The Hardwired to Trust Era

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What Netflix’s Inventing Anna and The Tinder Swindler can teach us about staying secure on and offline

Though we may sympathize with the victims, we love a good con artist story. Consider the popularity of Netflix’s recent productions Inventing Anna and The Tinder Swindler, featuring now infamous con artists who scammed their targets out of hundreds of thousands of dollars collectively. These stories appeal to us, in part, because we get a sense of schadenfreude. We feel good about our own intuitions, saying to one another, “Too bad for them, but there’s no way I’d fall for such a scam!” It’s a reasonable sentiment and it points to a deeper appeal: a good con artist story is a good lesson in judgment. If you’ve seen these shows, or heard anything about Anna Sorokin (aka Anna Delvey) or Simon Leviev, it’s highly unlikely you’d believe a rehash of the rich heiress socialite scam or that you’d be persuaded to wire your life savings to a stranger on a dating app. Without the hindsight, though—without the details of the story—would you be so discerning?

Today, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. The world is rife with con artists and their scams. There’s a pressure to improve our collective ability to identify those scams, especially on the internet. Ransomware is at an all-time high and its favorite access point is us, the users, because it turns out we’re probably not as discerning as we think. Sorokin and Leviev aren’t hackers (strictly speaking), but we can learn from their tactics. Ultimately, it comes down to understanding a little psychology.

Successful con artists have a keen sense for building trust with their marks. They’re exceptional actors with the ability to appeal to our best interests. The thing is, we want to trust each other. Neuroscience indicates that we are hardwired to trust, that trust is integral to the survival of our species. It’s why folks keep getting conned, even in an age where we can conduct cursory background checks on social media. It’s why, at their core, the scams of old are largely the same. Cultural spotlight shone on Inventing Anna and The Tinder Swindler heighten our awareness for a time but pretending to be wealthy and powerful to gain real wealth and power is nothing new.

Classic cons have proliferated and evolved online. The advance-fee scam (you know, the Nigerian money transfer scam) is still defrauding people in the year 2022. It’s based on a confidence trick from the early 19th century called the Spanish Prisoner trick. One might think, after more than two centuries, everybody would be aware of this trick and its variations, and it would be worthless for anyone to try it. And yet, it lives on because it appeals to the natural human trait of credulity.

If we’re susceptible to social engineering because of our inclination to trust, how can we stay safer online and offline while going about our daily tasks (several of which require a basic level of trust)? We can’t override our DNA, but security parameters greatly aid our shortcomings in cyberspace. We rely on tools like firewalls to monitor and control incoming and outgoing traffic. Our accounts are password-protected. There are even zero-trust frameworks that remove all inherent trust in a network. Still, determined con artists find a way.

While we wait for our internal software to upgrade, improving judgment requires us to be careful. It’s impossible to know the full scope of another’s motivations and intentions, especially online. Sorokin and Leviev both convincingly portrayed themselves as having good intentions (at least at the outset of their cons). We should be mindful of our desire to trust. We should take some time to consider that, though we may want something to be true—especially if we are prompted to take a big initial step—it could be a swindle. We can’t let credulity and fear cloud gut instinct, another deeply ingrained survival trait. I think we have a lot to learn about how we trust (and how trust is maintained) from con artists—hopefully without being conned ourselves.

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