Technology journalist Bob Sullivan joins Mom Autism Money to teach us some of the most common patterns when it comes to financial scams. Please note that this episode does tangentially reference abuse, which means it may not be the best episode to listen to in front of a younger audience.
You can then teach these financial scam patterns to your child, and you’ll also want to take note of them for yourself. Learning these patterns is likely to be of just as much use to neurodivergent individuals and neurotypical individuals. When it comes to online scams, we’re all in similar boats.
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Joyce: Hello, hello and welcome to another episode of Mom Autism Money podcast. And today we’re going to be talking about financial scams with Bob Sullivan.
Brynne: Yes! Now, Bob is a veteran journalist and the author of five books, including New York Times Best-Sellers, Gotcha Capitalism and Stop Getting Ripped Off!
Bob has won the Society of Professional Journalists Public Service Award, a Peabody award, a Carnegie Mellon University CyLab Cybersecurity Journalism Award, and the Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award.
He spent nearly two decades working at MSNBC.com and NBC News, and he still appears on TODAY, NBC Nightly News, and CNBC. He’s now a syndicated columnist and frequent TV guest.
He is also host of AARP’s The Perfect Scam podcast, co-host of the podcast documentary “Breach“, which examines history’s biggest hacking stories, and co-host of the podcast “So, Bob,” which tackles stories about the unintended consequences of technology. His latest podcast is called Debugger and it explores issues at the intersection of technology and democracy.
Without further ado, let’s talk to Bob.
Brynne: All right, everyone. We are here with Bob Sullivan and a little preface for this episode.
We talked to Morenike last week. And we talked to her specifically about boundary setting, right? Because we had a listener write in with a question about how do I protect my child from falling prey to financial scams and at the root of that is just generally teaching our children how to set boundaries and how to keep people who do not have the best intentions for them out of their circle.
So we talked to Morenike and she had so many great tips. We were talking about how scripting certain situations can help, how Autistic kids are really great at pattern recognition. And we talked about that across a lot of domains. We talked about it specifically across sexual abuse because that is something that unfortunately is extremely, extremely common and something that our children might come up against.
But we were left wondering kind of within the realm of financial scams and con artists, how do you kind of recognize those specific patterns? Because if we don’t know the patterns, we can’t teach them to our children.
So that’s why Bob’s here today. And Bob, I know you had said you had a couple of questions about just this general concept. We’re here with you because you are an expert in these financial scams and helping people identify them. But if there’s anything that we can answer just off the bat…
Bob: Well, I’m going to be a terrible podcast guest because I’m so curious about all these things, the only things I know about autism are what, I guess you might say, civilians know, you know, from friends. So I can’t help you much with that, but I am fascinated by this idea that people on the spectrum have a kind of a super power in terms of recognizing patterns.
And that, that could be a very powerful tool. So can you just give me a couple of examples of how that works?
Brynne: Absolutely. So when we were talking about, with Morenike, with sexual abuse one of the things is just recognizing like, Hey, it’s not normal for someone to touch you. You know? And a lot of times abusers will tell you, you know, you can’t tell anybody like this is just between us.
This is, this is not bad. This, if you reject me, then you won’t love me. Like just kind of those patterns of what those abusers typically say. And so when we actively teach our children to recognize that, then they can kind of enforce those boundaries. They can know that this isn’t normal. They can know that regardless of what the abuser says, they need to go tell mom or a teacher or somebody else.
And so that that’s a big, that was a big thing. Like in the way that we were looking at it, Joyce, do you have, I feel like you’re more of an expert on this than I am probably like with the pattern recognition and learning?
Joyce: So it is black and white, but he doesn’t see scams until it’s late. You know what I mean?
So how can I help see the red flags or the patterns when it comes to scams. Especially when people even adults on the spectrum are normally online, they’re in forums. How can I teach my child about scams, especially financial scams. Does that make sense?
Bob: It makes a lot of sense. Yeah. Um, and I have, um, I’m actually bursting with some ideas for you, but before I launch into them, can the two of you just expressed to me a little bit more about the way that autistic minds process things like patterns?
Brynne: Hi, everyone. Post-production Brynne here. So here, Joyce and I kind of fumbled the ball a little bit. So I’m just going to spare you and summarize. Bob asks a really great question, but it’s an extremely difficult one for us to answer because we’re not experts in neurology. We know our kids, but as that saying goes, when you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.
And Joyce kind of goes through that and addresses that you know, she has four kids on the spectrum and they all process information differently. But ultimately to get the answer to this really good question, the best thing that you can do is go back and listen to Morenike’s episode if you haven’t done so already. All right, let’s get back to it.
Joyce: Does that make sense? Is that helpful?
Bob: It does. It does. And part of the reason I’m asking all these questions is, as is often the case, everyone on the neurodiversity spectrum, we’re not all that different. We might look like we are, but everything that you’re describing right now would help anyone who I ever worked with.
So I’ve been doing scam journalism for almost 30 years. My day job right now is I host on a podcast called The Perfect Scam for AARP, and we do these true crime victim stories. Where we talk — I spent my day yesterday talking to a 96 year old woman who ended up sending $26,000 worth of gift cards to a criminal who had persuaded her, that he worked for the US government and he was investigating a crime and, all these stories in the end, they’re all just elaborate, cover stories for the same crime over and over, which is how do I get someone to send me money remotely?
And we live in a golden age of that kind of crime right now because it’s so easy to connect to people remotely easier than ever before. There’s no distance between us and there’s more tools than ever. Every week there’s another Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter. And it’s getting easier and easier to send money long distances and untraceable ways. So golden age for crime. Second, I’ve been saying this for a long time: Technology seems to turn adults into children overnight, and then we have to kind of regrow up. So 20 years ago, when you got an email saying you might have be entitled to money from a Nigerian prince.
A lot of people answer those emails. A lot of people, so many people that the FBI ended up stationing agents in Nigeria, but those crimes don’t really work anymore because people are now sophisticated about email, but the version of that crime works on Facebook messenger. So each time there’s a new technology, it kind of disarms us.
