How to Avoid Being Scammed Online and in Person

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Confidence Game" by Maria Konnikova. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Has a deal ever seemed too good to be true? How can you avoid being scammed?

In one of the last phases of their game, con artists will try to get you to double down on the deal you’re making with them. This is probably the point that you’ve suspected something’s a little fishy, so they’ll do everything in their power to keep you on board.

Here’s how to avoid being scammed and manipulated.

Con Artists Will Get the Mark to Double Down

In The Confidence Game, Maria Konnikova explains how to avoid being scammed by showing that the con artist will see exactly how far they can push you. They’ll try to get you to recommit or double down. At this point, something might seem slightly off or go awry—for example, you might notice evidence that the con artist isn’t who they say they are, or you’re starting to lose money rather than earning the money you were promised. During this step, the con artist relies on your self-serving bias, your natural instinct to reduce cognitive dissonance, and the sunk cost fallacy.

Konnikova claims that when you’re influenced by the self-serving bias, you help the con artist by focusing only on rationales and evidence that justify the choices you’ve already made—trusting the con artist and taking some sort of action, like investing your money. In other words, you focus only on the good because you want to avoid thinking about loss and facing regret. 

According to Konnikova, cognitive dissonance is a similar phenomenon where you re-frame the story you tell yourself to reconcile contradictory information about reality versus what you thought was true. For example, you thought you met a great new friend and business partner, but after you gave them some money, they’re nowhere to be found and their phone’s disconnected. Instead of logically connecting the dots and realizing you’ve been conned, you might reduce cognitive dissonance by telling yourself they just had a phone mishap, and everything’s fine. 

To see how far they can push you, the con artist might even disappear for a while, reappear with a reasonable excuse (therefore reaffirming your optimism that you didn’t make a mistake), ask you for more money, and then disappear again. Lastly, Konnikova explains that the sunk cost fallacy makes you more likely to double down on your decisions when you’re in the middle of a con. The sunk cost fallacy is the tendency to keep pursuing one route once you’re already invested in it, and this investment could be time, money, effort, or a personal relationship. It’s irrational because it’s better to cut your losses once there’s evidence that you’ve made a mistake, but instead, you’ll more likely stick with it in the hope that you’ll turn out to be right after all.

How to Resist Doubling Down in a Con Game

Despite the power of these biases in getting a mark to double down, there are some techniques you can use to resist them. Both the self-serving bias and your drive to reduce cognitive dissonance hinge on a desire to maintain consistency in your beliefs and actions over time—a desire some researchers refer to as the “commitment bias.” To resist this bias, they recommend acknowledging that consistency shouldn’t be a goal in and of itself. 

Experts also suggest resisting the commitment bias by focusing on the good that can come from making a change rather than worrying about what other people might think if you change your mind about something. For example, when you notice things aren’t adding up with a new person you met, recognize that your first impression might have been wrong, and assess the potential benefits of severing ties with someone who might be conning you.

Some people recommend similar strategies to combat the sunk cost fallacy. In The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli says to focus less on what you’ve already invested in the past and focus more on whether something is serving you in the present and will continue to serve you in the future. Another key strategy to resist the sunk cost fallacy may be overcoming your ego. In Ego Is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday says that when faced with evidence that you messed up (and a potential blow to your ego by changing course), you should ask yourself—and honestly consider—whether you’ll make things worse by continuing on the same path. If the answer’s yes, Holiday says it’s better to cut your losses and move on.

How to Avoid Being Scammed Online and in Person

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Maria Konnikova's "The Confidence Game" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Confidence Game summary:

  • The social psychology behind cons, and why they work
  • How con artists swindle and manipulate their victims
  • Actionable advice for spotting and avoiding cons

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.