Where should we start? First sympathy scams have to separated from financial scams as both the methods and the consequences can be very different, both for the victim and perpetrator.
What Is a Sympathy Scam?
The basics of a sympathy scam are reasonably self-explanatory - people lie about their life in order to garner attention and sympathy from one or more people in the general public as opposed to that of their family. It is separated from a financial scam because money is not the primary object, receiving the attention from the deceived public is what they desire, the more people they dupe and the more care that they garner, the better. Sympathy scams are normally based on medical conditions but they can also take the form of a family or financial loss or even in some cases a religious calling.
An example of Internet Life Support
One researcher, while posting on the web, found the story of a man who was supposedly dying of cancer who had been found to have a number of accounts, the reason for his having a number of accounts?.
He had been outed by a site's administrators for posting while supposedly undergoing chemotherapy, unconscious and linked to a life support machine. At that stage he started up a number of accounts on different websites to encourage further outpourings of sympathy.
Those on the original website were especially angry as many of them and spent months following his story, wishing him well and giving him encouragement every day. And so justifiably they were annoyed that someone who they had given so much of their hearts to had deceived them. Of course some would say that so much of the Internet is about being who you want to be - and this man wanted to pretend to be terminally ill, shouldn't the other chatroom users expect this?
Why do people do this?
This section will concern why people lie about themselves for sympathy, what makes them start, what makes them willing to continue and why they are happy to lie to others.
Later it will also be explained why those who know that they are being deceived agree to continue as willing participants in such a ghastly charade.
The reasons for creating a sympathy scam are reasonably simple to understand. The same conditions are prevalent around the world in those who are on the outside of society, although even now debate rages on whether they are causes or effects of partial ostracisation. However in the case of a sympathy scam these are causes. This entry will cover how loneliness, mental breakdowns and religious beliefs can cause such suffering for all involved in the matter.
Loneliness, despite all humanities' achievements we are still incapable of treasuring much of our population. Every year thousands of people in the UK alone are diagnosed with depression caused simply by a lack of care from their families or others. Of course not all of these feel a need to seek such a drastic remedy at a considerable cost to other's but a few decide that they never want to be lonely again. Rather than seek a few good friends by being sociable they seek thousands of sympathetic follower's by exaggerating or even creating a heart-wrenching story that cries out for attention.
Mental diseases, many mental condition's symptoms would encourage sympathy scams. While they would warrant sympathy for their conditions must sufferers create conditions that they do not have for the scams. Those suffering from mild forms of dementia(particularly mild cases of fronto-temporal dementia) are more likely than those who have more extreme conditions to institute such scams as the more capable of reasoning they are, the more they will be believed.
Religious Fervour, despite the mainstream of all major religions helping the world within every religion there are a few minor sects with at most a few thousand followers who create false claims about their religion that are very similar to sympathy scams. The leaders of these sects are normally convinced that they have been chosen by God to save their people from an upcoming doomsday, despite the failure of every other upcoming doomsday before their own.
What Happens to the People who Believe the Scams
Back to the researcher's case study from before, the scammer was still convincing people of his story four years later. He managed to find groups of people willing to fulfill his need to be the centre of attention. However, sooner or later, every group found his story to be a lie; but in a sad enough story to make George Orwell cry, many of those convinced engaged in pure doublethink, deceiving themselves about their beliefs because to admit their mistakes would cause them to look like fools. In this case the scammer's selfish desires led to one woman being placed on suicide watch and several others being institutionalised.
Consequences for those Affected
In the most gentle cases people will simply be angry at being convinced, as such they will be less charitable and trusting for the near future, particularly in the medium in which they were tricked.
In more severe cases those who are tricked become socially recluse, unwilling to spend time with others, even their own families. They have similar symptoms to those above, except exaggerated. They are unlikely to ever show strong compassion to others, even if they are suffering. The same applies when it comes to trusting others again as well.
A few of those affected become similar to those who started the scams. Lonely, depressed and occasionally aggressive many of those so badly affected must be sectioned, some never to regain their place in society. While there are no numbers it is also likely that some of this category will start their own sympathy scams, either for misguided revenge or a need for personal reassurance.
