It starts out innocently enough. The phone rings. “Hey, it’s your favourite nephew.”
“David?” you respond.
“Yes, it’s David.”
“You don’t sound like David,” you say, but he explains that away by mentioning a broken nose. More to the point, he adds, he’s in trouble. He got arrested last night, and he needs you to wire him $3,000.
“I know it’s a lot to ask,” he says, “but it’s urgent, and I’m in trouble. And please don’t tell my parents.”
The grandparent or aunt-and-uncle scam, as it’s known, happened to a friend of mine a few years ago. Sadly, she fell for it, believing she was helping her nephew out of a bind. In a matter of hours, she was bilked out of a few thousand dollars.
So, when the phone rang at my parents’ house in Richmond, B.C. a few weeks ago when I happened to be standing there and heard my mom say, “My favourite nephew? You’ve broken your nose?” I jumped into action, grabbed the phone, and began swearing a blue streak at the caller.
It’s a common enough scam, but one which unsuspecting victims continue to fall for. With all the junk email one receives with trumped up stories of our contacts being stranded travellers, we are used to scams and other digital phishing attempts. But there is something different about being confronted by a live person on the other end of the line. A rapport can quickly develop as one unwittingly feeds the scammer facts that are then used to continue to establish a sense of trust that is based on lies.
CBC reported last month that 500 seniors fall for the scam each year in Canada, with a total of $1.7 million lost (averaging $3,400 per person).
I write about this here partly in the hope of preventing other potential victims.
I also am writing about it in an attempt to try and understand the dynamic of shame and guilt when it comes to persuading petty criminals like these to cease their horrible behaviour. When I took the phone from my mom’s hand, I had but a couple of seconds to figure out a strategy. I decided to shame the person, until he finally said, “It’s a job.” It was a sad admission of guilt, which only led me to continue my swearing diatribe about how he might go about finding a real job, the jerk.
Psychologists have discussed the difference between shame and guilt. Experiencing shame means internalizing one’s negative behaviour such that one comes to experience feelings of worthlessness. The result can be more anti-social behaviour. Guilt, on the other hand, is understood to be more targeted to the behaviour itself and thus potentially a more constructive emotion, as one can make amends for specific misdeeds.
If we intuitively knew how to decrease unethical behaviour in our society, we would surely live in a much different world. But, at the very least, we should be asking ourselves what kinds of strategies can lead troubled individuals to reform their actions. Perhaps a strategy of empathy or compassion is a better one, as Phil Barker, then a political science graduate student, wrote in 2003. http://tinyurl.com/guilt-shame
In my own study of the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, I certainly do suggest strategies of empathy, dialogue and mutual understanding. But, as I realized, it’s difficult – and not at all intuitive – to apply this to a stranger who is seeking to defraud an unsuspecting victim of money. There is nothing protracted about that momentary conflict; there is no ongoing relationship of mutual victimization. Add to that my desire to protect my parents and other potential victims – thus, my instinct that morning to curse rather than show compassion.
Part of me wishes I could talk to that young man again. With his jarring admission that all he was doing was working at his “job,” perhaps I could try to understand how he sees ethics, honesty and the value of hard work. While we should ensure we are vigilant against scams such as these (word of mouth and media coverage is best), we might also gain by trying to understand where people who conduct themselves in such a vile way are coming from. Maybe, just maybe, one pathetic soul can be rehabilitated and another future victimization prevented.