Do you guys remember the federal trade commission ran some very effective ads about 10 years ago and it would be on a bus, a public bus, and there’d be a woman sitting on the bus. And this poorly dressed, man would jump into the bus, sit down next to this woman and say, I have this check and it’s from a prince in Africa.
And if you help me cash the check, you can have half the money and the woman horrified gets up and walks away. And it’s funny. Ha ha. In real life, there are so many clues as to why somebody might be a danger. On the internet, 99.8% I’m making that number up of the clues that tell us something is a danger are missing.
All we have our lights on a computer screen. And so a lot of our natural gut-level instincts are disarmed online. And in some ways I feel like it was a long preamble to say that I feel like we’re all in the same boat on all sides of the neurodiversity spectrum here. I mean, I’ve heard it expressed in and please correct my ignorant language.
Some folks who are on the spectrum are just not good at these kinds of cues that, that the rest of us live with. And, and that’s why maybe they’re better at pattern recognition than these sort of more subtle cue. And again, when we’re online, we don’t have any of those. And so we’re all in the same boat and that’s why I’m asking so many questions, because I feel like everything you’re telling me that will help autistic people would help everybody else.
All the elderly folks I speak to who, who I ended up sending money to criminals because they haven’t spotted the patterns either. So that’s why I’m excited about this conversation.
Brynne: That is really interesting. So it’s like, because so much of, so many of these crimes are happening now online in the online space, maybe some of the social cues that autistic people might have trouble picking up on normally, that might not be as relevant anymore if I’m understanding correctly.
Bob: Absolutely. There’s there’s no social. You can’t, there’s no smell. There’s no. Oh, I’m in a, I’m in a bad side of town. Maybe I shouldn’t talk to strangers, you know, all those things are missing online.
And so we’re all kind of in the same boat. And another thing I will tell you, I spoke to the AARP’s the head of their fraud watch network a couple of weeks ago, about a certain kind of scam. The type doesn’t matter. It involves calling. And a lot of, uh, while younger people tend to not answer their phone, older people still tend to answer their phone at home.
Despite the fact that we tell them, just not to answer to answer the phone. And so AARP recommends that people have something called a refusal script. I love this phrase and it’s incredible useful. So if you’re talking to your parents or grandparents and you just can’t get them to stop answering the phone, put a piece of paper next to the phone that says something really direct.
Like thank you because they want to be polite. I don’t talk to anyone on the phone. Please mail me this information. And hang up. So just very basic refusal script, and it’s a behavioral thing that can help somebody who might otherwise stay on the phone with a criminal. And that’s the whole game just like for sales folks for criminals is to get people on the line and keep them stay whatever they have to do, because the longer and more minutes you’re interacting with criminal, more likely something bad is to happen.
So the quicker you can just cut it off, which is the only answer to any of these things the better. And if that means for your parent grandparent child, having a refusal script, then that’s a great tool. That
Brynne: That sounds like an amazing tool, actually.
Brynne: I would’ve never thought of that.
Bob: So see, I think we all have a lot in common here.
Brynne: Yeah, definitely. So when we’re talking about online scams, what are some of the most common ones? What are some of those patterns that people might run into? Because again, our children might be great at picking up on them, but like you said, we’re kind of all in the same boat. What are some of those most common things that you might run across, whether they be online or over the phone, or it sounds like interpersonal isn’t as big of a deal anymore, but if there are any interpersonal situations that might arise. Like what are some of those patterns and things that we can commonly find in our society?
Bob: I’m a technology reporter by training. So I cover the internet realm. And so my bias is towards technology crimes that technology enables. And so I’m definitely less versed in talking about the kinds of crimes you might encounter on the street.
At a park. In a school those sorts of things. So with that preface, the most common crimes right now are these computer tech support phone calls that you probably hear about romance scams, phony relationships as a broad category? Um, usually, uh, romantic scams, not always, um, like they can be, uh, you know, a relative is in danger of scam.
So the grandparents scam, for example, so the grandparent gets a Facebook message or a text saying, grandma I’ve just been arrested in London. I need money, please. Don’t tell my parents. Please send me money right now. And it activates the caring part of the grandparent. And let me put a comma there because you have already mentioned this.
The number one thing to recognize in a pattern of a bad person is when they say don’t tell anyone, and that covers all of these crimes. One of the first things that happens in a romance scam, somebody. Saying they, they love you, but they’re overseas and they’ll come see you soon, but they need financial help to get out of the country or get into the country or, or to deal with a criminal issue that they’re having a legal issue that they’re having.
The first thing they’re going to do is try to separate you from your family emotionally and say they don’t understand our relationship. Online dating sites are just full of these kinds of criminals. It’s just easy fishing for the criminals to start a relationship up with someone. And the thing, the one thing that is always a shock to me when I talked to criminals, who’ve done this.
And when I talked to victims, who’ve sent money in this situation is how long the criminal spend grooming their marks. We tend to think of these things as one-offs and quick incidents, like almost like pick-pocketing crimes, but I’ve talked to people who’ve spent two years working on a mark to persuade her to send money and two years worth of I love you, I love you. You’re the dream of my life, getting to know you. And so, you know, the criminals have all the time in the world to act on these things. Whereas, you know, we as frail human beings only have to fall forward. I hate using the word fall. That’s the incorrect word. We as sensitive human beings only have to have one moment of weakness.
And then next thing you know, we’re in a lot of trouble. And I think that’s, that’s the other real big lesson from anyone I talked to. You and I are right now talking about scams, people who are listening right now, they’re thinking about scams. And so we’re in that head space where we’re skeptical. But what I always try to picture is, you know, a mom with one baby in her arm, another baby in her hand, trying to get into her car at a grocery store and suddenly the phone rings.
At this moment, you pick it up just because, and the person says, you know, your husband’s in trouble. You press one now. And you’re at a moment of weakness and criminals have all day, they have nothing else to do, and you’re trying to live your life. So they find this one moment of weakness and that’s what you really have to protect against.