The most drastic consequence affects only a few people each year. These unfortunate souls are driven to commit suicide, simply because they were kind enough to offer compassion to those with the evil character willing to lie for it.
What Happens to the Person when the Lies are Revealed, a Case Study
There's a theory in Psychology known as 'cognitive dissonance'. It arose as a theory after American social psychology researchers, led by Leon Festinger, read a newspaper article in their local paper about a housewife called Mrs Keech. She said she was receiving messages from the Planet Clarion planet These told her the world would come to an end in a flood. The only people to be saved would be true believers, and the newspaper reported that Mrs Keech had followers who had left spouses, jobs, homes and family to get ready for their salvation.
The newspaper article inspired the researchers to go and infiltrate the group, pretending to be true believers. All the followers sat in waiting on the night that the flood was predicted. They sat all through the night waiting for salvation, well past the appointed hour, but no flood came and there was no rescue.
Now, you'd think that the believers would stop believing and go home mumbling "sorry" to their families. But that would make them look "stupid for falling for it", but for some people lying to themselves every day is easier than admitting a mistake.
Instead, in the early hours, Mrs Keech received another message from the Planet Clarion, thanking the believers for their faith, which had saved the world from destruction. The believers then actually strengthened their commitment and began to spread the word to others and give newspaper interviews. The theory is that to do otherwise would make them look ridiculous, and nobody wants that.
So despite Mrs Keech's lies to her followers that had lead to dozens of divorces, a number of job losses which presumably led to a number of financial difficulties for many of the group; (though not for Mrs Keech presumably given her powers of persuasion) she was not chased from the town, she was not even punished (by her followers at least) for her mistakes. The belief that these sympathy scams can cause is incredibly strong, which for some people can end in tragic consequences.
Counting the Cost
The cost of "normal" financial scams is 240 million dollars (£200 million) in America alone. The global figure is likely to be over a billion dollars. However it is far harder to count the cost of these sympathy scams. Only the followers and the perpetrators are seen, and many of the direct victims are never linked to a specific scam. However the ruined lives of the families of the victims must also be taken into consideration, below I will list a few of the potential costs of sympathy scams that may not be obvious
Financial, while at the beginning sympathy scams were separated from financial scams as the perpetrator did not intend to benefit financially there can still be a heavy cost. This is either because the victims give money to the scammer, regardless of whether it is asked for, or as in the example above, victims are required to give up their jobs.
Family union, those scarred by these sympathy scams have very high divorce rates, leading to problems for both sides of the family, and especially the children. Numbers are very hard to come by but the chances for those badly affected are likely to be similar to families under strain from mental disorders - that is at least several times more likely than normal.
Charity, genuine charities can also take an impact from these scams. People who previously were willing to give either time or money are charity are now nervous about giving themselves after being tricked. This is particularly problematic with less known charities as they have greater problems proving that they are genuine.
How to avoid Sympathy Scams
Avoiding sympathy scams is far harder than avoiding the financial equivalent. For a start financial scams are far more common and receive more media coverage, as such they are more well known and so are recognised and discounted. Sympathy scams are harder to spot and are also more taboo to try and contend.
A few obvious things are easy to implement. If the person says they have a condition that would prevent them from talking to you or writing an email then obviously they can be recognised as liars. If they refuse to give any details on demand but then sprout medical jargon that has no link to each other than they can also be assumed to be scammers.
To be surer requires people to slightly trespass and so many people may find it harder to deal with. Asking for photos may mark you out as morbid but are harder to fake and normally are a good sign of faithfulness. Better yet is when photos are freely offered, although this can be an effective double bluff. Meeting either the person or non-biased witnesses are the best ways of making sure that a sympathy scam is not taking place, but they are quite hard to accomplish in the normal business of life.
To Trust or Not to Trust?
In conclusion I think it should just be said that despite the depressing nature of this article and the concept of people demanding attention I would just warn people to be careful. Do not let the chance that you are being tricked overcome your care for your fellow man, trust, because that is what being human is all about.