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Written by: Mike Yang

LAS VEGAS–One of the difficulties in protecting against phone fraud scams is actually detecting them. Technology certainly helps, but in a lot of cases, it’s up to the potential victim on the other end of the line to figure it out for himself.
That has turned out to be a fairly high hurdle for a variety of reasons, one of which is that many people aren’t all that good at recognizing the subtle differences in speech, discourse patterns, and syntax that can signal a problem. Phone scammers count on this and work hard to exploit it by using conversational tricks and tactics to push victims to the place they want them to go. A key part of this plan is to make the story they’re telling–whether it’s about unpaid taxes or money transfers or a Nigerian prince–sound like it requires urgent action on the part of the victim.
Judith Tabron of Hofstra University has studied various phone scams and the ways that the scammers use language tricks to dupe victims, and found that the urgency is a vital part of their game.
“The scammers are trying to pull you into a current emergency. That’s part of the goal. They’re not telling you a story, it’s a malformed story,” Tabron said during a talk at the Black Hat conference here Thursday.
“It’s probably the toughest thing to recognize in the moment, though. It’s a violation of the narrative structure that we’re expecting.”
Constructing that malformed story takes work, though, and one of the building blocks is the use of polar tag questions. Those are questions along the lines of: Turn off the TV, ok? It’s the kind of question that people essentially never say no to, and phone scammers rely on that, Tabron said. Noticing the use of repeated polar tag questions can help victims identify scam calls, she said.
“If you can notice those, it’s helpful. If they’re ending every conversational turn with a polar tag question, there’s a reason for that,” she said. “It’s a test.”
The scammer wants to get the victim to start agreeing with the questions so he can establish a rapport and move on to the next step of the scam, which is extracting whatever money he’s after. Getting that money is the ultimate goal, and the use of coercive language to intimidate the victim is often a part of the play, too.
“Not all phone scams have coercive language in them, but a lot of them do,” Tabron said. “There’s a lot of bullying that goes on in the wire transfer scams. A lot of, Do this or you’re fired.”
But Tabron said just telling potential victims to be wary about these calls doesn’t necessarily help very much. Detecting fraudulent behavior is a more viable solution.
“Telling people to be hyper-vigilant doesn’t work. You have to tell people what to look for,” she said.