And that’s why it’s important to have simple guidelines, like a refusal script, or simply don’t answer the telephone from numbers you don’t know. And the other big one is whatever the cover story is. The cover story might be, you know, I love you. The cover story might be I’m a relative in trouble. The cover story might be, I have a job opportunity for you, which is another big scam right now.
Job boards are full of fake jobs in the end, after tons of messages, the person’s going to say, send me money and don’t tell anyone. So whenever you’re having a conversation about any of these things, the number one thing to look for is when the person pulls the rug out from under you and says, send me money and it might be send me a gift card.
That’s very common right now, pretty soon. Well, we’re all going to hear about, you know, send me money through Zelle. And then soon after that, send me Bitcoin. These are all very easy ways to send money, but whatever the long elaborate story is in the end, it’s going to be, send me money and don’t tell anyone.
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Brynne: Yeah, that does sound like exactly. Like, I guess abusers, regardless of which domain they operate in they have kind of the same tricks trying to keep the person isolated. And again, you’re not allowed to tell anybody. I’m wondering, can we delve a little more into some of these, like with the romance scams?
Like, are you talking like. If you’re swiping on Tinder, some of those people might be scammers looking to take your money. Is that a thing?
Bob: Yeah, not only is it a thing, I mean, AARP, well, this is actually it’s federal trade commission research that, that AARP talks about romance scams are the number one scam for people who are 60 and over.
And it makes sense. I always like to say loneliness is the most driving force in humanity and the lonely people are just, you know, vulnerable to doing anything. I talked to a lot of people who have just, uh, you know, just been widowed after 60 years or, you know, just gone through some horrible experience, involving a spouse in Alzheimer’s and you know, all the things that we’re talking about about that moment of weakness, you can see how that, that all comes together after someone’s had some kind of a, a family tragedy.
And now they’re just looking for any kind of connection. There are support groups. There are Facebook groups devoted to recently widowed people, for example. And you can imagine how sharks just flock to places like that. And, you know, I talked to a woman last week who sent, who cashed out her, all her retirement accounts, took a home equity loan on her home, all because she thought she was in love with someone who was in Afghanistan.
And again, when you tell these stories and you tell the punchline at the end, they sound so obvious. What you don’t see is, you know, the woman sitting alone at home, staring at the TV show that she doesn’t care about for days on end and then the phone rings or an email finally comes and it says, you know, you’re beautiful.
I’ve been looking for you for forever. You know, you remind me of someone in high school. I lost my spouse too. And it was really sad. Maybe we can just talk about it together. And that goes on for, for months and months until finally someone says, you know, in this case, the story was: My son, I had a child late in life with my wife who’s now deceased. And my son’s in high school boarding school in London. And I’m on this oil rig. So I can’t send money from here, but could you just send them a couple of iTunes gift cards for his birthday? Otherwise he’ll have nothing on his birthday. And this is someone that you think maybe, you know, you’re falling in love with, or at least you’re connecting with.
And so you send the iTunes gift cards and now that’s what known as the foot in the door. So now the foot’s in the door and the second that you’ve that some way of sending money, that there’s a transaction that exists well, now the next thing is the son’s gotten hurt. So can you pay the medical bill?
And then the next thing is, well, my son wants to come visit me. Would you buy the plane ticket? And so it escalates from there. Uh, one of the things that we say all the time on The Perfect Scam podcast, If you haven’t been the victim of a scam, the right scam just hasn’t found you yet. Anyone who thinks they’re too smart to be a victim of something like this, that’s the kind of arrogance that the criminals actually look for people who, who think they’re above this layer the most vulnerable, and I promise you the scam is coming for them.
So I also think like, you know, one of the other messages that we talk a lot about is blaming victims when these things happen is so detrimental to them personally, to the whole system, when there’s a set of crimes, And there’s this natural urge to say, like, why did you do that? And you know, I wouldn’t do that.
No one should do that. That’s a way of taking responsibility away from the bad person who did it. When my car was broken into outside my apartment a month ago, it’s the third or fourth time it’s happened in the last several years. And the cops who show up, they always say the same thing. Did you leave something valuable in the front seat?
No, I live in this neighborhood. I know this is going to happen, but that’s a way of, you know, the city saying, well, the only people who deserve it get broken into instead of realizing that there’s a systemic problem, but there is this also this other human urge, which we want there to be a reason. And if you can blame a victim and there’s a reason, but I’m giving you this whole grand speech about not victim blaming mainly because I also think it’s important to prepare people that one day they’re going to get ripped off one day, something bad is going to happen. And, and that’s okay. Well, I’d like to equip you with tools to help you prevent that from happening, but at the same time, don’t be ashamed when it does happen. It happens to everyone.
And I actually fully believe that if you’re a person who thinks all the time, I am likely to fall for a scam. I am likely to send money to a criminal. Who’s tricked me. Then you’re better defended than someone who thinks that it’ll never happened to them.
Brynne: That is a really great point. And it seems so counterintuitive because we’re very egotistical beings, right?
We like to think that we are above everything and we like to think that we know better. And I think that thing with victim blaming too, is just a way of, like you said, distancing ourselves from our own vulnerabilities. And I think that there’s really power when people who have been through something, share their story because not only does it kind of release some of that stigma, I feel like, and it allows others to relate to you who have been through a similar thing.
It kind of releases some of that shame, but it also can prepare others for what could happen to them as well.
Bob: Yeah, a thousand percent. It’s so important that people share their stories when these things happen so that other people know what’s going on. You know, like for the longest time, sexual abusers use silence as a weapon, right?
So, you know, the more that people talk about what’s happened to them. The more other people realize this is actually going on. So, you know, I mean, this is my bias as a journalist, but wow. I’m pretty sure that daylight on these topics is the best disinfectant. So shout from the Hills, when this happens to you, don’t be ashamed to share your story.
