Monday, 4 July 2011


Did you know that in the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary they’ve removed the word “gullible”?

OK, anyone with a DSTV subscription may recently have seen the inestimable Stephen Fry pretending to fall for this old skeptical joke. It’s an interesting but dangerous experiment to try at home. Do you really want to know which of your family members are hopelessly gullible or, perhaps more diplomatically, “naïve”?

Gullibility of course is nothing to do with stupidity or ignorance. There are just some people, often very smart people, who believe anything they’re told. They’re often the people who fall for internet scams, the latest schismatic religious group or the newest pastor in a flashy car and an expensive suit. They’re almost always the people who have their hard-earned money taken away from them.

The wide selection of holiday and accommodation schemes and clubs are a good example of this. They are often sold to rather smart and affluent people who already spend a lot of money on holidays and staying away from home. They fall for a slick presentation from a salesman with a cheesy smile and smarmy persuasive abilities. The same salesman who won’t mention how difficult it is to get out of the contract when you change your mind. The type who works for a company who will afterwards just say “caveat emptor” (“buyer beware”) and tell you to get lost.

It’s the same with scams. The victims can often be rather intelligent people. Of course it’s very easy to assume that only an idiot will have fallen for it but it’s surprising who the victims can be. Obviously I’m not going to give you any names of victims we know but they’ve included senior managers in large companies, government scientists and even one or two in “the media”. They’ve all been faced with an email offering them a fortune if only they can help remove it from a bank account in a West African nation. Others were approached with offers of romance inspired by their unseen good looks and charming features. All fell for this and ended up either parting with significant amounts of money or, if they checked with us first, narrowly avoided doing so.

Despite my general skepticism I can understand how someone can fall for a scam. What I find surprising is that some people fall for the same scammers twice or more.

I’ve actually seen these situations several times, but only when they’ve been forwarded to me. That’s because I’ve never been the victim of a scammer myself so I’m not the target of this “follow-up” scam. This type is very specifically targeted at previous victims.

The email purports to come from an official organisation like the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and claim they’ve heard that you were a victim of an earlier scam and suggest they can assist in recovering your lost money. I’m sure that reading this you’ll wonder how someone can be so gullible, particularly as all the warning signs are there. If you look closely you’ll see that the FBI seem to have fallen on hard times and are using a free Gmail email address and a cellphone number. You’ll also notice that their command of English is not as good as you would expect.

Anyone with a little familiarity with scams would spot this instantly but I suspect it’s different if you’ve recently lost a huge amount of money to a scammer. You’d be feeling embarrassed, ashamed, guilty and in desperate need of help and support. And poor. You’ll be a drowning man grasping at straws.

Needless to say, sooner or later, this FBI man would require yet another advance fee for some incidental expense. And yes, some victims end up paying more money in the vain hope of getting something back.

As I’ve said many times before the only weapon that truly works against scams and all other forms of deception is skepticism. We really shouldn’t believe things we’re told just because we’ve been told them. That goes for absolutely anything you read in an email that originated from someone you don’t know but is also goes for absolutely anyone who is trying to sell you something.

You should obviously research any claims that are made to help part you from your money. Certainly be extremely skeptical about any remarkable claims. As one of my heroes, Carl Sagan, was fond of saying, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Anyone who claims they have a cure, or think they have a cure for any disease or disorder that does NOT involve a hospital needs to come up with some VERY persuasive evidence. Not long ago I was asked my opinion of a medical trial that a friend had been invited to join to treat her son. The doctor, who wanted her to pay serious money to join this trial, was ready to experiment on her son using so-called “chelation therapy”, a completely unproven therapy for which there is no evidence to support it’s use in his case. In fact many authorities around the world have warned people against using this approach for his condition. If that wasn’t enough the trial appeared not to have permission from the relevant authorities. Luckily the trial appears to have been cancelled after various skeptics did some research and spoke to a variety of doctors who expressed serious alarm at the idea and the word spread.

That’s an extreme case but scams are the same, they require research and healthy skepticisn.

Whether it’s your wealth or your health skepticism is the very best weapon in the battle against gullibility.

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