How Financial Fraudsters Use Language to Scam Us


We previously discussed here the psychological tricks that con-artists use in order to defraud us of our hard-earned cash. Now, a study by Financial Fraud Action UK has investigated the ways that scammers use language in order to take our money.

Banking scams are big business. In 2016 alone, criminals carted away a staggering £2 million every day. With that in mind – and with one eye on the security of the nation’s finances – the FFA, alongside Dr. Paul Breen, who analyses speech patterns at the Westminster Professional Language Centre, studied examples of genuine telephone banking scams, in order to find out how these con-artists get us to believe their lies.

It’s all about building trust between the fraudster and the victim. That’s crucial to any success, since not many of us are likely to hand over all our personal banking details to just anyone at the end of a phone. But while even the most hard-eyed cynic may think they’re adept at out-manoeuvring these con-men, deploying the right sort of language can be highly persuasive, and it’s something we’re all susceptible to – after all, just think of the power of a great book that can move us to tears, or a well-structured joke that has us laughing for hours after the punchline’s delivered.

Over the course of the analysis, the FFA discovered the six ways that con-men can twist language to their benefit…
And it starts with social media. With so much information about us online, it’s easy for the criminals to collect as much data about you as they can from a variety of social networks and some judicial Googling. Then the fraudster deploys these tid-bits of information over the course of the call, convincing the victim that they’re the genuine article.

Another tactic discovered was the creation of a false power-balance – by using apologetic language (‘I’m so sorry, Mrs. Jenkins, for keeping you…’) the victim naturally feels sympathetic towards the caller, believing that they’re ‘only doing his job’. The trouble is, in this case, though, it’s a bank job. The victim believes they are in control of the conversation, which helps in getting someone to let their guard down.

Patience is a virtue – especially for the savvy phone call criminals. They know we’re not going to immediately divulge our account details, so they play the long game, giving you all the time in the world. Take as long as you need. That way, they seem much more professional and authentic, just like genuine callers from your local banking branch.

We naturally respond to authority figures, and those calling con-men know it. That’s why, when phoning a victim, they’ll sometimes pretend to be someone of authority. And while it might be the case that they’ll impersonate a bank manager or even a fraud detection manager, it’s not unheard of for them to claim to be a police officer working a case.

Still sceptical? Great. The fraudsters know just the way to get those hard-nosed cynics to give away all the details they need to clean that bank account out. They do it by acknowledging – even welcoming – your concerns about security, and by confronting those fears head-on, they weaponise our scepticism against us. Because we’re thinking, ‘A real criminal wouldn’t do that…’.

Finally, the FFA discovered that they control the flow of the conversation by switching the tempo. By dictating the beats, they can increase pressure, which creates urgency (‘I really must stress, this is a time-limited offer…’) or decrease it, so as to allay your fears. At every turn, the criminal knows precisely what to say – and more importantly, how to say it – in order to prise your banking details from you.

Director of FFA UK, Katy Wrobec, was keen to stress the importance tackling this sort of fraud – after all, it’s us who has to pay for it. She said:

‘Tackling financial fraud is a priority for every bank and each one continuously invests in advance security systems to protect their customers. However, as this research confirms, fraudsters use sophisticated methods in an attempt to circumvent these when targeting victims. Criminals take advantage of our instinctive willingness to accept someone at their word.’

But while it’s fascinating to understand the linguistic trickery used by scammers, it’s vital to understand how to combat their threat. Handily, the FFA leads the Take Five campaign, designed to offer the top five tips for keeping your money safe. And their advice is to:

• Never disclose security details, such as your PIN or full banking password
• Don’t assume an email, text or phone call is authentic
• Don’t be rushed – a genuine organisation won’t mind waiting
• Listen to your instincts – you know if something doesn’t feel right
• Stay in control – don’t panic and make a decision you’ll regret

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