Brynne: Hey, all. It’s post-production Brynne popping in again. I just want to add a small caveat here, not because what we said wasn’t true, but just because I feel like it merits a little bit of nuance. There are some instances where it’s not going to be safe to share story. This is especially true in the context of things like sexual abuse, where the perpetrator is likely to be someone who either was, or is close to you and they might remain a threat in some way, shape or form. So that might be a little bit different than being the victim of a financial scam. Does sharing your story help others? Yes, absolutely. And can it alleviate some of that shame? For sure. But regardless, it’s your story. It’s your experience. And you’re allowed to be the captain of your own ship in this regard.
Keep your personal safety as that top priority and know that it’s still good and important to tell someone, but maybe work that out with a safe person, like a therapist who specializes in intimate partner violence before feeling obligated to publish it on a public forum. All right, let’s get back to it.
Brynne: So like we did talk about how like this, uh, happens frequently to older populations. Do we see the same pattern in younger people, particularly for romantic scams, I guess, do they tend to, this is just me being curious. I don’t even know if this is relevant to our episode, but do they, do we see the same pattern among younger generations?
Are they falling for these scams or are they just more familiar with the technology? So they’re not as vulnerable or how does that work?
Bob: So I wish I had good data on that so I could give you a solid answer. I can only give you a squishy answer based on, you know, my sort of sense of the marketplace. And what I will say to you is no, I mean, one of the reasons that older folks are easy marks is they have a lot of money picture the set of widows who have, you know, life insurance payouts, for example, are just a really, really easy mark.
And I do think in some ways they’re less familiar with the technology and then that frustration with technology can make them vulnerable. I interviewed a woman yesterday and one of the first things I always do, you know, this in podcasting. Is I make sure I get the person say their name and where they’re from.
Just so I have it on the record, Bob Sullivan from Woodbridge, New Jersey. And I guess this woman yesterday, and when I asked her, she gave me like her full address, zip code, zip plus nine.
Brynne: Oh, no!
Bob: Yeah. And just because I think that generation was taught to be a cooperative to authority, for example. Right? That’s one of the other reasons that criminals, you know, like going after, and boy does this like hurt me deep inside, because these are folks who are just trying to be like kind and trusting and we’re taking advantage of them.
So younger folks are not quite like that. We haven’t, I think younger folks are not taught to be quite as compliant, at least in the technology world. On the other hand, as I said earlier, that there’s a scam for everyone. So while, you know, maybe you wouldn’t write back to someone who said I’m on an oil rig, but I love you.
The cover story just has to change. It’s pretty easy to look somebody up on LinkedIn or Facebook, figure out what they’re into and say, wow. I’m big into hip hop too. Here’s here’s a video of me and it’s a video of someone else. And next thing you know, they’ve got you emotionally roped in. So, I mean, the other way I would turn this question back around on you is, is, I mean, everyone’s been a fool for love, right?
We’ve all done things that we were surprised we did because we were emotionally charged. And so that means that you know, that you could be next.
Brynne: No. Absolutely. And when we’re thinking with that side of our brain, we don’t make the most logical or rational decisions even sometimes when we know better.
Bob: Yeah, of course, behavioral scientists sometimes talk about hot and cold.
And I like this construct a lot, um, hot ideation and cold ideation. So this is a sort of an easy one to give you an explanation of, you know, you’ll make one decision at one o’clock on a Thursday about what you’re having for lunch. If you’re trying to watch your weight. Right? But you’ll make a totally different decision Friday at 11:30 PM after a couple of drinks.
So that’s the difference between hot ideation and cold ideation. Another, I mean, this one’s a little bit more subtle, but it is something I try to keep in mind in my onw life. We go back and forth and you don’t really get to pick when you are, you know, emotional versus when you’re being logical, when you’re hot vs when you’re cold, but there’s, there’s at least a shot at you saying to yourself, okay.
Where am I? What’s my temperature right now. Oh, I’m in the hot side of things. Maybe I shouldn’t make any important choices right now. Maybe I should leave those for tomorrow at lunchtime. So sometimes that helps.
Brynne: No, definitely. And one thing I’ve heard, and this is, this was really interesting to me because I was, I am not LDS anymore, but I was raised LDS.
And one thing that they actually did teach us how to do, which has been useful life skill for me not to say I’ve always practiced it perfectly, but you know, we were Mormon. There was all these things that we weren’t allowed to do. However, they knew that we were children and we would grow up to be teenagers and they also knew that when you become a teenager, a lot of times you get into that hot state more often.
Right? So what they would do was they would teach us to imagine a scenario. Imagine this situation where you’re going to be facing that peer pressure or whatever the situation may be in this case, maybe you’re getting involved with someone on Tinder or something like that, or someone who’s off living on an oil rig.
Well, you would imagine that situation first, and then while you’re in your cool state, you go through and you kind of create a list of all these things you’re going to do. Things you could say, retorts you could come back with all these different ways to ensure that even when you are in that hot zone, you will have kind of like your own script to go through and to kind of mediate that behavior.
And when you practice it enough, when you’re in the cold zone, when you get to that hot zone, it’s far less likely that you’re going to act from that emotional state, because you can fall back on this thing that you’ve already internalized inside yourself. Now, like I said, that’s not to say that every time it works, right? We’re still gonna hit those times where we make bad decisions.
But that’s one thing that as I’ve been listening to behavioral psychologists throughout the past several years, that they’ve actually suggested that people do. It’s a skill that I I’m grateful that I had when I was younger. But like also I want to stress here that I’ve made mistakes in my life. Just like Bob is saying, you don’t want to think you’re immune from anything, but that was a really helpful exercise.
And as I’m sitting here thinking about how much scripts do help in so many learning situations. I’m wondering if maybe prepping during those cold times and kind of thinking, thinking through what would I do if this happened, if that might be a helpful exercise.
Bob: So I love this, this line of thinking.
I played sports pretty seriously for a long time. I played baseball through college and a little bit after. And one of the things that sports teaches you is that, you know, the reason you take a hundred ground balls every day, even though it seems boring, Is that sort of the cold state of practice is that when you’re in the bottom of the ninth inning and there’s two outs and the tying run is on third base and there’s a ground ball at you, you fall back on all that practice.
