There are many wonderful things about technological advancements and support in our daily lives. I am grateful for my smartphone that doubles as an alarm clock, personal calendar, connection tool, GPS, access to music and entertainment as well as scriptures and educational growth. On the other hand, the complexity of navigating and learning how to use all the apps, remembering the logins and keeping  information safe and secure online grows ever more challenging.  For those in the older generations, who struggle with the digital divide, the risk to exposure of personal data is even greater, where smart but cunning people lurk waiting to take advantage of those less informed.  

On one hand, being a technology neophyte can have its advantages.  My parents are of a demographic that is highly targeted for scam attempts. My mother was quite adept at recognizing scam phone calls for what they were and would generally hang up without saying a word. Nevertheless, these calls persisted until the fateful day they got my dad, who rarely answers the phone. The caller said, “You have a virus on your computer.” My father replied, “My wife usually takes care of those issues.” The caller responded, “No problem, if you just turn on your computer we can take care of it from there.” My father recognized there was something fishy going on and responded that he didn’t know how to turn it on (which was partially true). The caller replied, “You ignorant bastard” and hung up. As a family, we love to laugh about my dad getting told off by a potential hacker which had the added benefit of getting them off the hacker robo call list and they weren’t bothered again. While it’s a funny family anecdote for us, for others this tactic works all too well and the people impersonating someone trying to help can turn into the worst nightmare. 

It can’t happen to me

We hear about hacking, catfishing and online deception happening in the news and all over the place. If we have been around for a decade or more, we certainly have fended off multiple scams, phishing, or hacking attempts.  I don’t know how many faxes I have received about long lost relatives with my last name having an unclaimed inheritance to accept, or emails and Facebook messages from friends supposedly stranded in a foreign country who need money immediately. Perhaps recognizing the less subtle attempt may give us a false sense of security that it won’t happen to me.  The problem is that scammers don’t rest and their tactics get more and more believable, making it more and more likely that someday you or someone close to you will be a victim. 

This message hit too close to home recently when a family member became the victim of one such hack. Prior to this experience, I had not sufficiently appreciated the severe psychological impact of being a victim of such a scam. A combination of dumb luck and advanced psychological strategies bypassed her internal warning systems; she fell for a sophisticated scam that resulted in multiple hours of manipulation and emotional turmoil before realizing that the “helpers” were actually the hackers and that she had been actively gaslit and psychologically abused for many hours.  The shock, shame, embarrassment, anger, humiliation, rage, and self-deprecation she experienced due to falling for such a trick was unbelievable.

As we worked together to zoom out and dissect how the hackers got her into such a vulnerable state, the logic used by the hackers quickly fell apart, which brought on new waves of shame, self-criticism, violation, depression and defeat. These feelings were exacerbated by the fact that she had to spend the next several days and weeks canceling cards, changing logins, making statements to the police (who only made her feel more like a fool) and accepting the fact that her money would not likely be recovered. 

In order to help her process these feelings, and try to turn this horrifying experience into something helpful, she gave me permission to share this blog in order to expose the hacker’s strategies and possibly help prevent someone else from experiencing this violation. I also spoke with police officers, bank personnel, IT personnel, friends, and family to learn as much as I could about the psychological strategies scammers use to achieve their goals. Below is a summary of some of the psychological strategies the scammers use to lure their victims. 

Gaslighting Strategies of a Scammer

    1. Impersonating a person or system of trust. Ex: Windows Defender, Microsoft Support, A trusted online shopping company, your bank, friend, or family member by hacking their accounts and emailing or texting using their identity.  By leveraging the inherent trust in the person or system, they bypass some of the warning flags that might go off if you thought you were talking to a stranger. See more here: Scammers Using Computer-Technical Support Impersonation Scams to Target Victims and Conduct Wire Transfers, Cyber Criminals Impersonating Brands Using Search Engine Advertisement Services to Defraud Users

    2. Leveraging Love. Some of the most heart-wrenching scams involve love. They use your love for someone you believe to be in danger or believe to have fell on unfortunate circumstances to send (and then get swindled out of) large sums of money.  The more egregious version of this scam is catfishing, or feigning a romantic relationship. These relationships are generally established online, but can also be done face to face in order to swindle the person out of large amounts of money.  The double whammy in this scenario is that the discovery of this scam results in a horrifying double betrayal trauma. Not only does the person discover that the person they thought loved them either doesn’t exist, or doesn’t care about them in the way they imagined, but they are also left with the financial ruin while nursing a broken heart.To those who have experienced these elaborate forms of betrayal, my heart goes out to you. It is a unique and painful experience.  Furthermore, telling your story may not be met with the empathy and support you need in these situations.  If you find yourself in this situation, please reach out to a professional counselor to process these deep feelings of betrayal, trauma, and losses, please do not suffer in isolation. Romance Scams –

    3. Impersonating someone with power or Authority. Ex:The IRS, the government, the FBI, and Law Enforcement.  When hackers use this strategy, they bypass red flags by inciting fear of consequences for not complying with the requests of a person of perceived power.  You may inadvertently submit to sharing more information than you otherwise would if you didn’t feel disadvantaged from a power perspective. Persons from minority groups, or those with a history with legal problems or immigrant status may be especially vulnerable to manipulation and abuse using this tactic.  Fear of jail time or legal issues for non-compliance are often part of these strategies.

