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Anthony Pratkanis Has a Bridge in Brooklyn He’d Like to Stop You from Buying

Paul the Morning Heretic

August 31, 2012

Anthony Pratkanis

His students have known him as “Master of the Noosphere,” but we know him as Anthony Pratkanis, a world-renowned expert on persuasion and influence and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Prof. Pratkanis will be among the incredible team of speakers at CSICon in Nashville this October, and CFI’s Paul Fidalgo talked to him about what led him to the main topic of his presentation at CSICon: how and why we get bamboozled by con artists.

Don’t forget to register for CSICon yourself so you don’t miss this presentation or any of the other fantastic events. (Paul previously talked with CSICon presenter Eugenie Scott about the rise of science denialism in public schools and legislatures.)

PF: The subject of your presentation at CSICon will be, broadly, fraud. Before we get into the specifics, what for these purposes constitutes "fraud"? Are we talking about guys playing a shell game on a street corner? Or are we talking about major, complex schemes like that of Bernie Madoff? Are the same forces at work when people are victimized in either case?

AP: The talk will cover the use of influence in the committing of fraud crimes and what we can do to counter this fraud. Fraud in this case means any economic fraud crime such as Ponzi schemes, lottery fraud, investment fraud, 1-in-5 prize, health fraud, plus street games and psychic fraud (although I won’t emphasize this).

The talk is based on research done with the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), where we analyzed undercover investigation tapes of con criminals in action. These tapes were collected by law enforcement as part of a case they were building against a criminal. Law enforcement let us have these tapes so we could identify how the criminals did it. The analysis reveals a set of social influence tactics used to sell a fraud. My presentation will include a video clip that will show some of these tactics in action along with an understanding of how they work.

The other part of the talk will look at what we can do about this. This involves research with AARP and FINRA on “reverse boiler rooms”—where volunteers contact potential victims and warn them about the crime. The people we contact are on “mooch lists”—lists collected and traded by criminals of people who they have scammed. We tested what approach works best in a series of experiments that gave a prevention message (or control) and then we attempted to “take” the person a few days later in a scam. Among the results: One of the best ways to keep from being taken in a fraud is to be prepared to ask questions.

PF: What led you personally to this topic? Did your previous work lead naturally into this subject, or has there been anything in your own life that's prompted this particular focus?

AP: I study influence experimentally and wherever I can find it. Willie Sutton was supposed to have answered the question, “Why do you rob banks?” with the answer, “That is where the money is.” So to paraphrase, “Why do I study fraud?” Because that is where the influence is.

My scientific efforts are motivated by one question: Why would anyone do or believe such a thing? This leads me to study things such as why someone might believe in the Devil’s Triangle [a.k.a. the “Bermuda Triangle”], join a cult, vote for the Nazi Party, among other similar issues. Influence is the weapon of choice in fraud crimes.

PF: Have you had any preconceptions about fraudsters, or people's vulnerability to being bamboozled, that were exploded as a result of your work?

AP: The work began when AARP could not find evidence for a common belief about fraud victims: that there was something wrong with them. AARP had done a number of surveys of fraud victims matched with controls, and assessed lots of variables such as gullibility, loneliness, isolation, stupidity, etc., and could not find any consistent pattern. I will present some of this work in the talk.  

If it is not the person, what is it that causes someone to fall prey to fraud? Answer: the use of social influence that any of us could fall prey to.

What criminals do (for the big crimes) is profile a victim (similar to the way a psychic profiles a mark for a big take). Then, they tailor the influence to fit the victim. People, when they see a fraud, often say, “I could never fall prey to that.” They are probably correct. But that doesn’t mean that the con criminal couldn’t tailor a crime to fit your needs and personality once he or she found out about you.

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Paul Fidalgo is communications director of the Center for Inquiry, and previously led communications for the Secular Coalition for America and FairVote: the Center for Voting and Democracy. He holds a master’s degree in political management from George Washington University, where his master’s thesis was on atheists in American politics. Paul is also an actor and musician whose work includes five years performing with the American Shakespeare Center. He lives in Maine with his wife Jessica and kids Toby and Phoebe. His personal blog is Near-Earth Object.