If you define a “scam” as a system designed to trick people into purchasing something they didn’t really want to purchase, the internet - and the real world - are rife with scams. Almost every business, no matter its size, uses every trick it can think of to convince people to purchase its products.
Scams are not created equal, though.
I define a terrible scam as one which most of the target audience can see through right away, and which makes them distrustful the minute they spot it (which is pretty much instant). That’s pretty terrible, because it creates huge amounts of bad will. Even if you’re a professional scammer (as opposed to a legitimate business trying to sell a product by all means available), you want to avoid those - although somehow, a great many professional scammers (e.g. 419ers and other viagra spammers) seem to specialise in it.
Spam is a great example, but so are all those “get paid to work from home” websites out there. They’re scams, preying on desperate people, and the vast majority of people out there can see right through them and immediately distrust the originators of such schemes.
Being so transparent, they’re not all that effective, really. Perhaps the reason why professional scammers specialise in this lower grade of scam is because they can’t do any better. Those who can at least create a bad scam will work for real companies.
Bad scams are those which still breed resentment when seen through, but which most of the target audience doesn’t see through. A great example of this would be bank charges. Most people won’t even begin to think that the banks are scamming them by applying over-hefty charges for non-existent “administration tasks” linked to overdrafts. They’ll resent it a little when they pay, but they won’t see it as an outright swindle and challenge it as such.
Another good example would be high-interest credit cards. In the past, these were called usurers. Today, they run credit card departments in large stores worldwide.
Yet another example: some real estate companies often spam free property search sites with attractive listings that aren’t actually available when you call them up (try going through findaproperty and calling up the agencies, you’ll see). Most people seem not to figure this scam out, but when they do realise it, they generally don’t feel very happy about it at all.
Bad scams are not terrible, because at least most people don’t figure them out. We all wish they didn’t exist, but the companies that use them at least get some returns out of them from a majority of their target market, so, unlike viagra spam, they’re at least not completely boneheaded.
And then, finally, there’s also good scams. Those are the ones which few people figure out, and which those who see through them don’t mind so much. What could that be? How could anyone fall for a scam and still feel good about it? I’m not quite sure, but I suspect it’s all about creating the right emotional blanket around the scam.
Let’s have an example, then. Mobile telcos (at least in the UK), have become masters of the good scam. They scam consumers from at least two perspectives.
The first one is free minutes. Almost any monthly contract in the UK will include some number of free minutes, which are basically prepaid minutes that expire at the end of the month. It’s a blatant scam - you’re paying for something so intangible that it doesn’t even exist until you use it up. And of course a large number of “free” minutes go unused by the time the end of the month and expire silently into the pocket of the telcos. Yet, and this may be hard to understand for people in countries where this is not the norm, most people would feel at least a little distressed about being offered a contract that doesn’t include any free minutes.
I’m not sure why exactly that is. I guess it’s a combination of using the word “free” and of emotional associations generated through clever marketing, but somehow, most people in the UK, even when they realise that free minutes are a scam, don’t mind so much, and actually want to be scammed. If you have any better theories, please do share them in the comments.
The next one is the monthly contracts that sponsor the price of the phone. In absolute terms, it’s a scam. People are paying more than they would if the “buy a new phone every 12-18 months” virus was not injected into the contract. And it also strongly encourages consumers to actually buy a new phone (and lock themselves into a new contract) every 12-18 months. Yet, once again, it’s nice to get a new phone “for free” or at a large discount, and the result is actually that a lot of people have cool phones even though in a more rational world they would choose to spend their money on something else.
So once again, most people who fall prey to that scam don’t mind, and would even feel bad about the scam being taken away, even when they do realise it’s a scam. That’s brilliant.
What do you think? Is a good scam more ethical than a bad or terrible one? Would you prefer if most scams were good rather than bad or terrible? Would there be a benefit to the world at large if scammers learnt to create better scams that actually make us want to be scammed?
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