Life

Why Online Scams Overwhelmingly Target Straight People

Despite being very gay and very online, I still only get spam emails from "people" of the Gina and Anastacia variety.
April 19, 2021, 10:57am
VICE_Chadwoodcock_lilylk

These days, opening Facebook puts you at the very real risk of being invited to a 5G phone mast protest by someone with a “Be Kind” sticker on their profile pic. With that in mind, I try to avoid it at all costs, but when Messenger recently told me I had a DM from a guy called “Chad Woodcock”, I couldn’t help but click to see what this very real person wanted from me.

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“Chad’s” profile doesn’t exist anymore, but he looked like he’d been created in a hot guy laboratory and, as luck would have it, he wanted some “freaky” sex with me. Why am I telling you about Chad? Aside from him being a regulation bottie, a himbot and quite possibly the bot that got away, it struck me that this was the first time a male scammer – or anyone posing as a man – had ever tried to scam me.

Despite being very gay and very online, my “requested” DMs folder on Instagram, Twitter and Messenger are full of “people” of the Gina, Anastacia and Kelsey variety. In my junk mail, I’ve got the same problem. No matter how many articles I write about bottoming or gay men walking fast, how many Richard Madden thirst tweets or GIFs of Emma Roberts saying “surprise, bitch” that I post, there’s no end to the messages from women.

Replying “did you just assume my sexuality?” to Katerina doesn’t feel like it’ll get me anywhere. But after realising the queer erasure that exists in spam and scam mail, I resolved to investigate why it’s so overwhelmingly heterosexual – even when it’s targeting someone as loudly gay as me.

Spam mail and obvious scams have become a standard part of our online experience, but it’s curious that most of us don’t really know much about them. Do their origins have anything to do with how heteronormative they are?

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Cybersecurity expert Graham Cluley tells me that online scams – from spam mail to those sexualised “I want to talk to you” DMs on Facebook and Instagram – can originate from anywhere in the world, but they’re most likely to use English as a language. “English is seen as the lingua franca of the internet,” he says. “If your message was sent in Portuguese, you’re instantly limiting your chance of hitting your target.” 

Cluley sees spam mail as a numbers game, so the fact that scams are often more heterosexual than a gender reveal party at the Love Island villa is probably connected to that. “The scammers realise that only a tiny proportion of people are likely to respond to the bot, and so their interest is more in hitting a lot of people rather than spending time weeding out those they think are unlikely to be interested,” he says. “For the scammer, it’s really not any more costly or time consuming to send spam messages to 1,000 people than ten.”

Although scams can originate from anywhere in the world, James Ball, author of The System: Who Owns the Internet, and How It Owns Us, tells me Russia, Nigeria and Thailand are hotspots. “It's often to do with where people picked up on it early, where there was internet access and people who speak English, but don’t have as many opportunities in the traditional economy,” he says.

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The geographical origin of specific scams is sometimes legible from their name. For instance, the advance-fee scam – the one where you get an email from the “estate of a prince”, who wants to give you millions of dollars (...as long as you send him some of your money first) – is called a “419 scam”. This comes from article 419 in the Nigerian penal code, which scams like this are in violation of. So given that Nigeria and Russia in particular aren’t exactly known for being LGBTQ+ inclusive, this could be another reason why gay scams are so rare.

Spam mail has gone up a gear in lockdown. I’m receiving numerous social media messages every day (as opposed to emails in my junk folder), which feels new. Cluley thinks the move to unsolicited DMs could be partly driven by desperation, because email spam filters are now better than ever. “It has become harder for spammers to get eyeballs on their email spam, so they have increasingly used social media instead,” he says. “Social media sites still have some way to go before they rival the reasonably good anti-spam defences that the likes of Gmail has in place today.”

There’s also the fact that, over the pandemic, we’ve all been staring at our phones and screens a lot more than normal. In amongst the noise, Ball thinks the best scams shock us in some way when our guard is down. One of the most effective scams, he says, is where an “official” email is sent from a utility company or from HMRC (the UK tax collector), in which recipients are given a jolt of panic that they owe money: “People click the link and log in, even to check how legitimate it is – and boom, they’ve already been caught in that moment of panic.” 

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But romance scams (the “nastiest” and “most humiliating”, according to Ball) can still work. A quick Google shows plenty of examples of victims, and the fact that sexy spam mail is a daily part of our lives tells us there must be money to be made. Right now, when people have been trapped indoors and lonely, scams like the ones I’m being mistakenly targeted with might be more alluring. And even in “normal times”, we’ve all heard stories – or watched them on MTV’s Catfish – of seemingly smart people who get tricked into believing a fake romance is real. 

The answer to why these scams might actually work (no matter how obviously fake they seem) and why they’re so straight might lie in social psychology. Dr Sharon Coen, senior lecturer in media and social media psychology at the University of Salford, tells me that the effectiveness of scams relates to “routes of persuasion” in our brains. According to social psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, there are two main routes of persuasion. First, there’s the “central” route.

“This is the rational side,” Coen says. “We’re good at identifying that we’re being tricked and we can resist attempts to scam us based on our existing knowledge. We can make reasoned arguments and evaluate the quality of the information that we are getting.” 

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The other route, which scammers prey on, is called the “peripheral” route. “This route to persuasion is a lot less reliant on rationality; it’s more of a gut reaction. This means you do not necessarily process the information in the same way,” Coen explains. “Scammers are very well aware of the fact that they can design a message in a way that pushes the recipient down the peripheral route to persuasion. Suggesting the potential for romance or sex with a desirable person is designed to provoke that reaction and foster your compliance.”

So in the situation that Coen is describing, the emotional “jolt” that Ball mentions is coming from a rush at a potential romance. She thinks we also shouldn’t assume we could never become the victim of such a scam, as when our guards are lowered and other factors are added into the mix – like loneliness during a pandemic – who knows what can happen.

Psychology-wise, it’s also much easier to tell when someone else is being scammed, she says, than when you are the victim. Personally, I did open that random DM from “Chad Woodcock”, having become accustomed to ignoring messages from strangers with a feminine name. So even I, for a split second, became a little more open to persuasion based on that one simple adjustment. 

Social psychology might also tell us why, beyond the numbers, people (including scammers) often assume strangers are heterosexual on the internet. Social psychologist Russell Spears calls this tendency the “de-individualisation hypothesis”. Coen explains that, when we go online in a more anonymous or semi-anonymous environment – where there’s less information about people – we rely more on social norms.

“The less information you have about the person, the more likely you are to rely on ‘what’s normal’ in society,” she says. “So if sex and relationship scams are a way to make money from strangers, the norm of heterosexuality becomes very important to scammers.”

It’s certainly not breaking news that heterosexuality is normalised across society, including online. In 1980, queer theorist Adrienne Rich coined the term “compulsory heterosexuality” to describe the process of how this norm is rigidly enforced. But ultimately, the straightness of spam mail and scam messages seems to be primarily driven by easy money. The internet is the main space where people access sexually explicit material and others profit from it, so straightness seems to be the most sellable (and scammable) product. 

Eventually, where there’s an opportunity for enough money to be made from gay men like me, the scam market will probably adapt and target us in some way. And thanks to my new husband “Chad”, there’s a small sign that scams might be diversifying already. In the meantime, straight people better check their privilege, because not all of us have the luxury of seeing our lived experience reflected in scams.

“Chad Woodcock” might have sent the first gay scam DM at Stonewall, but the heteronormative patriarchy of spam is still overwhelming – and the fight for queer scam visibility goes on. 

@LouisStaples / @lilylk_