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“Scammers get you under that emotional ether, putting that fear in you of missing out on the opportunity,” says Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network. Fraudsters are using FOMO like a secret sauce to push fake government grants, celebrity impostor scams, romance rackets and cryptocurrency fraud, Nofziger adds.

“We see other people that supposedly got really lucky, and we think that could be us,” she says.

FOMO is such a pervasive fraud tactic that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently warned consumers about investment scams that use it. Trouble is, FOMO is hardwired into our brains, says Brooke Struck, research director of the Decision Lab in Montreal. “We fear loss much more than we get excited by equivalent gains,” he says. And FOMO, Struck adds, has two flavors: “We worry about feeling bad in the future — anticipated regret — and we fear falling behind” others.

FOMO used to be seen as afflicting mostly the young and impressionable. But in August 2020, Washington State University psychologist Chris Barry published a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships that found strikingly similar FOMO levels at all ages. FOMO was linked with loneliness, lower self-esteem and having less compassion for yourself.

AARP’s October 2021 “Fraud Frontiers” survey of 3,280 people showed similar findings. Compared with scam avoiders, scam victims were up to five times more likely to feel lonely and 63 percent more likely to do something they later regretted when feeling bad. They also reported getting swept up in feelings of hope, happiness and excitement when dealing with a scammer.

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