Very recently I was the unfortunate pawn in a clever telephone scam. While I luckily did not wind up losing any money, I did lose over an hour of my time, and I lost some pride as well. The short version is that I was informed by a very official-sounding caller that I had missed jury duty and that I must pay a fine or be arrested; how I was instructed to pay the fine was convoluted at best.
Luckily I was able to reach my partner over DM and he was able to call the sheriff's office and find out pretty quickly that this was not a reputable caller. In fact, this was such a common scam that the sheriff knew immediately what this was and said that I should hang up.
But here's the truly strange thing; even as I stayed on the line with the caller for an hour, I was suspicious that this was a scam. I had heard of scams like this, and yet this caller had an answer to everything and assured me over and over that this was not a scam.
My partner had DM'd me that yes, this is a scam, the sheriff confirmed it and yet I kept debating whether I should hang up. It felt as though I just couldn't be sure what was really true. The caller was saying that if I hung up US Marshals would come and handcuff me. I was experiencing genuine conflict over what to do in that moment. I felt physically uncomfortable and tearful and unable to make a decision.
I did finally hang up, but it took a lot of convincing from my partner and really the exhaustion of the situation had become unbearable. I wasn't soothed from my stressed feelings, I was just resigned. I began to feel as though even if US Marshals did show up, I could at least talk to someone in person and stop feeling this confusing gas-lighted feeling.
Thinking back on it now, of course I can see how illogical it was. But that is with the benefit of time for calm and rational reflection. During the phone call, I felt as though there was an imminent threat, which had me reacting in a "fight, flight, freeze" manner, and I was definitely in "freeze." The indecision, the confusion of holding two disparate ideas in my mind at the same time - this is a scam, but what if this isn't a scam? - had me paralyzed.
While there's a part of me that wonders how this could possibly have happened to me, another part of me understands all too well how this happened. Everything that he said and the way it was presented was calculated to increase my stress level and lower my ability for critical thinking.
The caller informed me that he would have to stay on the phone with me until I'd completed the stated list of "procedures," and he did this for a psychological reason. If I don't have time to pause and take a breath, I'm more likely to stay in the state of heightened stress, remain confused, and not think clearly. He's more likely to get my money.
I don't tell this story to garner sympathy, nor really to raise awareness about telephone scams, I bring this up to shed light on the fact that our own brains have the same capacity to dupe us. Without any help from an outside source, our brains alone can "scam" us into believing things that aren't based in reality and keep us feeling paralyzed.
Anyone with anxiety will tell you that part of themselves understands that when they experience this sort of stress that what they fear isn't based in reality. Yet somehow the fear of "what if" is enough to keep them in a state of stress that isn't easily soothed, even by others trying to reassure them of what is "true."
The best way to defeat any scammer, whether they call us on the phone or whisper to us from somewhere deep within our own psyche is to pause and take a breath. And to keep breathing until thoughts start to make sense again and you can look at the situation through your most Spock-like logical lens and then decide what to do next. Then take a moment to talk with yourself and remind yourself of what you know to be rooted in reality.
And when in doubt, hang up the phone.