We Are Not as Smart as We Think We Are

A few weeks ago I arrived in the office early one morning, logged into my corporate email and found this, titled “Vacation Problems” waiting for me:

I’m sorry this is coming so sudden,John and I are in some terrible situation right now and need your urgent assistance.Some days ago,we came down to Scotland,UK on a short Easter vacation,unfortunately we got mugged by some hoodlums.All our cash,credit cards and phones were taken at gunpoint!It’s such a traumatic experience . right now we’re stranded and need help getting back home. We’ve been to the embassy and the Police here but they’re not being helpful in any way.the good thing is we still have our passports . We just don’t have enough money to get back home.Please i need your help here ! promise to refund you right as soon as we’re back home in a couple of days.
waiting to hear from you.

It was sent by one of my colleagues that I work closely with, one who travels frequently and is married to a man named John. My first thought was “Why didn’t she contact me on my personal account on a weekend?” My next thought was “What are hoodlums in Scotland doing with guns?” And since when were the American embassies not helpful about such matters? This was exactly the kind of thing experience abroad has taught me that embassies and consulates are good at. I went into a panic, but before I did something stupid like alerted my boss, I received a phone call from my colleague. I answered the phone “You’re back!” relieved that I wouldn’t have to bear the guilt for turning her down at her time of need.

She had never left town, let alone the country. Her Yahoo! account, Facebook and Gmail accounts had all been compromised by a scammer who had contacted everyone in her “Sent” box. The con was sophisticated enough to include her husband’s name and the fact that she frequently traveled abroad. She had only been alerted to the scam by her sister who became suspicious after receiving poorly written instructions on how to wire funds via Western Union.

I fell for it. Me – Mr. Paranoid-Trust-No-One who laughed at people that got ripped off by Nigerian 419 scams. I fell for a con that when you read the email carefully has warning bells throughout it but wouldn’t be heard on a Monday morning as you are still sipping your first cup of coffee.

I don’t laugh at people who are conned anymore. The incident reminded me of a quote I ran across long ago from a master con artist who said his easiest marks were the well educated and those who considered themselves worldly and sophisticated. They made his job easier by duping themselves into believing they couldn’t be conned.

That incident came to mind today when a commenter posted this on a friend’s Facebook wall that discussed the fallout to believers who expected the world to end. “I was reading this and I noticed that I had my jaw clenched the whole time. How can people be such big suckers?”

It’s easy to poke fun at those who fell for Harold Camping’s Family Radio network message that the Rapture would begin on May 21, 2011. People have been predicting the end of Time probably since its beginning, and history is littered with Doomsday prophecies – none of which have come true. Why would this prophecy be any different?

I personally would like to see Mr. Camping’s ministry financially ruined, but I can’t help but feel a modicum of pity for his followers that tempers the very human desire to laugh at them. In order for a con to be successful three elements are needed together. First, the message must resonate. It must appeal to an unmet need or desire inside the intended victim. Second, the messenger must be credible. Mr. Camping doesn’t strike me personally as being all that credible, especially considering he has predicted the End of Times in the past. Finally, the timing of the message must be perfect.

Resonance is a matter of timing. For example, when my son was an infant, nearly every story involving the untimely death of a baby nearly brought me to my knees. Timing is why I still, after nearly 15 years, have not forgotten the Grossberg/Peterson infanticide case (I still harbor passionate feelings about it.) They murdered their baby mere weeks after my own child was born. Now such tragedies don’t move me as much as learning about the deaths of teens in car accidents. Simply reading or hearing about such an accident freezes my blood seemingly through to my bones because I now have a son who is approaching legal driving age.

Harold Camping’s Family Radio network message of the Rapture failed with me on all three counts. I am not a Christian nor someone who takes the Bible literally. Second, I trust “holy men” about as much as I trust malpractice attorneys, pit bulls that have never hurt anyone before, or scorpions promising to carry frogs across rivers. Finally, the timing is completely off. There have been times in the past when religious and pseudo-religious messages did catch my interest but this isn’t one of those times.

Now consider the email scam. As a frequent traveler abroad I have been in sticky situations and benefited from the kindness of strangers. I have worked closely with my colleague and trust her more than a complete stranger (but not enough to send thousands of dollars to – sorry Mary!) Finally, because I have been helped so often in the past I do tend to pay more attention to the needs of people traveling.

So I got duped – or almost did (in my own defense the scam didn’t progress very far, nor was sending money to “rescue” my colleague ever an option.) My innate skepticism cultivated by the Jesuits, intense personal study and years of experience failed to protect me from an online scammer with poor punctuation skills.

My failure even reminds me of the answers to larger questions such as “How could the Germans have succumbed to Hitler?” and “How can the Palestinians give in to the ideology of Death promoted by Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and other jihadists?” It’s almost like gullibility is a human trait, that we are hard-wired for idiocy given the right message, messenger and timing.

Clearly we are not as smart as we think we are (or at least, I’m not). Just something to remember as we watch the Camping’s followers pick up the pieces of their lives after their lord failed to come when they expected.

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