How to sell fake bomb detectors – psychology explains how James McCormick succeeded for so long?
Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham
The ‘Advanced Detection Equipment’ was based on a golf ball finder device and sold for up to £27,000 in some of the most dangerous parts of the world such as Iraq, Georgia, Saudi Arabia, China, Kenya, South Africa and Mexico.
But how was it possible that a former electrical salesman could bank up to £60m selling something found to be utterly useless – based on a novelty £13 golf ball finder – for over a decade to security forces, including Governments, police and the UN?
Incidentally it is not at all certain that the device would have reliably found golf balls.
Six thousand of these devices are reported to have been sold to the Iraqi government alone and officers involved in the case claim it is inconceivable that a device hasn’t gone through checkpoints and exploded as a result of McCormick’s scam.
The psychology of the case demonstrates all the classic emotional elements that are repeated in stings.
At the heart of these scams are confidence tricksters who have grasped how to manipulate to their ends.
McCormick may have blinded those he was selling the devices to with obviously bogus science. Those in charge of buying them appear to have fallen for the classic trap of not wanting to appear ignorant of the sophisticated physics involved in explosives, by asking straightforward questions.
If everyone else in a room nods their heads wisely on hearing an explanation for something we haven’t understood at all, how many of us would have the courage to complain that an account makes no sense to us? We tend to assume the fault must lie in our own intelligence, and keep quiet, a human frailty which confidence tricksters exploit mercilessly.
McCormick’s fake bomb detection kits were apparently labelled with stickers from the ‘Essex Chamber of Commerce’ and the ‘International Association of Bomb Technicians’, and this is another classic ploy – invoke authority from elsewhere, as backing you up.
Again, we tend to be overly impressed by endorsements from the influential (which is why advertisers like to use celebrities). In a high stakes situation it is always worth doing your own checks, that any scheme or device you are being flogged has been properly investigated, preferably by some independent, scientific and academically rigorous body.
Another key psychological factor in this scam was the high stakes and high stress nature of the enterprise. When people are anxious they tend to desperately seek comfort, and McCormick was providing easy reassurance. His past life as a salesman was possibly crucial to this bit of the dodge.
We don’t know what his competition was like from real devices, but we suspect he may have provided a cheaper and more accessible alternative, which cash strapped organisations might have been only too grateful for.
Once McCormick had managed to convince one Government agency to buy his useless equipment, we suspect another key psychological element to the scam kicked in which is our natural ‘herd’ instinct – a tendency to be overly impressed that others have made the same decision before us.
The powerful psychology of group conformity has been demonstrated over and over again in social psychology laboratories – if we find ourselves surrounded by others performing a behaviour, even if it doesn’t make sense to us, we tend to fall into line and conform.
Interestingly once one person in a group breaks cover and rebels, it gets enormously easier for the rest to resist.
But given the urgent need to protect your colleagues from bombs, unless you had an alternative proposal that was as cheap and available as McCormick’s, it could have appeared your objections were just putting colleagues at risk.
A key element of the psychology working in fraudsters favour is they pick alluring solutions to problems which don’t often have easy alternatives. It would have been difficult we suspect for McCormick to have penetrated this market had it already been saturated with cheap and effective solutions.
But once the device failed to work out in the field, why it wasn’t picked up as useless sooner?
You would have to be adept at handling explosives in order to properly independently test the device for yourself. Who would want to subject it to something personally difficult and dangerous?
Plus scam artists are usually good at explaining away apparent failures as down to other variables outside of the device itself. How many of us have been told that ‘human error’ explains why something we bought doesn’t work properly?
Fraudsters are in ever escalating arms race to find new ways to dupe us. Given we can never keep abreast of the fast pace of technology (McCormick probably exploited this widespread resignation), so can we rely on our intuitions instead?
Psychologists Christopher Davis, Jennifer Thake and John Weekes from Carleton University, Canada, tested 11,370 recently incarcerated male offenders, and found those scoring higher on ‘impression management’ were more likely than those scoring low, to be convicted of the most morally reprehensible crimes (homicide, sexual assault, pedophilia, and incest), and are more likely to receive longer sentences.
The study recently published and entitled ‘Impression managers: Nice guys or serious criminals?’ and published in the ‘Journal of Research in Personality’ suggests you should perhaps beware the person trying hardest to appear most virtuous.
This is possibly a particularly apposite finding given the current spate of arrests and charges of those previously considered admirable and popular.
Also, always ask yourself what is the basic motivation underlying why someone is trying to sell or persuade.
McCormick’s lavish lifestyle and apparent lack of interest in explosives science, we venture to suggest, could have been a warning clue. Instead it is probable his commercial success was interpreted as yet another endorsement of the effectiveness of his device.
A former employee of the company which produced the devices, reportedly recalled that when McCormick was challenged that the ‘detectors’ did not work, he responded “yes they do, they make lots of money.”