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Westminster language expert reveals the six language tricks financial fraudsters use

Linguistics 22 August 2017

Paul Breen

Dr Paul Breen, Senior Lecturer at the Westminster Professional Language Centre, has recently been involved in a national campaign to raise awareness of a phenomenon known as ‘vishing’, which refers to phishing scams enacted over the phone, with fraudsters masquerading as a trusted authority.

Vishing is a growing problem for UK banks and businesses. Recently published figures showed that the UK lost £2 million each day in 2016 to financial fraud. As a consequence, Financial Fraud Action UK have launched a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of this growing phenomenon.

Dr Breen became involved in this as a consequence of his background in qualitative research and linguistic analysis, and was tasked with analysing a set of phone calls and transcripts, ranging from a few minutes to whole scenarios broken up over a total of several hours, into different episodes. Through doing this, he was able to identify some of the most common techniques used by financial fraudsters to build up patterns of trust and scam members of the public into handing over financial or personal information over the telephone.

In his report, Dr Breen found that six ‘patterns of trust’ emerged from his analysis of real-life evidence drawn from recordings and transcripts of scam phone calls. Fraudsters will: 

  • Use snippets of information about you, gathered together from different sources, to sound like they know what they’re talking about
  • Create a false balance of power by using apologetic language for taking up your time to make you feel sympathetic towards them
  • Remain patient as they continue to build up layers of seeming authenticity until you’re convinced they’re legitimate
  • Assume the identity of someone in authority such as a fraud detection manager or a police officer investigating an ongoing crime
  • Welcome your scepticism and turn it into a weakness by acknowledging your concerns about being security conscious
  • Switch tempo and increase or decrease the pressure by creating a false sense of urgency or using understanding language

Even though most British people claim to be cautious of trusting strangers without meeting them - one in three (38 per cent) claim to ‘never really trust anyone’ when speaking over the phone – Dr Breen’s analysis of real-life frauds suggests that fraudsters are well prepared for our scepticism. He argues that by using the ‘patterns of trust’ approach, the financial fraudster can build up the appearance of legitimacy and get around our general wariness of strangers by mimicking patterns of language and behaviour that establish trust.

Dr Breen’s overall warning is that “The process used by fraudsters is carefully scripted from beginning to end – knowing the language fraudsters will use to mimic patterns of trust can help people to avoid becoming a victim.”

Take a look at Paul Breen’s short video for the national anti-fraud campaign Take Five on their official Twitter feed.


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