A case of suspected fraud

I had an odd experience a few weeks ago, related to the conference I just attended. The Australian organizers had volunteered to book my Boston-London flight. Then one afternoon I got a call from Charlotte, a travel agent who works in the U.S. branch of the organizers’ Australian travel agency. She thought the booking was probably fraudulent, and cited three reasons:

  1. The booking was issued in the name of one of the organizers, but I was listed as the traveler.
  2. The fare was unusually high.
  3. The email address, which concatenated the organizer’s name with the name of the travel agency, seemed odd to her.

She: “I’m pretty sure this is bogus.”

Me: “How would it be in someone’s interest to fraudulently book me a flight?”

She: “Who knows? It could be anything. When you’ve seen as much of this kind of thing as I have, you give up on trying to figure out people’s motives.”

Suddenly the whole thing felt wrong to me. I recalled how sparse the conference website had been when I’d last visited it the week before. The keynote speakers, including me, were listed, but everything else was placeholders. So I went back to the site and…nothing was there. Holy crap! Was it conceivable that the whole deal was some kind of malicious prank? That unlikely conclusion began to seem disturbingly likely when I googled around, found the organizer’s site and an affiliated academic site, and discovered that they were dead too.

Finally I found a page listing advisory board members, and called the person who lives closest to me, an academic in New Jersey. She verified that the company and conference were real. When I went back to recheck the websites they were up and running again, and the suspiciously sparse schedule was now fully populated.

My post-mortem analysis of this strange combination of circumstances raised a couple of interesting points:

Eyeballs on transactions.
After things got sorted out and the flight was booked, I had a long conversation with the travel agent. It seemed unusual that she had personally reviewed this transaction and, on her own initiative, flagged it as suspicious. Was that company policy, I asked? No, she said. The company mostly uses an automated system. It just happens that, in her remote branch office, Charlotte sees all the bookings, is motivated to review them, and brings substantial energy and intelligence to that task.

She told me she catches real fraud attempts every week or so. To the company at large, this is just spoilage. It gets written off as a cost of doing business. We assume that eyeballs on transactions are uneconomical. But is that really true? After this experience, and in view of my conversation with Paul English about the practicality of human-intensive customer service, I wonder if we should revisit that assumption.

Locality of trust.
This was an international conference, and the members of the advisory board live all around the world. The one I chose to contact, though, is the one who lives closest to me. Of course I’d be unlikely to call overseas first, because of long-distance tolls and time zones. But there were various folks in the U.S. I could have called, yet I picked the person who lives in New Jersey. Why? In retrospect I believe that’s because New Jersey is closer to my home than Illinois or California. Of course it’s completely irrational to trust a New Jerseyite more than a Californian for that reason. And yet, at a moment when nothing seemed certain, I acted out that irrational behavior. Trust shouldn’t diminish as the square of distance but, in our unconscious minds, I think it probably does. I’ll bet Jim Russell would agree.

All’s well that ends well. The conference organizers turned out to be really pleasant folks. (I’m downplaying their identities here, though you could triangulate them if you wanted to, because they’re naturally a bit embarrassed about what happened.) I enjoyed giving my talk, I met interesting people, I got to see Cambridge for the first time, it was a good trip. But for a couple of hours on that afternoon in December things were really weird!

12 Comments

  1. I guess you were feeling virtual for a second there.

    I’ve had similar experiences with webpage development: not knowing if a particular problem was my cache, ISP, or just the Google borg messing with my tired head when I keep tweaking something and it doesn’t go my way!

    Pretty wild stuff lol.

    btw: I’m in Greenville, just a hop away from Charlotte; chalk one up for eagle-eyed Southerners!

  2. I love Cambridge. Milton’s college town! Glad to hear everything worked out. Will the conference proceedings be online? Podcasts of talks? The topic seems ripe for online presence.

  3. > But there were various folks in the U.S. I could have called, yet
    > I picked the person who lives in New Jersey. Why?

    I would suggest you read Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” and then answer this question for yourself. Everything else being equal, we humans instinctively tend to trust people that are more ‘like’ us than people who are less ‘like’ us. For instance car salespeople will often play on this by asking where you are from and, if it’s out of state, claim to have relatives from that part of the country. In this case you needed to trust somebody from a list of otherwise unknown people so you picked the closest one.

    I highly recommend reading Cialdini’s book and learning about the other 5 principles that can be used to persuade you into doing something (reciprocity, consistency/commitment, social proof, scarcity, authority).

    Andrew.

  4. {{Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”}}

    On my wishlist, thanks.

    “In this case you needed to trust somebody from a list of otherwise unknown people so you picked the closest one.”

    In this case, actually, it isn’t strictly distance-related. Yes, New Jersey is closer to me in terms of distance than California, but it’s also closer in terms of family. I grew up in Philadephia and have family in PA and NJ.

    Had I grown up in California I’d likely have reached out to someone there first.

    But suppose I had no personal connection to either of the options. Would distance alone govern the choice?

  5. Concerning trust, I recommend “Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life” by Theodore M. Porter. For example, we could understand the standardization of measures and currency as “technologies of trust” that help states overcome the subjectivities of family and locality.

    I’m looking for an economist who might understand how one could build a trust market in an online community. It could be a futures market or there could be a form of trust currency used to buy information. Any suggestions?

  6. Your description of your behavior is actually much closer to Cialdini’s description of the ‘liking’ principle than I first thought. If you had no personal connection whatsoever I suspect one of the other principles would have come into play a little more. Maybe you would have looked to ‘authority’ by calling the chair of the advisory board, or maybe you would have gone down the ‘social proof’ route and called up a bunch of the board members and/or some of the other presenters. Or maybe you would found some other personal connection, however tenuous, to one of the board members (the car salesman doesn’t need to say he comes from the same state as you he just has to claim some sort of connection even if that is via relatives).

    I obviously can’t predict what you would have done and I do know that Cialdini’s persuasion principles are not hard and fast rules but it is amazing how often they seem to pop up in every day life.

    Andrew.

  7. “Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life” by Theodore M. Porter”

    Wow. That’s obscure enough to have evaded even Amazon’s wide net.

    – Jon

  8. “http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN0691029083”

    Nice. I keep forgetting that with Amazon, more precise queries can be worse. So this, even unquoted, fails:

    Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life

  9. I would suggest you read Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” and then answer this question for yourself. Everything else being equal, we humans instinctively tend to trust people that are more ‘like’ us than people who are less ‘like’ us. For instance car salespeople will often play on this by asking where you are from and, if it’s out of state, claim to have relatives from that part of the country. In this case you needed to trust somebody from a list of otherwise unknown people so you picked the closest one.

    Joan India Travel Guru

  10. Concerning trust, I recommend “Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life” by Theodore M. Porter. For example, we could understand the standardization of measures and currency as “technologies of trust” that help states overcome the subjectivities of family and locality.

    Mark Spain Travel Artist

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