“Fleecing the Flock”: How affinity scammers use your identity against you

In another life, I used to write about a lot about sheep.

Yup. Sheep.

I used to write about a lot of animals, actually.  My job was to explain how different landscape and livestock tools worked.  Wild animal repellents, animal fencing, those really creepy fake owls you put on top of your barn to freak wild birds out—that sort of thing.  To understand why those sorts of products work and how to use them properly, you have to understand why animals act the way they do.

So, now I know a lot a lot about sheep.  And I’ve had a linguistic bone to pick with a lot of people ever since.

Sheep are the most slandered animal in our language.  If you’re going with the crowd, you’re being a sheep.  If you hold a popular belief someone else disagrees with, they’ll probably call you a sheep.  To be a sheep means you’re the kind of person who goes with the group.  It means you share the same opinions as the rest of the “flock.”  The implication is you’re too weak or stupid to go it alone, so you find 30 of your friends and do what they do instead of forming your own opinions or behaviors.

But if you know sheep—or at least, if you’ve had to do a lot of Googling about them in order to write promotional materials—you know this is not at all the reality of flocking behavior.

Sheep are NOT stupid.  Far from it, as a matter of fact.

The flocking behavior we see in social animals is actually pretty genius.  When you’re not strong enough to stand up to a wolf on your own, you’re safer when you stick with your friends.  Flocking animals rely on having dozens of eyes on the ground to look for the slightest sign of danger—that’s why they follow each other so closely.

Sheep aren’t the only animals known to get by with a little help from their friends.  Without our cooperative social nature, humans would likely not have shot straight up to the top of the food chain as quickly as we have.

Much like sheep, we rely on other people in our communities on a daily basis to do all the things we need to do.  And we absolutely depend on our flocks to stay safe from would-be predators.

Our flocks are more than just our family and friends.  Whether we realize it or not, we form flocks based on any number of shared traits, experiences, and identities: sharing an alma mater, a religious belief, a locality, a political affiliation, an ethnicity, a language, or a place of work.  We tend to trust others more when we have things in common with them.  You can probably think of at least a few people in your life you may have trusted almost immediately—despite being strangers—based on a few shared traits or values.

It’s not a bad thing most of us do this.  We make lifelong friends because we are able to quickly identify commonality and bond over it.  But when we do that too readily, the tendency to trust those we view as part of our flock can be dangerous—especially when we’re dealing with a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

There is a term for the types of scams that rely on people’s tendency to trust those they perceive as similar to them.  It’s called affinity fraud.  Affinity scams are scams—usually investment scams—that exploit a target audience by dressing those scams up to be everything that audience would trust by default: someone just like them.

While not every scam targeted toward a specific group is a textbook affinity scam, many of them are. 

Seniors are one example of a flock—a group of people who share a specific age range and many of the unique experiences that come with being that age.  Seniors would be far more likely to trust pitches made to them by other seniors or senior-adjacent people or causes.  This is why so many scammers opt to pretend to be from Medicare or the Social Security Administration.  A retiree target deals with those programs every day.  They trust those organizations.  These scams aren’t classic investment affinity scams, but they are successful because they use affinity tactics.

The most recognized affinity scams are those targeting religious groups.  Religious people have a great deal of trust in their churches, other members of their religious sect, and causes related to religion.  Someone who might be very wary of answering their phone and handing out their information to just anyone might not question a stranger claiming to be part of their religion asking for a donation for the church.  This behavior is exactly why churchgoers have lost MILLIONS of dollars to fraudulent investments and Ponzi schemes committed by fellow church members or bogus church organizations.

Another example of a classic affinity scam is this story of a pair of Cambodian immigrants who targeted other Cambodian immigrants to participate in a $30 million Ponzi scheme.  The scammers flaunted the wealth and comfortable lifestyle many immigrants dream about when moving to the United States, using it to convince their kinsmen to contribute their hard-earned money to an amazing “investment opportunity.”  In 2007, these scammers were sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.

