What is a secret to manipulate people

Fraud: How we allow ourselves to be manipulated

I always thought it wouldn't get me. Then I was taught otherwise. A good two years ago I was backpacking the Malaysian city of George Town. On my forays into the city center, a woman around 40 spoke to me with a little boy by the hand. She was Swiss and her name was Samantha, she said. Her husband recently died. Now she's going on a tour of Southeast Asia with her child to come to terms with her grief. Unfortunately, the ATM would have just swallowed her card. It was Saturday evening and she would not be able to get new cash until the day after tomorrow, she explained. Couldn't I lend her something so that she could make ends meet by then? I agreed, but asked for your personal contact details as a security. She wrote it to me on a piece of paper without hesitation. Since I had just arrived and didn't have a local SIM card yet, it was difficult for me to check the cell phone number. Nevertheless, I gave her 50 euros - in the best faith I would get her back on Monday.

When I later told a friend about it, she just laughed and said: "You will never see the money again!" That annoyed me. I was absolutely certain that everything was going well. My gut feeling told me that. Even when I later noticed that her alleged phone number was not taken at all, I initially believed it was a number rotated. It was only after a Google search that it dawned on me: The tourist Samantha never existed. I was flabbergasted. Why had I been so naive? On the Internet I came across dozens of reports from other travelers who had also had money taken from them. Apparently the woman had been up to mischief for years without ever being caught. I couldn't get the story out of my head. How do fraudsters manage to win the trust of complete strangers so quickly and get them to voluntarily open their wallets?

This article is featured in Spectrum - The Week, 10/2021

Even insects lay wrong tracks

First of all: deception is older than humanity itself. In the rest of the animal kingdom, too, people like to cheat. Insects sometimes "falsify" signals in order to attract prey or to avoid being eaten themselves. Many hoverflies have a black and yellow colored abdomen. They resemble wasps and thus put their predators to flight, without any poisonous sting. These involuntary illusions are also known as mimicry. Higher species of apes, in turn, use specific strategies to lead rivals onto black ice. Vervet monkeys sometimes utter a warning call to put their fellow cats to flight. Then they take care of the food all by themselves.

Man then perfected the principle of deception. "More money has been stolen with a pen drawn than at a gun," writes the US criminologist Frank Schmalleger. In Germany alone, the police crime statistics count more than 800,000 cases per year. More than two thirds of the suspects are male. The total damage in 2019 added up to 1.6 billion euros, and that only includes the officially reported cases. Fraud takes many forms and pervades all social classes. It is not always professional gangs of crooks who exclude their victims with grandchildren and door-to-door sales. Many average citizens also like to use tricks, for example with their tax returns or insurance.

In addition, there are spectacular cases of large-scale fraud, which have made headlines over and over again in recent years: the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers exposed tax offenses running into billions. Hendrik Holt, convicted in 2020, invented entire wind farms and glued energy companies. In the Wirecard scandal, the Chancellor even let herself be fooled. And even in the corona crisis, there is no shortage of sinister business ideas: criminals sell false rapid tests or collect immediate aid for invented companies.

But it's not always about making a quick buck. Fame and recognition also play a role, for example with the impostor Claas Relotius, who won numerous journalist awards with his invented reports.