The Jeep Scam: Critical Thinking in Everyday Life

March 05, 2020Categories: Reason,

The Dr. Bo Show with Bo Bennett, PhD
The Dr. Bo Show is a critical thinking-, reason-, and science-based approach to issues that matter. It is the podcast of social psychologist Bo Bennett. As of 2020, this podcast is a collection of topics related to all of his books.

My wife was browsing Facebook and saw an amazing deal in a local Yard Sale group: a 1998 Jeep with 44k miles for $1400. This car would be perfect for our kids while they are home from school. My wife sent me a screenshot of the ad posted just 4 minutes prior, and I told her to contact the seller right away, letting them know we were interested. The seller got back to us promptly. The scam became blatantly obvious.

Let's begin with perhaps the greatest driver of scams: greed. Greed comes in many forms, one of which is the desire to get an amazing deal. This desire blinds us to the many signs of a scam that might be obvious to us had we not been reacting emotionally. Let's take a look at some of these "red flags."

Red Flag #1: Unusually Attractive, Female Seller

This is "Julie." Long hair, big lips, and a whole-lotta cleavage. The chances are, this is a stock image. Scammers know that there is something called the Halo Effect, which is our tendency to fallaciously allow one positive quality of a person to spill over to other qualities. In this case, we see attractive people as more trustworthy then unattractive people.

There are far more male con-artists and scammers than female ones. For this reason, female profiles are almost always used for scams and cons. Sorry men, but especially when it comes to transactions on the Internet, women are far more trustworthy, and scammers know it.

Red Flag #2: Bad English

Scammers are commonly from other countries where they are either immune to U.S. laws or very unlikely to be pursued by law enforcement. Everyone makes typos now and again, but non-native English speakers tend to follow similar patterns where they leave out connecting words and have difficulties with basic rules of grammar and punctuation. Of course, there are also many Americans who don't speak or write English as a first language. So judge with care.

Red Flag #3: Posting to a Local Group for Someone Else

An item for sale posted to a local community group would be available for pickup locally, but not if someone is posting for someone else. Then the item can be anywhere, and that is where wiring money comes in, paying with bitcoin, or some other way of sending the scammer money that cannot be traced or undone.

Red Flag #4: Suggesting an Alternative Contact Method

The reason scammers don't want to use the standard methods of communication where they post the "ad" is that the "ad" is likely to be removed within minutes and their fake account terminated.

Red Flag #5: Way Too Good to Be True

Perhaps this should have been red flag #1. This is how the scammer gets us to react with emotion rather than respond with reason. A fair price for the Jeep in the ad would be about $8000.

These are all the red flags in the ad itself that both my wife and I (me being a self-proclaimed critical thinking master) missed! This is because there was no critical thinking involved. Our fast, system 1 thinking kicked in, and we wanted to reply before others did in order to get the "great deal." In fairness to my wife and me and anyone else who would respond to such a post, simply inquiring for more information is a low-risk response. In other words, it wasn't quite time to put on critical thinking caps. Not until they answered our e-mail for more information:

Red Flag #6: Form Letter Response

This response is clearly a form letter as opposed to a custom response to an inquiry. This indicates a level of "professionalism" that is odd to find in this kind of consumer-to-consumer transaction.

Red Flag #7: The Sad Story

Scammers want you to pity them because this results in higher levels of trust and you being more likely to do things that wouldn't otherwise.

Red Flag #8: Shady Transaction Arrangements

The key to a good con is to slowly guide the person to the final step (in this case, sending $1400) by taking several small steps. First, respond to an ad and get their e-mail. Second, get their full name, mailing address, and phone. Third, presumably, they would pretend to be from eBay and guide you to payment instructions. You can always tell if someone is spoofing an e-mail by looking at the headers, but very few people know how to do this, and this is what the scammers count on. This kind of step-by-step con is based on the foot-in-the-door persuasion technique, where people are far more likely to grant large requests when they already granted smaller requests (like share full mailing address and phone).

Scammers and con-artists are all over the Internet. Not all scams are easy to spot—at least not at first. Good critical thinking skills won't protect you from every scam but certainly acts as a reliable deterrent. Remember that by not falling for a scam, you are not only helping yourself; you are also doing your part to rid the world of scammers. Because without victims, there can be no scammers (at least not successful ones).

Read More Like This in Reason: Books I & II

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