Don’t Get Tricked, Bro: Using Heuristic Analysis to Identify Fraud


In computing terms, heuristic analysis is the ability of antivirus software to identify viruses it has never encountered before as threats by comparing their programmatic structure and behavior to the structure and behavior of viruses it has already identified. (Rather than simply searching for a 1:1 match in a database of known viruses).

It’s sort of like how in mathematics, a formula enables you to easily solve any equation of that type. It’s a generalized solution that will work no matter how the specifics of the equation differ, so long as it really is of the type that the formula is designed to solve.

Everybody uses the “database approach” to identify fraud all the time without even realizing that’s what they’re doing. For example, everybody knows if they get emailed by a Nigerian prince offering to share untold riches, it’s a scam, because they have heard “Nigerian prince” associated with email fraud.

However, 419 emails come in a dizzying variety of versions now. There’s one with a deposed Dutch nobleman trying to smuggle diamonds. There’s one with a trapped astronaut who needs to crowdfund his rescue mission by a grassroots email fundraising campaign, and so on.

Underneath the window dressing, these are all just variations on the same formula, the “advance fee scam”. The structure is always identical, because it has to be in order to work as intended. You are offered a percentage of a large fictitious fortune in exchange for a comparably small (but still costly) transfer fee.

The vastly higher amount you stand to gain reduces your hesitation to take a risk on a proposition you can’t be certain of, so you send the transfer fee. Of course the cut of the fortune you were promised never arrives. But by the time you realize this, it’s too late, the 419 scammer has already gotten what he wanted.

Alternatively, chain emails or Facebook messages always take the form of “If you send this to [number] friends within [time limit], then [unfalsifiable future reward]. But if you don’t, then [unfalsifiable future punishment].” Then an anecdote about somebody it supposedly worked for, and somebody who neglected to spread it and suffered the supposed punishment (testimonials).

No matter how the specifics of the story these things tell you may differ, their anatomy is always recognizable. Because chain emails and FB messages are such a basic, rudimentary form of memetic replicator, almost everybody knows better than to spread them, and you rarely see them anymore. If you dress them up more elaborately however, they can evade detection by anybody not trained to identify them.

Heuristic analysis can also be used to identify pyramid schemes and MLMs, because they too always follow the same formula. They have to, even though it puts them at risk of being recognized as fraudulent, because the formula is what makes MLMs spread effectively and bilk money out of recruits for the benefit of whoever started it.

It should come as no surprise, then, that it can also be used to identify cults. There are several lists of criteria to look for, like the B.I.T.E. model, but the cults I am concerned with are the ones which are designed to spread effectively, because they sometimes grow out of control if not identified and stopped.

Such cults include the promise of an unfalsifiable future reward for those who join and remain members until death (at which point they cannot very well inform any of the other members that the reward isn’t real), an unfalsifiable future punishment for those who don’t join, or who ever leave, an always-imminent deadline to add urgency, motivating them to seek out and recruit “while there is still time”.

Then there’s the anecdotes/testimonials from those it has supposedly worked for (transformed lives, answered prayers, miraculous healing, return from the grave to warn people, etc.) a focus on recruiting children and the financially or emotionally insecure (as they make softer targets), and an invisible trickster who is behind anything you might see or hear which casts doubt on the group’s teachings. (Which makes legitimate evidence to the contrary seem like devious tricks that you’re wise for ignoring.)

But the parallels don’t end there. There’s a charismatic leader who claims the world is ending soon. He promises he alone can save you, but only if you sell your belongings, cut off family members who try to stop you, and leave your home and job if need be to follow him.

Of course members are given a sensible sounding rationale for each of these requirements, to disguise what they’re really for. “Material wealth only holds back spiritual growth” for example, when the true purpose of separating new recruits from their belongings is to make them wholly dependent upon the cult so they cannot easily leave if they begin having doubts.

Likewise, the rationale for cutting off family members who don’t want you to join is that they’re worldly attachments, under evil spiritual influence, etc. when in reality, family members are simply the most likely to extricate you from a cult when they realize what it is.

It’s probably clear to everybody here what I’m getting at, but not to Christians. They can stare it right in the face and not realize what they’re looking at, because some of their religion’s teachings condition them not to. Just like how people in an MLM can be shown the structure of the company they have joined, the public records concerning their financies (showing 90% don’t even break even) but they still won’t recognize what they’re in.

Some will say “it’s not a pyramid scheme because there’s an actual product.” That makes it an MLM instead. But that’s a superficial difference which doesn’t change the outcome for people who join. It’s still fundamentally exploitative and fraudulent, just modified by the exact amount from the old model in order to remain legal. Or they will equivocate, saying every business hierarchy is pyramid-like, so you may as well call every company a pyramid scheme.

Similarly, some people in cults will protest that it can’t be a cult, because the founder wasn’t trying to get rich. As if cults are only ever intended to amass riches for the leader. The kind of man who starts a cult isn’t always after money. Sometimes it’s the desire to be worshiped. Marshall Applewhite didn’t get rich off Heaven’s Gate, but he was adored by his followers and didn’t die alone as an irrelevant old man. David Koresh wasn’t trying to get rich either, he sincerely believed his own lies.

They might say “it can’t be a cult because the founder is/was a kind person.” According to a book written about him by his followers, mind you. Setting aside for a moment that everything Scientologists have written about L. