New Research Examines Why Some Consumers are More Vulnerable to Financial Scams

Tuesday, September 28th, 2021

New findings from a two-year study bring researchers closer to understanding why some people are more likely to lose money to financial fraud. The FINRA Investor Education Foundation (FINRA Foundation), Better Business Bureau (BBB) Institute for Marketplace Trust, and the University of Minnesota completed the study, Exposed to Scams: Can Challenging Consumers' Beliefs Protect Them from Fraud?, in advance of World Investor Week, October 4-10, 2021.

Investigators found that the attitudes and beliefs shaping the ways study participants looked at the world—known as "mental frames"—may have influenced the way they reacted to scams.

Specifically, researchers propose that mental frames governing compliance, opportunity, intelligence, and order may have affected the way that interviewees interpreted what scammers told them. Individuals were more likely to lose money if they believed that:

  • Authority should not be challenged.
  • Financial opportunities are a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers.
  • The world is organized in a way that rewards good people.
  • Asking too many questions can make a person seem ignorant.

"This research gives us new ways to understand who is at risk for losing money to financial scams and opens novel possibilities for protecting people against different forms of fraud," said FINRA Foundation President Gerri Walsh. "We hope these insights into the role that beliefs and attitudes play in fraud victimization will stimulate additional research and the development of effective strategies to reduce consumer losses."

Study participants were identified from a pool of people who filed reports with BBB Scam Tracker℠, an online fraud reporting tool offered by the Better Business Bureau. Researchers from Metro Tribal, LLC, an ethnographic-based social insight firm, conducted in-depth interviews that yielded key insights.

The researchers spoke with 17 people who were targeted by scammers. In recorded interviews, some participants explained how scammers reached out with promises of easy money or lucrative investments. Others described receiving phone calls from fraudsters posing as IRS agents and demanding payment of back taxes.

Researchers also interviewed two young men who worked from an overseas call center to defraud hundreds of people using the IRS scam. Details of their activities and tactics, described in their own words, are included in the report.

A related quantitative study, Exposed to Scams: What Separates Victims from Non-Victims?, was released in September 2019. These studies offer vital insights for policymakers, financial institutions, law enforcement officials, and others who seek to protect investors and the public from financial scams.