out to be a scammer
The Which? report and the NASC give similar advice – take a deep breath and slow down before responding to a text, phone call or other form of contact. Or, as the NASC puts it: Stop. Think. Protect.
In our scam-ridden world, the seemingly trustworthy friend, family member or business on the other end could always turn out to be a scammer.
As the ACCC spokesperson warns, "the reality is that anyone can be scammed".
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.