For many of us, fraud attempts are part of our daily lives. We receive emails with suspicious links and see random numbers pop up on our caller IDs. In 2020, scammers placed more than 38 million robocalls — that means each American received more than 116 of these calls. These things are annoying, but we often simply decline the call or delete the email.
But not everyone does and the psychology of loneliness may be the key.
In the first six months of 2020, people lost about $117 million to social media scams compared to $134 million in all of 2019, according to the FTC. Seniors are prime targets. Bad actors take advantage of their good nature and inexperience with technology. But it may be more than that. People are lonely.
Loneliness was on the rise even before the pandemic. In January 2019, two in five Americans said they always or sometimes felt isolated or lonely. Research shows that people who engage with or lose money to scams are more likely to express feelings of loneliness. How might isolation play into the rising number of dollars lost to fraud? What factors from the psychology of loneliness contribute to fraud and scams?
Experts point to several factors, including the need to connect and the inability to get a second opinion on a request or opportunity. We dug deeper to help you understand how a person’s loneliness may be linked to their likelihood of getting scammed. We also shared ways to protect yourself.
The Psychology of Loneliness: We’re Craving Connection
Romance scams, which involve a bad actor posing as a potential love interest and tricking someone into giving them expensive gifts or money, are popular on social media. These scams prey on seniors as the scammers are well familiar with the psychology of loneliness. This communication can feel like a lifeline to someone feeling isolated. In the UK, where romance scams went up 20 percent during COVID-related lockdowns, a widow lost thousands of pounds in savings to someone pretending to be a love interest. It was nice to talk to someone, and she said she thought they would meet in person someday.
Cons, like the one who scammed this widow, prey on people’s need for connection and hope. They develop strong relationships with their victims, getting them emotionally involved. The victims don’t want to lose the relationship and want to help their new love interest, so they continue to engage and often drain their savings.
Fewer Contacts Means Less Protection
We rely on friends and family to keep us in check. They’ll give us opinions on everything from how our hair looks to whether we should retire. They can also provide a much-needed second opinion that protects us from falling for a scam, like sweepstakes or lottery scams. One of the key factors of the psychology of loneliness is that when we have less contact, less positive reinforcement, we become more insecure.
Take sweepstakes scams, for example. Sweepstakes scams happen when a con lets someone know they have won a prize but need to give personal information or money to claim it. People have lost more than $350 million to sweepstakes or lottery scams in the last three years, according to the Better Business Bureau.
If people discuss the opportunity presented in sweepstakes scams with friends or family, their loved ones may raise an eyebrow. Perhaps family members have heard of similar scams, and they can send the targeted person links to do more research before they wire money to the con. Friends can also help the person get in touch with the local or federal authorities to investigate the opportunity and let them know if it’s credible. However, an isolated person may not have the luxury of a second opinion. They’re lonely, excited for the opportunity and more susceptible to falling for it.
The Shame Around Scams
Unfortunately, scams are common. However, they carry a stigma. Research shows that the way we talk about scams may make people less likely to report and get help. When people use words like “stupid” or “gullible” to describe victims of fraud, it makes them feel like it’s their fault. Consequently, they may not report it to the authorities or seek retribution.
How to Protect Yourself and Loved Ones
People feel isolated, especially right now, but help is available.
- Try setting up weekly or monthly virtual calls with family and friends. Discuss recent emails and calls you received. Ask them for their opinions.
- You do not have to pay to claim prize money. If someone tells you that you do, it’s best to decline the offer. You can also ask the person if you can call them back and bounce the idea off a family member or friend. Even if you cannot see them in person, they are just a phone call away.
- Research the name of any company or sweepstakes to see if it’s credible or if it has appeared in other scams.
If you think you have been victimized by fraud, report it to the local authorities or FTC.