And even though you’re super emotional and you know, your brain’s going to, to 10, uh, your body will, will revert to what it knows because you’ve practiced so much. That’s what discipline does for you. So that’s an incredible skill in all sorts of situations. But as you’re talking here, I’m wondering, and I’ve always dreamed about doing, um, extended podcasts or even a TV shows like this would actually rehearsing circumstances over and over again with your kids.
Do you think that would help? So actually pretend to call them and be a criminal. And work them, you know, so they can actually have an experience of, of the routine and practice saying the refusal script or whatever it is you decide.
Brynne: I think it sounds like a good idea.
Joyce: It is a good idea.
Bob: I’m a big fan of role playing.
Joyce: Because we use it with everything else. We teach out kids you don’t want to go with strangers. You know, we, we train them when we go out for Halloween. Don’t do this be careful what you can’t? No, why not do this? It’s important, too.
Bob: It would be a kind of a fun exercise to come up with, uh, with scripts that people could use at home of, you know, here’s a, here’s a couple of typical scenarios, crime scenarios that, that, you know, you, you can each take a role and play it out at home.
Brynne: Yeah, absolutely.
Joyce: Going back to what you were saying about the address given up the address, one of my child would do that because they were taught in school to learn this address.
Bob: Sure, sure.
Joyce: Just in case he was lost. So I’m thinking about it. I’m like, oh my God, I gotta, I gotta go back to this because he will say the whole full address.
Bob: And yeah. There’s no, I don’t think I don’t want to. I hate making people, you know, overly agitated unnecessarily. So I don’t think giving out your address is all that terrible, it’s pretty easy to find out your address, but it was just, it was just how compliant she was. First was the, literally the first thing I said, and I just thought to myself, I could probably keep asking questions and she would probably just keep answering them.
In fact, that’s a trick, you know, ask a simple question, ask more complicated questions so on.
Joyce: My one child will probably do it because he’s in the spectrum, but he has been taught to be he’s very like another. He’s very compliance that he wants to make you happy.
Bob: Sure, sure.
Joyce: And I think that’s a good point. So maybe I need to go back and make some practices for him.
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Brynne: I’m wondering, you talked a little bit about how there’s a lot of job opportunity scams right now. And this is something that I’ve noticed as people in my life go out, looking for work. There’s so many people hiring…supposedly. It’s really hard to get past their algorithms. That’s particularly a problem for people with disabilities is getting past those algorithms.
So if you hear back from a job. You know, you’re probably in that hot state, you’re probably emotionally excited. You’re probably like, yes, I could earn some money here. I could really set things right after the past two years of this economic mess. Right? But I guess I’m wondering within those job listings, is there anything specific that we could teach people to look for. That would be a huge red flag. Like this job is not real. And then I’m assuming that there’s some things that scammers will do after you’ve established that initial contact, but it sounds like one of the best things we could do is not establish that initial contact, not even get to a point where we get into that hot state of being excited.
So I’m wondering if you can maybe tell us some red flags in that area in particular.
Bob: I like talking about jobs scams, and they’re sort of inverse, which is small business scams, because I feel like this is the place where even the most ardent use a polite word here, difficult person who thinks, oh, well, you should’ve known, how could you fall for this? All that language.
This is where that all falls apart because you’re, you’ve applied for 500 jobs that and apply on a job site. Finally one comes in, of course, you’re going to respond. I mean, you know, our standard advice of don’t talk to strangers. Don’t respond to random emails. Well, you have to, when you’re looking for a job, you have to give personal information to someone you don’t know when you’re looking for a job.
The first thing the prison is going to ask for is tell me more about you. What are you supposed to do? Say I like swimming and walks in the park? But tell me more? You know, so you are in this incredibly vulnerable spot when you’re looking for a job. And all of the signs that we’ve been talking about do apply the main one being watched for when the person asks for money.
If you know, somewhere pretty early on, there’s some kind of request that says, well, if you pay this fee, you know, you’ll be move up in the queue or whatnot. You know, that’s a warning sign, but unfortunately, nowadays, in some cases, data is money. And so this elaborate crime could just be to steal your identity.
So they might not actually ask for money. They might ask for personal information. Like, I mean, you could see someone asking for a social security number and saying, well, you know, it’s standard for us to do a credit check. And, and there are situations where you might do that as a legitimate request. You can see why someone would ask for that.
It’s logical enough. And then the person can steal your identity or is on their way to stealing your identity. But if they ask more personal financial questions, things like, you know, checking account information, pin codes, that sort of stuff, then, then there’s a danger. But this happens in real life. And again, as you point out, you know, you finally have a job someone’s interested in working with you and you are excited.
So you’re more likely to be compliant. The other thing to watch out for in job situations, are invitations to become part of a criminal enterprise, which you may not recognize right away. The most obvious version of this. And again, remember all of these things are elaborate cover stories for some way to move money.
There are these positions that are known in the criminal world as money mules. So if you are a criminal in Ghana and you are stealing money from, uh, one of my victims on the perfect scam in Michigan, it’s pretty hard to move $25,000 from Michigan to Ghana. So one of the ways that’s often done is through a money mule.
So you tell that victim in Michigan to send a thousand dollars to 25 different people around the US using Zelle or something like that. And then that person moves the money out of the country in a smaller denomination in a much less suspicious transaction. How that looks to you as the job applicant is you might get an application for something called like a package forwarding company, you know, and like we’re part of a new business that involves moving, electronics back and forth from China, for example.
So you’re going to receive, a shoebox size box that contains electronics in it. We want you to receive that at your house, package it up in different packaging, and then send it off to this address in Ghana. And it’s inside of that box is actually a magazine with hundred dollar bills stuffed inside the magazine.
This is a real example, as far as you know, you’re going to get paid for every package that you reshipped for this company. Um, that’s one of the more obvious versions, but there are all sorts of ways that you can simply be a middle person in a scam like that. And for a month or two, you might think that you have a legitimate job.
And next thing you know, the US postal inspection service shows up at your door asking why you’re involved in a crime.
Brynne: That’s terrible.
