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The rise of fraud in pop culture is impacting consumers’ digital trust

Shows such as The Tinder Swindler and Inventing Anna were big money-earners for Netflix in 2022, but Onfido’s Mike Tuchen says their popularity risks damaging consumer trust

From The Tinder Swindler to Inventing Anna, true crime documentaries and dramatisations found a prominent place in popular culture in 2022. The Netflix specials captivated audiences’ attention and curiosity about identity fraud, fraudsters and their victims.

While true crime TV shows, podcasts, and movies give insights into real-world fraud activity, as many as 65% of UK consumers report that the popularisation of fraud has changed their perception of crime, causing many to be increasingly cautious when it comes to online safety.

Whether or not brands believe the actual threat to their customers has increased, they should respond to trends that change the way their customers think about them.

Inspiration is everywhere

It’s no wonder that fraud and cyber crime are inspiring content makers and capturing the public imagination. After all, it’s all around us. Following a spike in online fraud during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has yet to drop back to pre-pandemic levels, with an estimated global cost of £4.37 trillion - fully 6.4% of the world’s GDP. Onfido’s 2023 Identity Fraud Report also showed that hyper-connectivity has helped fraudster activity evolve to become 24/7. Everyone knows someone who has been affected.

Clearly, imposters, counterfeiters and thieves are working around the clock to attack and defraud. But while businesses need to prioritise security and compliance to defend against malicious actors, at the same time they need to build customer trust. As the rising incidence of fraud spills over into popular culture, it’s important to understand the impact this is having, both on consumer perceptions of online crime and how those consumers engage with brands as a result.

Fraud fame stories leave a mark

Society’s fascination with crime is not a new phenomenon. Whodunnits, police dramas, and heist movies of all sorts have always had a place in popular culture. However, The Tinder Swindler and Inventing Anna introduced a new dimension - stories about real people in situations relatable to almost everyone. This served to make fraud far more accessible instead of being less tangible than other forms of crime. Suddenly, a broader audience could see just how easy it is for them to be defrauded.

We surveyed 2,000 US and UK consumers and found that the influence of fraud documentaries or dramatisations has made six out of 10 consumers more cautious about trusting others online - perhaps with good reason. Americans lost more than $1bn last year after falling victim to “romance scams” such as the one portrayed in 'The Tinder Swindler', according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).

For some consumers, however, exposure to fraud culture sent them the other way, perhaps trivialising it and luring them into a false sense of security. Almost one in five consumers said they believe they would not fall for identity fraud at all. Although this complacency is concerning, the good news is that an even greater proportion of those watching fraud-based content admitted it made them think fraud is easier to carry out than they had thought.

While it’s hard to discern whether this means more consumers would imitate the criminals they observe on the screen in copycat mode, less sophisticated fraudsters are a far more common sight compared to last year. The report showed that less sophisticated fraud jumped by 23% this year to reach 73% of all fraud - attributed to both the broader availability of offensive technology and the increasingly automated nature of fraud attacks. Economically it’s simply more efficient to focus on increasing the quantity of attacks rather than painstakingly increasing their quality, with criminals producing low-quality fake documents en masse until some slip through a business’s defences.

Catering to the cautious consumer

Although some consumers are emboldened by fraud portrayals in popular culture, many others are increasingly wary of when and where they share personal information. More than a quarter (26%) of consumers admitted to being more sceptical of online businesses, while 35% said they would withhold personally identifiable information when engaging with them. If ignorance was bliss when it comes to fraud, broader awareness is changing the landscape, and consumers are taking steps to protect themselves.

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But that’s not to say they don’t want digital services. Indeed, businesses are doubling down on these due to the efficiency and convenience they enable, while many consumers opt for them as their preferred method of brand engagement. As awareness of fraud grows and perceptions change, businesses must consider the potential financial and reputational damage of losing consumer trust.

What does this mean for businesses? They need to show their customers how they’re keeping them safe. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of consumers said that they would use online businesses and digital services more if there was evidence that attempts were being made to verify their identity to deter fraud. Clearly, reviewing how consumers access online services, from the moment they onboard and register, can help grow their trust in businesses, and prove identity protection is being taken seriously. Customers should be regularly reminded that their safety is a priority, as businesses listen to their concerns and digital preferences.

Final curtain for fraud

While there is an abundance of research on why society is fascinated with true crime, there is less attention paid to how this influences consumer behaviour, and what it means for the companies charged with protecting them from the fraudsters they are increasingly familiar with.

As the rise of fraud stories in popular culture impacts consumer perceptions of the both criminals they portray as well as the prevalence of fraud, businesses must be sensitive to the knock-on effect on attitudes towards security. They would be wise not to dismiss the next identity crime story as ‘another TV show’ and closely consider the steps they can take so it does not put their customer trust at risk.

Taking a proactive approach to identity security can show customers they are serious about establishing trust right from the outset. Ultimately, this means consumers can continue engaging with digital services confidently while increasingly indulging in true crime documentaries - without fearing their identity is for sale.

Mike Tuchen is CEO at Onfido. A tech veteran who began his career at Sun Microsystems, Tuchen has served in leadership roles at Polycom, Rapid7 and Talend among others, before joining Onfido in 2020.

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