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Crime, technology and society by Angus Bancroft
The compliance script in hybrid fraud

The compliance script in hybrid fraud

It helps a scammer if the victim thinks they would never be the kind of person who falls for scams. Successful fraud depends on the fraudster generating compliance by imposing their definition of the situation on their target. Erving Goffman (1952) outlines the process of ‘cooling the mark out’ – ensuring the mark finds it harder to say ‘no’. He used the case of the fixed game. The mark is convinced that his new friends have developed a way of rigging betting odds in their favour. They might do this for example by saying they have advanced information of the winner of the horse race pets can be placed before others know. The market is convinced by placing a few low stakes bats and winning. He has the opportunity to make a big investment. At which point system no longer works. There might be a further attempt where the con artists convince him that he can win the money back with a further large investment. At this point the mark can be convinced of his need to recover his social status. He wants to recover not just his money but his sense that he is an individual who would not be victimised in this way. Goffman shows the ceremonial aspect of the final blow off: ‘An attempt is made to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is cooled out, given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.’ (Goffman, 1952). As Goffman portrays it, the fraud is aspirational. The mark is suckered in because he now has a chance to show his true inner self, to match his being to his self-concept.

The need to preserve one’s self-concept can be turned against the victim. A hybrid fraud is one that combines in person and remote elements. Charlotte Cowles (2024) recounts a victimisation that began one day with a call purporting to be from Amazon informing her of misuse of her account and ended with her throwing a shoebox containing $50,000 – most of her savings – into the back of an anonymous SUV. The scam used a compelling narrative to convince her she was the victim of identity theft and that as a result there were warrants out for her arrest. The only way for her to protect herself and her family was to comply. One of the scammers, claiming to be a CIA agent named ‘Michael Sarano’, told her ‘“If you talk to an attorney, I cannot help you anymore … You will be considered noncooperative. Your home will be raided, and your assets will be seized. You may be arrested. It’s your choice.” (Cowles, 2024). This was the only way to predict her money. Where Goffman’s scammers convinced the mark they were doing a lucrative wrong thing, these fraudsters convinced Cowles she was doing a protective right thing.

The hybrid fraud is hybrid in another sense. Goffman differentiated the con from white collar crime. White collar criminal abuses position of trust. The conman is entirely invested in developing bonds with other people solely for misuse. The hybrid fraud combines elements of these two. It does not depend on the victim’s greed, put on their fear of status loss. This includes loss their freedom, as Cowles was threatened with.

If you are a victim of a complex fraud as Cowles was it might feel like it was a one off, custom designed for you. Typically though these are gangs running many attempts simultaneously. They use well-developed scripts which are designed to funnel potential marks into a fewer viable targets that can be worked on more intensely. Each contact point is a compliance moment. Accepting the initial call from ‘Amazon’, calling the person claiming to be from the FTC back. These are key moments where the person themselves is exercising their agency or feel themselves to be doing that. These are designed to ensure they think they’re in charge.

The techniques Cowles were subject to are well familiar from studies of fraud scripts. In many ways they share a lot in common with abuse tactics. They make sure the target is isolated. In Cowles’ case she was alone at home, having dropped her young child at school. This also restricts their freedom. She can just walk away when she had someone to care for.

There is also gaslighting. The fraud creates a sense of unreality were the victim adopts the reality defined by the attacker. “It didn’t really feel like he was asking” as Cowles recounts. There is a process of boiling the frog slowly. Each step the victim takes move them into the world as defined by the fraud. Because of that they can end up doing something like hunting over a very large sum of money in cash all the oven in the world to complete stranger by the end of the day, something they would never do proposed without this intense psychological work being applied for in advance. A sense of crisis is created to lock the victim into handing their money over.

Goffman suggested part of the reason people comply is they are committed to repair work. We might not think of ourselves as they kind of people who are victimised in this way. We have a commitment to maintaining the situation, repairing our sense of self. Once the victim has outlived their usefulness, or has got wise to the scam, they are left to do this repair alone. The ceremonial element Goffman emphasised is gone.

Cowles, Charlotte. 2024. ‘How I Fell for an Amazon Scam Call and Handed Over $50,000’. New York Magazine.

Goffman, Erving. 1952. ‘On Cooling the Mark out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure’. Psychiatry 15(4):451–63.


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