Bob: Yeah. Yeah. But, but again, you know, they didn’t ask for money. Uh, they didn’t ask for too much personal information and you needed a job and this is a work from home opportunity.
So I guess that’s another thing to talk about. Obviously, one of the social cues that tells you whether a company is legitimate or a crime, is that you walk into a building where there’s a person at the front door and there’s telephones. Human beings doing things. Um, now that so many people are working from home and I don’t think that’s going to change, it’s just a lot easier to come up with a fake company and a criminal enterprise.
So there’s extra things that people should do now that they’re working from home. One of the things, again from this sort of refusal script idea is whenever someone interacts with you, who you don’t expect, even if you’re on LinkedIn and you get a LinkedIn message. And maybe you’re hoping for one, that’s offering you a job, but it’s still, this is a person you’ve never interacted with before.
You should end the interaction hang up.
But whatever that means, hang up, meaning not respond to them on LinkedIn or whatnot. And use what technologists call out of band authentication. That simply means if someone sends you a text message, email them. If someone emails, you call them, if someone calls you, find them on LinkedIn, connect with them there.
Use a tool that’s not the tool they use to initiate contact, to contact them. And it’s not foolproof, but it works really, really well. Uh, the most basic version of this is when someone calls you or emails, you hang up, Google them. Get the phone number that way and call the number and make sure it all checks out. There are ways that criminals can prepare for this out of band authentication thing, but that’s a lot, that’s pretty elaborate most of the time they don’t do that, but this way it makes sure that there’s a channel you’re using that’s different than the channel that they use.
And that’s a pretty good tool for verifying that the person who you’re talking to is legitimate.
Brynne: That is a really good tip. Now, I don’t know if this is one of the biggest scams, but I might be biased because I work in this personal finance space. And so it’s a lot of what I see in my feed, but Bitcoin, can we, can we talk about cryptocurrency and what that might mean for, I don’t know, just scams and I th I think of investments, like I worry about these things. I understand that the world is shifting and I understand that nothing stays static or the same, but with everything that’s been happening, particularly with cryptocurrency during the pandemic, I worry about people making investments, or maybe like you were, like you were saying, it’s commonly used as a tool to kind of launder money or hide money, hide those transactions.
Is there anything that we should be aware with those cryptocurrency issues in this moment, I suppose?
Bob: Yeah, there’s a lot. Uh, I’m very, very worried — well already, I mean, I think people who work in this security space will tell you that the cryptocurrency is being propped up by crime right now. Um, there wouldn’t be all of these ransomware attacks, uh, that you hear about almost every day now, if it weren’t for cryptocurrency, that’s, that’s the financial engine that fuels all of those crimes. The only reason that we’re not hearing about cryptocurrency currently being used by criminals in every episode of the perfect scam is it’s still just a little tricky to get someone who’s unfamiliar with Bitcoin to send you a Bitcoin. There’s some steps, and it’s still easier to get someone instead — the tool of choice at the moment is still please go to home Depot and buy $5,000 gift cards and go home and scratch off the numbers and give them to me over the phone. That’s the easiest way to steal money today. But crypto is so universal. It’s so untraceable. And I mean, it’s just the perfect tool for, for criminals who want to get money from people instantly.
And I think we’re going to see that more and more. I’m hoping that crypto has such a bad name, that it will. It’ll be pretty hard to talk someone who doesn’t have any crypto accounts to sign up for one and then move money for. Uh, I’m hoping that it doesn’t become any easier than that anytime very soon.
But I was on a road trip recently, you know, in, in West Virginia and then, and then Kentucky and lots of gas stations had Bitcoin ATM’s and you know, the sight of those really make me nervous because cause I could see someone instructing, uh, you know, one of the victims I talk to, go to the gas station and buy some Bitcoin that way into some cash and get some Bitcoin and then transfer that.
On a more conceptual basis I don’t, I don’t like…everything gets reduced to cartoon level conversations right now. Right? So I don’t want to say exactly that I’m anti crypto, cause I’m not anti crypto, but the use case for Bitcoin, Ethereum and everything else is not there at the moment. It’s not a usable currency. In most cases, it’s really just a feeding frenzy as an alternative to the stock market right now.
It’s a Ponzi scheme in a lot of ways, and that’s fueling all of this sexy discussion, but in the end, it’s a tool that’s I think is going to be used to hurt a lot of people. Um, my hope in saying all these things is that it makes enough people generally skeptical about it. So they don’t drive to the gas station and buy Bitcoin and send it to a criminal in Ghana.
Brynne: For sure. For sure. And you mentioned Ponzi schemes. I feel like that’s one of the ones that carries over from the time when a lot more of these crimes were interpersonal and obviously it’s carried on online as well. Can we talk a little bit about Ponzi schemes?
Bob: Yeah, sure. I think — and I’m glad you brought that up because I want it to have the trust conversation with you.
I’ll get to that after I answer your question. So Ponzi schemes are simply, you get a bunch of investors and you don’t really have anything to invest in, but you pay the early investors with the late investor’s money. And you keep doing that until, until the music stops in someone’s left without money. Like musical chairs, but with cash.
So they’re usually based on interpersonal relationships. So, uh, they’re often linked to church groups. They’re often linked to friend groups or, you know, hobby groups, that kind of thing because of trust. So, Hey, I, you know, I just heard about this great new investment. There is something that sounds like Ponzi schemes that can be a Ponzi scheme or can be a legitimate business or anything in between multilevel marketing, uh, where maybe, you know, you’re selling makeup or you’re selling popcorn.
You’re not really selling nothing. And it’s the same thing though. You get a bunch of people involved and you, you make money off the people that you get involved. Usually in the end, I mean, some, a lot of fast talking math involved, but when you think about it, the last person in is going to get screwed.
And that’s just how they work, but that leads to how I started this conversation, which is the trust problem. So one of the patterns that I see all the time with people who I talk to is so many of the victims who have sent the most money to some stranger also consider themselves to be the most skeptical.
