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April Fool's for Writers
Don't be a scam victim, but damn, that's a good story!
April Fool’s Day is almost here. This week, I offer an important PSA on avoiding scams and then turn it around and discuss a tale as old as time - the grift. Looking to create a plot, pinch points, characters, and their flaws? The con artist and the scam make for page-turning stories.
Detour: April Fool’s Day has been noted for hundreds of years. The History Channel provides some interesting theories on the origin of this spring day.
Several years ago, a close friend shared how a relative had been conned out of a lot of money. I’m talking buy a nice house in a tropical location amount of money. Last year, someone close to me was almost a victim of an online elder fraud scam.
As I shared my story with others, I heard more stories. The rational person in me was horrified. How did smart people fall for scams? Who are these deplorable scammers who steal money from the elderly (everyone really)? I began to research the answer.
Before long, the story teller in me kicked (that’s part of the clue keep reading) and ideas for plots and characters took shape. Writing about scams and fraudsters is not new. Here’s a nice round-up piece from the Literary Lifestyle blog: 18 Best Books About Con Artists and Scammers.
My first stop was a phone call to Melissa Lanning, the Executive Director of the BBB Institute for Marketplace Trust. The Institute is the non-profit arm of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and works with companies like Amazon and Capital One to track incidents of fraud and develop educational materials to warn consumers. They run Scam Tracker, a consumer prevention and reporting platform. If you’re a victim of a scam, you can and should report it.
Note, Scam Tracker is for scams not complaints against companies.
Earlier this month, the Institute released the 2022 numbers and Melissa says, “We saw a resurgence of employment scams in 2022.”
Historically, scammers blossom during times of great social and emotional upheaval. Now consider how the past few decades have been a constant pressure cooker of fear, financial worries, and factious movements with 9/11 in 2001, the 2007 Great Recession, the 2016 election cycle that spurred the Me Too and Black Lives Matter Movements, climate crises, COVID, the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, and I’ll stop there. Any of those events would be a compelling setting/scenario for a story. These events have heightened emotions and the grift.
Author Emily Giffin’s last novel, The Lies that Bind is a 9/11 story with a con plot. Author Imbolo Mbue’s 2016 book, Behold the Dreamers takes place in 2007 during the financial collapse surrounding Lehman Brothers.
Back to the numbers. Scam Tacker is a fascinating application to investigate. You can read about actual scams self reported from people who are as familiar to you as your neighbors, family, and friends. You can infer their emotions of frustration and loss. Age and education are not indicators of who will fall for a scam. Con artists (con is short for confidence) are criminals and they choose their marks and build trust and steal without remorse.
Here are 2022 numbers on the most reported scams from the BBB
Average median dollar loss was $171
Highest median dollar loss, the employment scam and home improvement scam at $1500.
Romance scams $1411
Tax collection scams $1375
Most reported scams on the Scam Tracker site
Online purchase scams 74% lost money
Moving scams, 66.9% lost money
Counterfeit products - related to online scams, 65.1% lost money
Home improvement 55.3% lost money
Why do we fall for scams?
Maria Konnikova in her 2016 best selling book, The Confidence Game, presents social science research and stories of actual scammers and victims. I devoured this book and it’s a top recommend from me. I can’t quote the whole book, though I wish I could.
To paraphrase her work, humans are wired for story. If you’re a writer who reads the cannon of how-to craft books, you’ve heard this before. Our need to make sense of the world comes best through story. Facts and figures while interesting, don’t pique our emotions as much as story. A scammer tells you a story about breaking down on the road and needing to get to the hospital to see a relative, you’ll lend them the money. Con artists read body language, they can see who is stressed or even happy. “A victim is simply more emotionally vulnerable at the moment a confidence artist approaches.”
A con artist will spin a tale and if we have any emotion, even a glimmer of “this seems like a nice person”, we’ll fill in the blanks on what is omitted and convince ourselves that all is well. We even self-select ourselves for scams by clicking links for online sales, providing our credit card information, email address, and more. That site looks legit, the price is amazing, click, click - gone.
Scams play on our feelings. Emotions are at the heart of characters and stories. Scam scenarios make excellent fodder for stories.
Personally for Melissa Lanning, the worst scams are romance scams where a con comes into someone’s life and may play the victim for months or years. They take their money or something of value and in addition to the financial loss, there is emotional heartbreak, broken families, and intense shame and mistrust. The 2022 Netflix show, Tinder Swindler is a romance scam.
Melissa says many scams are never reported because people are ashamed. The BBB data shows that victim shaming is a real problem with 47.5% of people losing peace of mind after a scam. When people don’t talk about their shame or guilt, scammers win. We need to be sympathetic to victims. Scams, fraud, and grift = crime.
I will have more to say in the future about scams and cons but for now, this April Fool’s Day and every day, take time to educate yourself about what is happening, especially online.
If you recently lost a job, you may feel stress, sadness, and have financial worries. These intense emotions cause you to let your guard down. Be vigilant about employment scams.
Don’t be scammed, but damn, write about it.
Additional resources to learn about scams for your next writing project:
ACCU - Australian Competition and Consumer Commissions (scams happen worldwide.
Special to thanks to Melissa Lanning of the BBB Institute for Marketplace Trust for her time and knowledge.
Interested in any of the books mentioned in this issue? Shop for these titles and more through my bookshop.org affiliate link.
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