    4. Good Cop/ Bad Cop Strategy. The abusers may initially position themselves as a person trying to help protect you or support you in some way.  Essentially they are playing a game of  “good cop/bad cop” where they pretend like they are helping you or protecting you against another bad actor. However, if you quit complying with their strategy, they will likely quickly launch into a bad cop strategy and try to use fear, intimidation, or anger to make you do what they want.

    5. Sensory Hijacking. Hackers and abusers have hijacked the body’s protective mechanisms for their gain. Using Sensory Overwhelm or fear tactics to send you into Fight, Flight, Freeze  or Fawn responses take the prefrontal cortex (logical, thinking part of the brain) offline and thrust their victims into a reactive and panicked state. When we are in these states, we simply aren’t able to think clearly.  The old saying, “Never make big life decisions while in crisis” holds true here.

    6. Time-limit induced Panic.  Another theme I identified when comparing hacker strategies is that there frequently is a sense of urgency incorporated into the strategy meant to induce panic.  Whether it is getting money to a family member who has been kidnapped, money to pay for a life-saving surgery of a family member, a romantic partner who one met online runs into sudden money issues, or moving money from a trusted bank which has been “compromised” to a “secure location;” they all have a sense of urgency and pressure that signals the threat system described in the strategy above in order to induce someone to make a poor, panic-informed decision.

    7. Isolation. In some cases, hackers deliberately cut you off from trusted sources that could help regulate or support you. They might use tactics to keep you on the phone, unable to reach out to others online or via phone, or they may simply keep talking and distracting you from being able to seek input from other sources.  They may sow doubt about the security of using your devices to reach out to others via email or online, making it even more difficult to access additional input and support.

    8. Paranoia. Hackers may try to turn you against a trust institution, particularly a financial institution.  I have heard that people are asked to be part of an “investigation” of a bank , asked to go and do certain things to see how the bank responds, which ultimately results in taking money out and putting it securely into the hacker’s hands.

    9. Something for Nothing. This is like hitting the jackpot. The excitement of some windfall of cash, even if it feels somewhat unlikely, can cause people to take risks they otherwise wouldn’t do.  Classic scams include fake inheritance schemes and variations on that theme.

    10. Curiosity. The saying “curiosity kills the cat” certainly applies here.  This could be clicking on a pop-up or a link in an email saying you are a winner, or even picking up a seemingly abandoned USB drive to see who the owner is, possibly with the intent of returning it. However, as soon as you click the link or insert the drive, malware can enter your system, and if at a work setting, can spread through the network.

    11. Goodwill.  There are several strategies that may try to leverage someone’s kind heart against them. Whether it is helping out a friend or family member you think is in trouble, or trying to return something that is lost like a USB thumb drive, beware of the possible malicious intent behind the message or device.  A bank manager friend of mine told me of a scam that a client nearly fell for where they received an error that a software he paid for “accidentally refunded instead of collecting the amount of money”.  He was asked to return the amount to the appropriate account, which would have ultimately been giving his money away to the hackers. Fortunately the savvy manager caught the scam and stopped the payout. An IT friend of mine told me about a strategy hackers will use to break into corporate systems.  They will spread USBs in the parking lot outside a building. As soon as an unsuspecting person inserts it into the computer,  it introduces malware into the network.

    12. Prepaying or over-paying for something and then wanting part of the money returned.  As a therapist I have been repeatedly approached with this tactic. A person overseas wants to prepay for intensive therapy for some set amount of time. They want me to collect the money, deposit it and then return it- or some variation of the story.

    Compassion for Victims 

    If you have been a victim of one of the tactics above, please don’t beat yourself up.   The betrayal, sense of violation, loss of a sense of safety or security is real and extremely painful.  The emotional anguish and any potential lost time, money or mental energy is enough punishment.  Take the opportunity to learn from the strategy, identify the strategy or your vulnerability to the scam, and learn from it so it doesn’t happen again.  

    If it hasn’t happened to you, please be compassionate to those around you that it has happened to.  They feel bad enough and pointing out the flaws in their thinking or actions when you can see things clearly from a distance doesn’t help. The psychological strategies described in this blog are extremely sophisticated and are purposefully designed to create fear, panic and confusion in order to meet their goals. Let us work together to support others who have been through this painful experience and help point them to places to get true support. 

    If you or someone you love have been a victim of a scam, download this list of resources to help understand, prevent, unwind and report the issue to the proper authorities.

    – Dr. Heather Putney

    Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Heather Putney and Untethered Therapy

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