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Those who rely on gut instinct and are open to persuasion are more at risk of falling prey to internet scams, according to a research sponsored by the UK Office of Fair Trading.

Far from being naive and easily led, many scam victims are often decent decision-makers in their everyday life, psychology researchers at the University of Exeter conclude.

Grifters take UK marks for an estimated £3.5bn every year. OFT commissioned research found many frauds rely on exploiting basic human emotions such as excitement or fear to provoke a "gut reaction" to a fraudulent offer.

Many fraudsters attempt to hoodwink people by posing as reputable businesses or official institutions.

The research also looked for possible markers in the psychology profile of victims, teasing out a number of possible traits common to groups of marks.

  • Previous victims of a scam are more likely to show interest in responding again.
  • Over-confidence can lure those with background knowledge of the subject of a scam offer into falling victim to fraud.
  • Contrary to popular opinion, victims are not in general poor-decision makers, and might well be successful in business. But they do tend to be "unduly open to persuasion by others and less able to control their emotions".
  • Victims often keep their decision to respond to what turns out to be a scam as a secret from family or friends.

The research will be used to help direct the OFT and Serious Organised Crime Agency's strategy for tackling mass marketed fraud, by helping in the development of better-informed consumer awareness campaigns, which aim to help people to recognise and resist scams.

Methodology applied to the study included in-depth interviews with 25 scam victims and five "near" victims, textual analysis of nearly 600 scam mailings and web pages to identify key psychological triggers, the use of questionnaires, and a behavioural experiment in which 10,000 fake prize draw scam mailings were sent to members of the public in order to test their responses. Ten different types of mass marketing scam were considered, including advance fee fraud (419) scams, fake clairvoyants, prize draw pitch scams, bogus investment scams, "miracle" health cures, and bogus racing tipsters. ®

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