Real and Fake Signs on Red Background
Home Insights Why Do Otherwise Smart People Fall For Obvious Scams and Hoaxes?

Why Do Otherwise Smart People Fall For Obvious Scams and Hoaxes?

by Brett M. Christensen

Every day, thousands of Internet users fall for silly hoaxes and transparent scams. Why?

Many commentators suggest that all of the people who fall for such scams and hoaxes are just plain stupid. But, this is not true.

I’ve been working in the hoax and scam debunking field for more than seventeen years and during that time I’ve talked to a great many people who have been scammed or who have fallen for silly hoaxes. And, I can assure you that they are not always stupid. Many are smart, articulate, and well-educated.

So why do otherwise smart people fall for obvious scams and hoaxes? There is perhaps no clear and definitive answer, but here are a few ideas.

People Click Before They Think

The immediacy of social media is one of its strengths. But, it can also be one of its problems.

You can like or share something in an instant. A single click can take you to a dangerous website or open a malware attachment. In the blink of an eye, you can like and share a silly fake-news report that you’ve just glanced at, which promotes it across your networks.

Everything online seems to hurtle along at a frenetic pace. It’s easy for people to get caught in the moment and click away when ideally, they should have stepped back and more closely analysed what they are reading. Applied some critical thinking, perhaps.

Information Overload

Hand in glove with the immediacy issue I discuss above goes information overload. These days, we are bombarded with information from many different directions at once. Email, blogs, forums, text messages, and, of course, continually updated social media feeds on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

And we receive an eclectic mix of many different types of information. Serious news and website articles, jokes, memes, updates from friends, business messages, images, spam, and much more. And, of course, scams and hoaxes as well.

In our efforts to process and manage this constant stream of information, we often tend to quickly scan much of what we receive, make instant decisions about it, and then move on to the next message.

Thus, at least for the few seconds that it takes them to scan a post, otherwise sensible people may believe that Facebook will donate money to help a sick child if they like and share. Or they may momentarily be taken in by a claim that they can win a luxury car or a vacation just by liking and sharing.

False Authority

Another positive aspect of the modern age is that virtually anybody can set up a website, blog, or social media page about any topic they like for free or for a minimal cost. But, criminals and pranksters can misuse this ability.

It is easy to set up a fake website that closely mirrors the site of a high profile company, government department, or celebrity. It is easy to create a blog that looks like a genuine news resource and fill it with nonsensical articles that appear to be real news reports. It is easy to set up fake Facebook Pages or Twitter profiles that pretend to be associated with famous companies or people. It is easy to create and send scam emails that, at least at first glance, look like they were sent by high-profile companies like PayPal, Apple, or Amazon.

And, unfortunately, it is also easy for busy, information-overloaded people to be taken in by such ruses and click, like, share, or download.

If fake information is presented with authority and looks legitimate at first take, it is incredible how many people will believe it.

New and Constantly Changing Technology

We often take our computers, our smartphones and tablets, and the wonderful world of the Internet for granted.

For many of us, this technology has become an integral part of our everyday lives. But, in reality, all this technical wonder is still relatively new. And it changes rapidly. New high tech gadgets and new ways of doing things online are emerging all the time.

And, it is easy for people to get a little lost within this heady and constantly changing tech landscape. Because such technology is purposefully designed for easy and intuitive use, people can use it to achieve their desired tasks without actually knowing too much about how it all works.

For example, a person may be quite proficient at using email, surfing the web, communicating on social media, and performing a host of other everyday computing tasks. But, he or she may have very little working knowledge of what malware is, how it infects computers, and what to do to prevent such infections.

Unlike a car or other types of machinery, computers and smartphones don’t require an operators licence, and we are not required to perform any formal training to start using them. We can dive in and go for it. But, gaps in our knowledge can sometimes leave us vulnerable to various types of online skulduggery.

The baffling gullibility of users can certainly be frustrating. It is easy to throw your hands in the air and give up trying to educate people.

Of course, we probably all know a few people who, despite constant warnings from their friends and family, continue to fall for every scam and nonsense post that comes their way. These serial victims tend to be the ones we all know and talk about.

But we should not judge all scam and hoax victims by these people. Many people only need a bit of guidance to set them right and give them the knowledge they need to avoid getting caught in the future.

And, if we do give up, the scammers and the malicious pranksters are the ones that end up winning.

Note: A version of this story was previously published by Brett Christensen on the blogging platform Medium.  

Importance Notice

After considerable thought and with an ache in my heart, I have decided that the time has come to close down the Hoax-Slayer website.

These days, the site does not generate enough revenue to cover expenses, and I do not have the financial resources to sustain it going forward.

Moreover, I now work long hours in a full-time and physically taxing job, so maintaining and managing the website and publishing new material has become difficult for me.

And finally, after 18 years of writing about scams and hoaxes, I feel that it is time for me to take my fingers off the keyboard and focus on other projects and pastimes.

When I first started Hoax-Slayer, I never dreamed that I would still be working on the project all these years later or that it would become such an important part of my life. It's been a fantastic and engaging experience and one that I will always treasure.

I hope that my work over the years has helped to make the Internet a little safer and thwarted the activities of at least a few scammers and malicious pranksters.

A Big Thank You

I would also like to thank all of those wonderful people who have supported the project by sharing information from the site, contributing examples of scams and hoaxes, offering suggestions, donating funds, or helping behind the scenes.

I would especially like to thank David White for his tireless contribution to the Hoax-Slayer Facebook Page over many years. David's support has been invaluable, and I can not thank him enough.

Closing Date

Hoax-Slayer will still be around for a few weeks while I wind things down. The site will go offline on May 31, 2021. While I will not be publishing any new posts, you can still access existing material on the site until the date of closure.

Thank you, one and all!

Brett Christensen,