When I talk to them, they won’t want to talk to me at first. They won’t believe me. There’ll be, you know, and there’ll be people who say, and I don’t trust the government. I don’t trust my neighbors. They sound like they’ve got this hard protective shell around them. But what I find is that, like, the reason that they’re vulnerable is because their idea of trust is like a, a red or green light.
It’s a trap door. They don’t have, they don’t see these sort of shades of gray. And as a result, a criminal who finds someone who has that frame of mind says, you know what? I don’t trust the government, either. And now they’re friends. And now they’re inside that trap door. And once you’re inside that trap door, their trust is complete.
So they either don’t trust anybody at all, or they trust you completely. And that group of people who I think are among the most vulnerable and I use the trapdoor metaphor, I’m sure there’s a lot of other metaphors, but I wonder if that in any way informs your thinking about, um, about autistic people and you know, maybe there’s something similar there and maybe that, that makes them more vulnerable or less vulnerable.
Joyce: You know in a way we’re all the same.
Get it. Like, even if we’re autistic or not. The black and white, the social cues missing and but the last, what you said before. I, I was just thinking on my kids, you know, like that, that could be them because they don’t like this, but let’s say, um, they gamers right. They like to play games and people in the spectrum we love to play video games and I can see them falling into scams. I dunno, I’m just thinking here. And I, I, this is really good. Like with the last thing you said to me, I’m still thinking about the trust and I’m thinking of ways of how can I teach them about not falling for schemes. But I don’t know.
Bob: The one thing I’d be worried about as I hear you talk is so you have a friend group that you play games with and you might even implicitly trust them as I’m sure you, you would, uh, in, in the realm of the video game that you’re playing a person with a trust, a trap door might make a pretty quick leap from, I trust you in this game to, oh yeah. You, you, you want me to invest in this thing?
Sure. I trust you there too. Whereas I think, uh, folks who are better at putting things into proper containers might trust you in this one context, but in context number two, we got to start all over. You know, money. Well, wait a minute. I want to know more about you. And so I think this is, you know, and again, this is not necessarily only for people with autism it’s for everyone.
Um, a lot of folks trust folks that they know from church and they might be perfectly trustworthy in church, but not someone to get into business with. Um, we say this about families all the time, right? Like it’s not good to get into business with your family. Well, sometimes it is. But it’s, it’s different someone who you trust at that Thanksgiving dinner table, you might not want to trust, owning a brewery with, and that’s why this trust trap doors is such a negative thing.
So I wanted to just ask you if there’s anything that we haven’t covered, that you think that it’s really important for people to know, as far as recognizing some of these scams, what some of the most common ones are and any like red flags or patterns that they might need to look out for. I know we’ve kind of jumped around a little bit.
I just want to definitely give you the opportunity to address anything because Joyce and I don’t know what we don’t know.
Bob: Well, one thing I have resisted bringing up until this point, which I want to is one of the usual lines of advice. Is when you get an email and it doesn’t sound right. Um, there’s misspellings the English isn’t very good. Um, that’s a red flag and it’s true. That is a red flag. In the grandparents scam where a person pretends to be a grandson who’s been arrested in London and needs money and asks grandma. One of the things we say is, well, does that sound like something your grandson would say? And I think we can all imagine again, in our best selves in our cold ideation that if I had an interaction with someone pretending to be a friend of mine, I would be able to tell pretty quickly that he doesn’t use those words or that’s not what she sounds like. So I’d figured that out that’s as close as a social cue that we have. I think in the virtual world, I can imagine, say, Uh, so this hijacking of personalities happens all the time.
I can imagine in say a gamer group someone’s identity and the game gets taken over and the criminal using that the way to gain trust, to say to someone, send me money or whatnot. I wonder, I would like to hear the two of you respond to that. Do you think that your family members would recognize, you know, the, the misspelling bad English, strange phrasing suggestion?
Or is that, is that not useful in this context?
Joyce: Well, since I am Puerto Rican. And my family came from Puerto Rico. They will fall for it. I have seen like the PayPal scam, you know, your account for PayPal, that, that they could fall for it because you know, not everyone speaks English, no one knows mistypos or misspelled.
Does that make sense? And that they are so there can be tendency, especially in communities where they don’t speak English and they can fall for this. I mean, they’re so smart. They will tell you about Amazon. Like you, we get tons of emails about your Amazon account has been locked. You know, they don’t know that it’s spelled wrong or it has so many typos.
They’re very easy to fall for it and they can get scammed too. So I, I agree what you’re saying. I agree with the email, especially, and not even just seniors, just in my Hispanic community, we have seen in helping family members not to open or that’s a scam PP or, you know things like that.
Bob: Yeah. This is one of the reasons I bristle a little, you know, some, if I’m on TV and someone says, give me 10 tips to avoiding scams.
It’s really hard. Right? You know, these like that, that’s a tip you see everywhere, notice bad English, but first of all, the criminals are getting way better at using Google translate. Google translate is getting better. And, uh, you know, I, I type poorly on my phone. Often I spell things wrong, you know? So, so advice like that is pretty tricky to be useful.
And I have one other area I want to bring up. I hope this is more useful. Some of the best advice I’ve heard from the criminal psychologist that we speak to for The Perfect Scam talk about the main trick, the main magic trick. And I do like calling them magic tricks because it’s all deception that criminals use is to put you into a state of high alert very quickly.
That’s why the caller ID says IRS. Right. Probably me just saying the letters IRS suddenly sent your blood pressure up. That’s how they get you from cold to hot very quickly. And then you’re in an emotional state and they can talk you into something they couldn’t talk you into otherwise. As a potential victim of anything, notice your own emotional state and notice when your life is fine.
You were watching TV five seconds later, you’ve got a relative in trouble overseas, or you’ve got a $40,000 bill you didn’t know about? Notice when something has radically changed inside you because of an interaction with a person. And I wondered, is that anything unpredictable is generally pretty upsetting to people on the spectrum, right?
So that can be a very useful tool. You were to get a scam phone call that said your computer’s hacked. You have to give me money or else your computer will blow up. All of us should react to that by like storming off instead of taking any immediate action. And so that natural tendency might actually be a superpower that your families can use to prevent themselves from doing something they shouldn’t do.
