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Who's most gullible online and why? Secrets from scam world revealed

Think grandma and grandpa are the most likely to fall for Internet scams? Think again, suggests a study on gullibility released earlier this month. 

Younger, less educated, underpaid Americans are the group most likely to fall for schemes of digital criminals peddling fake charities, rogue antivirus software or myriad other cons, the survey indicates. Middle-class earners are less likely to be victims, but folks earning more than $200,000 annually seem to be almost as gullible those living below the poverty line, it found.

Brits and Australians are more skeptical than their American counterparts, says the study, released by security firm PC Tools and survey firm The Ponemon Institute. Only those three nations were studied.

The vulnerable age result might surprise those used to the caricature of older folks who fumble their way through e-mail and Web pages.

"My gut tells me this is really surprising," said Larry Ponemon, who runs The Ponemon Institute. "Just with my own children, they grew up with technology. They are a lot smarter with these things, I thought. For me, it was a counterintuitive result. We found that in the UK and Australia as well."

But Stephen Greenspan, author of “Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid it,” said the young and uneducated are always the most vulnerable group because they often haven’t fully developed their skepticism sensors.

"As dumb as it is, a lot of people have responded (to an e-mail scam)," he said. "The biggest thing is how likely someone is to see through it."  

The study required a lot of self-reporting by victims on their own behavior, so its results should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, Greenspan said many of its findings were consistent with other research he's seen.

The survey found that scams involving a free prize or free antivirus software were the most successful with Americans, while online charity scams were only about half as likely to find victims. It also found that Americans in the Northeast and Southwest were most likely victims, while Midwesterners and residents of the Pacific Northwest were the most skeptical.

"I live in Michigan.  People here feel they have horse sense that have may not exist in other parts of the country," Greenspan said.

The study even waded into political territory, finding that Republicans and Democrats were about equally likely to be victims, while members of some "alternative" parties, like the Tea Party or the Green Party, rated better.  Independents were found to the most vulnerable.

The most susceptible target victim of all is a woman between 18 and 25, who lives in the Southwest, earns between $25,000 and $50,000 and doesn't hold a high school degree, the study says.  The most scam-proof demographic are is males aged 56 to 65 who've earned an advanced degree, live in the Midwest and earn between $150,000 and $200,000.

The study asked participants to rate how likely they were to fall for various scams, and also how likely they felt others in their demographic were to fall victim. Perhaps the most interesting finding in the study is how critical Americans are of other Americans' critical thinking.  In every category, Americans thought their compatriots were much more likely to fall for scams than Brits or Australians thought their countrymen to be.  Sixty-two percent of Americans, for example, believed other Americans would give a scammer their credit card number in exchange for a get-rich-quick opportunity, compared to just 43 percent of Australians.

"There is a sense in other parts of the world that Americans are naive," said Rich Clooke, a PC Tools spokesman.

The nations also differ radically when asked to define the best internal fraud-fighting tool. Americans seem to think they can outsmart con artists, as they ranked intellect (33 percent) as more important than natural skepticism (16 percent). Australians felt the opposite, ranking skepticism (38 percent) much higher than intellect (16 percent).

The number of survey takers who admitted they might fall for scams was surprisingly high across the board, Ponemon said.  Despite constant media attention to the problem, 53 percent of Americans thought they might click and download booby-trapped antivirus software.  Nearly 50 percent said they'd surrender personal information to download a free movie, and 55 percent said they'd give a potential scammer their cell phone number for a chance at a prize.

"People knew this was a survey about scams. ... You'd think they'd report themselves as less likely to fall for things," Clooke said. "I really think that complacency, not stupidity, is driving some of these results. Some people may have focused their lives around their computer and Facebook relationships (so) that they lose track of what's real."

Or, perhaps Internet users are finally getting the message that anyone can fall for a scam under the right circumstances.

"We all think we're better lie detectors than we are," said Greenspan, the gullibility expert. said.  He would know. He was a victim of Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme and lost about 30 percent of his retirement money when he invested in a Madoff feeder fund, persuaded by a friend who was a salesman for the fund.

Greenspan categorizes gullibility under a larger group of what he calls "foolish behaviors," and says four things contribute to someone being foolish at a particular moment: situation, cognition, personality and emotion. 

Situation usually involves our natural human tendency to move in packs and do what everyone else seems to be doing. Who wants to be the only person not making money during a booming stock market?

Cognition -- the ability to think through a potential scam -- can abandon potential victims. People of above average intelligence often fail to use that intelligence when conducting everyday business, like deciding whether or not to click on an e-mail.

Personality matters, or course.  Some people simply have weaker personalities that others, and are more susceptible to the power of suggestions. 

Meanwhile, emotion is almost always a tool of con artists. They'll urge you to act now because time is limited. They will wear you down with a lengthy sales pitch so you ultimately agree to purchase a time-share that you'd never buy if you were well-rested.

"You can make the point that the brain is (like a) muscle, and when it's tired, it doesn't function as well," Greenspan said. "That's where willpower fails.  It takes energy to resist."

One scam-proofing tactic suggested by Greenspan's model: Don't read e-mail late at night, or, at least, don't answer e-mail at night.

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