An affinity scammer can use almost any part of someone’s identity to gain their trust.  But the most basic affinity scam is one where someone is simply targeting their own friends and family.  Why?  Because those people already trust them simply for being them.  It’s the simplest way to get money from someone, but it’s probably the most tragic, too.

Anyone can fall prey to these scams.  Everyone has something about their identity that can be exploited to gain their trust.

But seniors are particularly vulnerable to affinity fraud.  Seniors have more assets than younger people.  Seniors have retirement nest eggs and savings accounts.  If an affinity scammer is looking for someone likely to have at least one account or asset they can tap immediately to get a few thousand dollars to invest, they’re probably looking for a retiree.

Not only that, but seniors tend to be very active in church communities and charities.  Many seniors choose to spend their retirement volunteering or participating in community activism.  Seniors are a group of people known to be generous with their time and money when it comes to higher causes.  This is exactly the personality type an affinity scammer looks for: the kind of person who will contribute to something bigger than themselves.  The fact that retirees also tend to have bank accounts with readily available cash is icing on the cake.

Because these scammers are playing on the trust you have for those who share some of your most intimate and passionate beliefs—or even the love you have for them as a friend—these scams are some of the most damaging of all.  The money lost is bad enough, but trauma, shame, and devastation of having your trust destroyed by someone you may have cared about can follow you the rest of your life.  Sometimes the victims of these scams never move past what was done to them.

Protecting yourself from affinity scammers starts with understanding every single one of us is at heart a sheep.  I don’t mean that in the negative pop culture sense of the word, but rather in the sense that we all have the exact same need to stick with our flock as the animal we like to make fun of.  The reason we’re so quick to trust people like us is because we SHOULD be able to trust each other, especially when have so much in common.

But humans are predators, too.  For every one of us just trying to enjoy some grass with our friends, there’s another person who sees a field of fresh lamb chops.

Whether it’s an absolute stranger, someone loosely associated with certain things you are, or someone you’ve known for years, there can be no difference in the level of scrutiny with which you examine ANY investment proposal made to you.  The temptation to trust certain people over others will always be there, but you can’t allow anyone to override your common sense when it comes to your check book.

Verify every detail of the pitch made to you independently.  Take nothing someone asking you for money says for granted.  Get as much information about the opportunity as you can and do your own independent research to verify the legitimacy of their claims.

Do not succumb to grandiose emotional appeals, guilt tactics, or pressure to give someone your money.  This is true of ALL kinds of scams.  If someone is trying to guilt you into giving them money (“don’t you trust me, we’ve known each other for years,” “but I helped YOU all those times—why won’t you help ME?”), don’t make a knee-jerk decision you’ll regret.  The more someone pressures you emotionally instead of listing the data-based reasons why an investment is good, the more you need to be wary.

Make sure absolutely everything is done in writing—no handshakes, no verbal agreements, and no money exchanged without a legitimate receipt.  Everyone knows this, but this tends to really go out the window when dealing with a friend, family member, or someone close to you who you trust.  Never give someone a substantial amount of money without the paperwork.  And if that person balks at you requesting such a thing?  It’s not because they’re worried about YOUR best interests, if you catch my drift.

Consult a financial planner or lawyer in absolutely every major financial investment.  If you aren’t a financial professional, chances are good you won’t really know the full extent of what you’re getting involved in.  Never stroke a huge check to anyone without talking to a pro.  If there’s something fishy about the arrangement, a financial advisor will see it right away.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”  It’s pretty hard to tell someone how to avoid getting affinity scammed.  The red flags may not be flying as high or as bright as with other scams, and because victims trust the scammer, what few flags are visible might be hidden by fog.  But one ancient bit of wisdom will always serve you well here: beware of investment opportunities promising mind-blowing returns or rewards.  The bigger the promises, the smaller the chance what you’re being told is true.  If there’s one glaring warning sign, it will probably be this one.

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