“Does this fit with the way the world works?”

I saw a video the other day that featured Michael Shermer, editor-in-chief of  Skeptic magazine, talking about questions you can use to evaluate claims when it comes to science vs. pseudo-science. With a nod to physicist Carl Sagan, he referred to the method as a “Baloney Detection Kit.”

The fourth question in the Kit was:

Does this fit with the way the world works?

In other words, does the claim being made jibe with how reality tends to operate across a variety of situations?

What an excellent question to keep in mind when it comes to avoiding scams.

As I perused my Google Alerts for the latest news items about different types of fraud, I found that a lot of them could be avoided by simply asking that very question before acting. Here are some examples:

From Connecticut: Scam Targets Payday Loan Borrowers

In this scheme, a caller claims to be collecting on a delinquent loan, and tells the victim they will be arrested unless they make a payment over the phone right away. Is this how the world works?

Not even close. First, lenders don’t have the authority to decide if you’ll be arrested or not. The police in the U.S. are not employed by private financial institutions. Sure, if you commit loan fraud, they can contact authorities, but being delinquent doesn’t usually fall under that umbrella. Debtors prisons went out quite a while ago in this country. Second, whatever the circumstance, they don’t call you and tell you about an impending arrest in advance. You generally only get to know about it two seconds before it happens.

From Arizona: New Scam Claims that President Obama will pay Consumers Utility Bills

So the President’s gonna pay your light bill for you, huh?

Just like Reagan and Nixon and Kennedy all did, huh?

And he’ll be over tonight at six for dinner, with a marble rye and Trivial Pursuit, right?

Folks, this is not how the world operates. Presidents don’t pay your utility bills. In most cases, that one’s all on you. Don’t fall for it. They want you to surrender information so they can commit identity theft.

From Everywhere: The Exiled Nigerian Prince Scam

I won’t go into details about these scams, since most of you probably already know about them (here’s an old article if you don’t), but suffice it to say they fail the “is this how the world operates?” question with flying colors. Rich people don’t just give massive amounts of money away to random strangers. It would be nice if they did, but wishing something were true doesn’t usually do much to change the facts.

From Everywhere Again: Secret Shopper Scams

Offers for jobs that pay lots of money for minute amounts of unskilled work don’t appear out of nowhere in your email inbox. People who make $150 for an hour’s worth of work have advanced knowledge, skills or education to make their time that valuable. Cashing a check then wiring the money to someone doesn’t meet those requirements. Also, finding a job usually requires you to take the initiative first.

From South Carolina: Charleston police warn elderly against ‘found money’ scam

I suppose it’s possible that someone could find a wallet or briefcase that contained a large sum of cash. It still seems more like something that would happen in a movie than real life, but wallets exist, cash exists, and people who lose things exist. There’s no physical barrier to someone finding a vessel of some sort, bursting at the seams with cabbage.

However, upon finding such an object, there is generally a binary, either-or course of action that will follow, depending on the person who found it:

Honest Person: they’ll call the police and turn it in.
Dishonest Person: they’ll keep it all and run away.

There’s really not a whole lot of variation here. That’s just how the world works.

What won’t happen is that an honest person will find the cash, then offer to split it with a random stranger. Their concern will be for the owner of the money, or for helping solve a crime (because, let’s face it, big wads of discarded money have a distinctly criminal aroma about them).

What also won’t happen is that a dishonest person will find cash, then offer to split it with a random stranger. Their concern will be for their own gains and their own gains only.

Neither of those fit with how the world works, so if anyone in a parking lot ever tells you they found a big stash of money, don’t believe a word they say. That cash is a decoy, and they’re trying to get you to part with a chunk of “good faith money.” Politely decline, get a description, go somewhere safe, and rat ’em out. You just might save someone else from becoming a victim.

Don’t be greedy

There are a certain category of scams that prey on a personality trait that most of us have to some degree: greed. Some of us keep it chained up better than others, but on some (hopefully, deeply buried) level most people are a six-year-old who doesn’t want to share his/her birthday cake with anyone.

Hey, I’ll grab the last cookie without offering it to anyone else, too. If nobody’s looking.

But when it comes to con games and scams, not being greedy (or at least keeping it under wraps) can help you steer clear.

For example, let’s say you’re walking to your car when two people approach you. They tell you they’ve found a briefcase with a whole bunch of money in it, and they’re offering to split it with you. There’s always a complication, though, and they’ll ask you to provide some “good faith money” to throw in with the found cash. At this point, you’re supposed to withdraw a couple thousand dollars and hand it over to strangers. This is where being greedy—wanting to get something for nothing—will lead you into falling for a pigeon drop scam.

Look at all the “make money online” scams (some of which are so sophisticated they have their own late-night infomercials). You’re enticed with the promise of thousands of dollars per week (or even day), and all you have to do is send in your payment, sit back, and let the cash roll in. Again, you’re being greedy. You’re trying to get paid while providing zero value to anyone, and in the end you’ll be the one who loses.

Con artists and swindlers are nothing if not well versed in human nature. They know all about that inner Daffy Duck (“I may be a craven little coward, but I’m a greedy craven little coward”) lurking just under the surface of so many of us.

The reason they know all about it is that they’re giving it free rein over their own lives. Almost everyone has a weakness that can be exploited under the right conditions, especially when they’re not paying attention. When you find yourself in a situation, ask this question: “Am I trying to get something for nothing here?”

If the answer is “yes,” you might be gearing up to fall for a scam.