And, and just to back to the main tip there with which is anytime at anything happens which turns your world upside down in a moment because of an interaction, an email, a phone call, whatever I like to say, stop, drop, and roll. That was the old advice for if you’re on fire, stop, drop, and roll so that you put the fire out in your body.
I use this online stop what you’re doing. Drop the computer mouse and roll your chair away from the desk. So anytime somebody interrupts your life with something that’s highly emotional, stop, drop, and roll.
Brynne: I love that. That’s so great. Now, Bob, in our last couple minutes here, I do want to ask you, first of all, I want to thank you so much for being here.
I am. We’re just honored and thrilled and just so grateful for your expertise. I want to ask you for our listeners who might want to connect with you, who might want to learn more about your work? Where’s the best place to connect with you? What projects are you most excited about? Uh, where would you like people to find you?
Bob: So my website is Bobsullivan.net. I publish in a lot of places, but on that page, you’ll find links to everything that I do. My two main projects right now are podcasts. One is The Perfect Scam where we do these true crime stories of people who are victims of these elaborate scams. That’s sponsored by AARP.
And I have a podcast called Debugger, which is in cooperation with Duke University. And that’s more on understanding why technology is such a useful tool for criminals. And what can we do about that? I also have a sub stack newsletter, which, it would be great if people wanted to subscribe to, but you can find out about all of this at BobSullivan.net.
Joyce: Let’s just talk about the scam. For example, parents might fall into a scam because they’re buying vitamins thinking that that’s going to quote unquote cure the autism. And it just drives me insane. When I see those Facebook ads advertising in vitamins that are going to help their kids speak or help their kids be “normal”.
And you see all these comments that the advertisement continue to live on misleading the person. So like this vitamin it’s so good. And I mean, of course, vitamins and eating healthy, it’s important. But the stigma, if, if you feed your child certain diet, or you have the specific, you know, then I just address your money at us.
I think that can be considered a scam because that person is trying to buy all this stuff buy these essential oils and nothing is happening that you just, I just feel that sometimes in the community itself, there’s so many scams out there.
Brynne: No, for sure. And a big thing, like if we look historically at the way that parents respond to disability within our society.
When you receive a diagnosis, a lot of times the parent will go through a grieving process and a big feature of this grieving process is looking for miracle cures. Now, back in the day, that would have been like going to some remote mountain town with some spiritual guru that’s going to bless the autism or the disability out of your child.
And that’s damaging because that tells your child hey, something’s wrong with you. We need to find some miracle cure to get you out of it. And I think today’s version is a lot of these MLM scams where you’re selling mom’s essential oils or vitamins that are going to just like make the autism go away. And it’s like the point isn’t to make the autism go away.
The point is to accommodate your child in a society that makes it very difficult for them to exist. And it’s not the autism that’s the problem. And when we can kind of recognize that as a part of the grief process and probably a super unhealthy part, we can kind of get ourselves out of being susceptible to those types of like scams.
Joyce: Because we’re in that position where we’re grieving, we’re hurting.
Someone is offering you something that it’s too good to be true and we fall into it. So I think that there’s scams out there targeting our community. That’s for sure. There’s vitamins. Honestly, you can, you can feed any child. Vitamins is not going to make them any smarter. That was the case. Uh, something’s wrong with my vitamins,
Brynne: Yeah, I would like some vitamins, please!
Joyce: And beverages and all that stuff.
I just think that we also fall into a lot of scams, um, memberships there’s so many, so much like when it comes to autism, like the ads out there are so crazy, but there’s things that you can do with regular toys that are therapy. You don’t need special toys just because your child is in the spectrum and the price tag.
I think we’re talking about that as that, you know, a regular vitamin cost it, but it’s a regular vitamin that has some kind of miracle for your autistic child will cost 50 bucks. Just be aware.
Brynne: Absolutely. There were so many things that he said that I was just like, this sounds spot on, like when he was talking about the grooming process and all it takes is like, they’ll, they’ll stick with you for years and years and years.
And just that one moment of weakness and all of a sudden you’ve opened the door to like this whole mess.
Joyce: I think something that I have to do myself will be victim shaming. Maybe it’s something that we all do without realizing that. Like when he put it out with the car, where did you leave your door open or did you leave something valuable in a car?
Like what does it really matter? Like.
Brynne: The cops do that all the time.
Joyce: So I think it was a good one. Um, and also kids on the spectrum love Roblox. I know all childrens do but kids in the spectrum, like to be online, they like to be, get their gamers and you will find a lot of scams in the gaming community too.
So it’s something that we need to talk about. And again, I’m not here to shame if your kid is on a tablet, if you game or don’t game, that is not the purpose of this. Just be aware that there’s scams everywhere in every community.
Brynne: Absolutely. Absolutely. Oh, and like how he was talking about specifically, like with your finances, if you’re trying to protect your finances, probably the biggest red flag is someone asking you to send them money.
Um, and maybe you’ve built up a relationship with them. Just don’t send people money. Like, that’s probably the biggest thing, especially if they’re asking for it through gift cards, he was saying apps like Zelle, Bitcoin, all of that.
Joyce: And as a parent, I think scripting. It’s amazing. I didn’t think about that. So I think I’m probably gonna figure something out about scripting this scenario with my kids to avoid being scammed.
Brynne: Yeah. Like practicing that and planning out what you would say or how would you, how would you handle that? I think I’m going to probably be doing a similar thing here. Oh, one other thing that he did talk about that I did want to bring up because we talked with Bob about this actually, after we turned off the recording, but he says that one thing that he does is like in his head, he visualizes this trust thermometer.
And like every time someone is doing something that’s maybe a little icky or like maybe it’s raising a red flag, he’ll like lower their trust thermometer in his head. So like, even if you can create a visual trust thermometer and kind of teach your kids, these are some of the things that would up the trust.
These are some of the things that would lower the trust. Like I think that might be a helpful tool.
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