Scammers and Unease

I am working on various ways of presenting material. I had a request for an audio version of posts so I will include that here as well as the text version.

I read a recent report on scammers preying on people’s fear of COVID-19 to sell them bogus cures. I thought it would be interesting to apply the unease modulation model of stress to understand how scammers work and how to protect ourselves.

I will use two different scams as examples:

  1. There is a warrant out for your arrest and you need to pay a “fine”
  2. You have a dangerous disease and a “cure” is available

A successful scam relies on several facts:

High levels of demand without the resources to meet them cause high difficulty.

  1. Having a warrant out for your arrest is a high difficulty situation (for most people).
  2. Being sick with a dangerous disease is a high difficulty situation (for everyone).

If the outcome is likely to be aversive or we are likely to lose something we desire, then unease will be high.

  1. Most people have an extreme aversion to being arrested
  2. People who have or who may catch a dangerous disease have an extreme desire for a cure.

High levels of unease cause physiologic changes in our autonomic nervous system. Sympathetic activation (SMP) increases and parasympathetic activation (PMP) decreases. The changes in SMP and PMP cause our attention to narrow. We tend to focus on doing whatever will reduce the unease quickly. The physiologic changes also impair our cognitive skills and we are less able to think effectively.

  1. The scammer has a way of keeping me from being arrested so I will focus on what he is offering.
  2. The scammer has a cure for the disease so I will focus on what she is offering.

The scammer manipulates attention to keep unease high and attention focused on what is being offered while making other possible resources seem unavailable. In particular the scammer often frames the situation so that it seems like there is no time to think.

  1. There is no time to call other people. Arrest is imminent.
  2. The supply of the cure is limited. Act now or it will be too late.

In this physiologic state of high unease, high SMP and low PMP, our ability to think is compromised. We are unable to consider other options, unable to spot inconsistencies in the scammer’s story, and unable to listen to advice from others. I know very smart people who have fallen for scams because the scammer was able to successfully manipulate their attention and physiology. The result is:

  1. The person gives the scammer the money to avoid being “arrested”.
  2. The person purchases the “cure”.

How to avoid being scammed

The key to avoiding a scam is to reset our physiology. One option is to reduce the excessive sympathetic activation. This will broaden our attention and increase our cognitive skills. However, it takes time for sympathetic activation to decrease and, if the scammer has done their work well, we will not take the time for that to happen.

The other option is to increase parasympathetic activation. If we increase parasympathetic activation (PMP) quickly, then our attention will broaden and our cognitive skills will increase. We will literally see the situation differently, and we will think of other options. The process of increasing PMP takes only a few seconds, and it is what we teach law enforcement first respondersto do so that they avoid making mistakes in high-intensity situations. If it works for them it will work for you.

To increase PMP when unease and SMP are high, first inhale and then exhale while pursing your lips lightly. The key is the longer exhalation, which should take a few seconds. This long exhalation causes a rapid increase in PMP. You can then refocus your attention on other sources of information, for spotting inconsistencies in the scammer’s story, or just for insisting on having some time to think about the situation. If your unease remains high, then you can repeat this reset breath a couple of times per minute during the situation to keep PMP high, even if SMP and unease stay high.

With practice the reset breath can be done smoothly and even while engaged in activity. The figure shows my physiologic response when I demonstrated this technique in a training scenario. In the scenario I was walking up to help someone who was playing the role of a person who was agitated and psychotic. As I got close he was going to attack me.

The graph shows my beat-to-beat heart rate during the scenario. As I was walking toward the person I was uneasy and SMP was high, which was appropriate. You can see in the graph where my heart rate drops as I do the reset breath to increase PMP. I was able to do the reset breaths even while walking toward him.  When I was attacked my heart rate shot up. After the attack I used the reset breath to regain a calm state.

Use of 1-breath reset before helping patient from U of Toronto 2017

Note that I did not relax. My heart rate did not stay at a relaxed rate when I used the reset breath. Instead I maintained an appropriate somewhat high level of SMP in order to be ready and calm in the situation.

If you are in a state of high unease and you feel very tense, your heart is pounding, or your breath is shallow, then use a reset breath to increase PMP and then shift your attention with the intention of finding other resources that can reduce difficulty.

Everyone can be vulnerable at some time. How I almost got scammed.

Some people think they would never fall for a scam because the scam is so obvious. Their confidence is false because the scammer is manipulating unease and physiology, not intellect. If your physiology is in a state of high unease, high SMP and low PMP for any reason then you are more at risk of falling for a scam. This is true even if the unease, SMP or PMP are not from what the scammer is calling about.

Personal example: One day I was in my office and it was the usual busy day with me pushing hard to keep up with seeing patients, doing paperwork and handling phone calls. My SMP was rather high and PMP rather low.  I opened my voicemail and heard a message from a someone claiming to be an officer in the sheriff’s department saying something about an outstanding warrant and someone going to be arrested. Over the years I have had patients who are in danger of being arrested because of outstanding warrants. My attention went to a patient, X, who had been in and out of prison for several years for drug-related offenses but who had recently gotten clean and was getting their life back together. My unease instantly shot sky high, and I thought “X can’t go back to jail. That would be devastating.” I immediately called the number left on the voicemail. My hands were shaking as I grabbed for pen and paper. My SMP was very high and PMP was non-existent.

The person answered the phone and stated the warrant was about a missed summons for jury duty but that an arrest would not be necessary if a fine were paid. I copied down the information on how to do this. I don’t recall the details but it involved making a payment to someone who would meet me at a local supermarket. It was only as I finished copying down the information that my panicked brain realized that the person on phone was not talking about a warrant out for my patient, X, but a warrant out for ME. Whoa!!!! I paused and did a reset breath or two. My attention shifted. A warrant out for me because of a missed jury summons??? I thought “This is B—S—” and hung up the phone.

We need to manage our physiology to avoid being scammed

The scammer could not have known that his message would panic me about a patient. That did not matter. My physiology shifted because I was uneasy about my patient and I was tired, hungry and feeling rushed. SMP was already high and PMP was low. We will all have times when we are uneasy, have high SMP and low PMP and so will all have times when we are vulnerable. If we have practiced using a reset breath frequently, then we will be less likely to make mistakes even when we are in a vulnerable physiologic state.

Note that I had a lot of resources to direct my attention to which made it easier to shift my attention after I did the reset breaths. A victim who is poor, with few social connections, or socially disadvantaged would have had a harder time getting out of the psychological and physiologic trap the scammer had laid. That is why people who can least afford to be scammed tend to become victims. Scammers are not “Robin Hood” types stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. They are predators whose victims are most often poor, infirm, or weak.


What can you do if you are watching someone who is falling for a scam and want to stop them? I will cover that in an upcoming post.

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