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Throwing light on the 'Dark Arts'

Throwing light on the 'Dark Arts'

You’ve probably seen the optical illusion on the right; it’s a kind of visual scam. The two horizontal lines are actually the same length, despite the one on top seeming to look longer. Sometimes, in order not to be fooled, we have to pay close attention and override our instincts. This is a key message when it comes to protecting ourselves from those practising the ‘dark arts’ of scams.

"Scam - a fraudulent scheme performed by a dishonest individual, group, or company in an attempt to obtain money or something else of value."

Most of us seek to influence others for a wide range of reasons – to be understood, to affect the way others treat us, to achieve tasks, to comply with social or cultural or employment rules, and so on. At some level, we understand (or think we understand) the motivation behind others’ behaviour towards us. But what if that influence is designed to trick us into giving away money, or take risks we normally wouldn’t take?

Exploring the dark arts

We’ve all received emails, calls or messages from strangers purporting to be from the government, or offering savings on utility bills, or suggesting we’ve won something. They try to win our trust, then work to get our resources.

At our 12th Change Room event (‘Dark Arts’), held in August 2019, Geoff Paine and Abby Wild explored how scammers, telemarketers and others apply the principles of persuasion to get others to hand over personal details, invest in different types of get rich schemes or send money.

As it turns out, scammers are able to effectively exploit the ‘chinks in our behavioural armour’ – our natural inclination is to trust others, defer to authority, like those who like us and fit in with societal norms. We like to be seen as consistent. Scammers know we are often too polite to say no or hang up, and that creating a sense of urgency can minimise our ability to rationally think about the decision (like handing over credit card details to get that ‘bargain’ deal).


Data from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Scamwatch page tells us the telephone is still the main contact method used in scams (followed by email, text and social media); it’s in real-time, direct, and has a huge advantage for those trying to defraud others – we can’t see the other person. It’s harder to tell if someone’s lying if you can’t look directly at them.

The data also suggests that scams are targeted to different groups in different ways, depending on what their ‘need or greed’ is. Men report higher losses to investments scams, women report higher losses to romance and dating scams. As victims, we are distracted, deceived, intimidated by authority, urged to grab opportunities quickly, convinced by safety in numbers, and sometimes shamed into silence by our own gullibility or revealing we have been trying to break the law.

Tips and resources

So what are the defences against these ‘Dark Arts’? Slowing decisions down, sharing doubts with others before making financial commitments, and not sharing personal information are good starts. Resources like Scamwatch (https://www.scamwatch.gov.au) are also valuable for gaining insight into how others have fallen for scams.

Abby Wild and Geoff Paine present Dark Arts at The Change Room.

An ABC radio interview about the event can be heard here, and a highlights video can be found here.

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