When most people think “door-to-door scam,” they think of the sleazy-looking salesperson trying to sell you something you don’t need. Like someone straight out of “Better Call Saul.”
But in reality, most door-to-door scams come in many forms and play on your most basic emotions, such as instilling fear, confusion or playing up to natural greed, according to USA today,
We’ll explain 3 common door-to-door scams and the psychological tricks that con artists use to push your emotional buttons.
Scam 1: Fake utility workers
How it works: A pair of burglars pose as utility workers and tell you that there’s a utility emergency they need to inspect.
While one fake utility worker explains to you the situation, the other goes through your home stealing valuables. (Just in case you didn’t know, many burglars often work in pairs).
And many fakers will threaten you with a fine if you don’t let them inside.
An example of this scam: In this story, burglars posed as water department workers and said they needed to check for frozen pipes. Once they gained access and “checked” the pipes, they left—taking the homeowner’s money with them.
Why this scam works: These scammers are taking advantage of your loss aversion bias.
This bias is rooted in the thought that the pain of losing is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining.
So even when smart people are confronted with losing something, they’ll usually do whatever it takes to avoid it, leading to not-so-smart decisions.
For example, in the homeowners in the above story probably wouldn’t have let the random utility workers inside. But once confronted with financial loss due to frozen pipes, they let strangers into their home.
What you should do: Ignore any utility worker that request access to your home without scheduling with you ahead of time. Also, utility workers won’t threaten you with fines or incarceration if you decline their work.
Scam 2: Fake census surveyors
How it works: According to scambusters.org, some scammers come in the form of a bogus Census worker who “turns up at your front door and starts asking detailed questions about your personal finances and demands information including your Social Security number (which, just for the record, the real Census does not collect).”
Why this scam works: The con artist is using the authority principle to his or her advantage. This principle states that we’re more likely trust people who are seen as an “official” or “expert.”
This principle makes sense if you think think about it. Who are you more likely to trust to diagnose you for an illness?:
- A person who calls themselves a doctor and wears a white coat
- A person who calls themselves a doctor and wears shorts and a hawaiian shirt
Probably the former, because they look like an expert.
What to do: If someone shows up at your front door saying they’re from the Census Bureau, you should:
- Always ask to see their identification and badge before answering any questions.
- Inspect the worker for items they should have on them (i.e. a handheld device, a Census Bureau canvas bag and a confidentiality notice).
Scam 3: Fake home security offers
How it works: According to the FTC, some con artists will come to your home and make a variety of fake home security offers.
If a home security representative shows up unannounced, you’ll know if it’s a scam if they:
- Claim that several robberies have been reported in the area and so they’re offering free security inspections.
- Make a limited-time offer and claim that you need to act now.
- Pressure their way into your home and then refuses to leave.
- Claim your security monitoring company has gone out of business and that a new company has taken over the accounts. So of course you have to buy new equipment and sign new contracts.
Why this scam works: These offers take advantage of both of the above psychological tactics:
- Loss aversion: Fear of missing out on a deal or fear of a potential break-in.
- Authority principle: The con artist says they are your new security company and are dressed appropriately to make you think that that’s the case.
What to do:
- If they’re trying to sell you something new: Just tell them "no" at your doorstep. If a salesperson continues to pressure you after you've asked them to leave (if they’re inside or outside your home), call the police.
- If they claim to be replacing your old security company: Call your current monitoring company to confirm. Normally, your security company would tell you about this ahead of time by mail, email or telephone, not by a random, unannounced visit by a representative from another company.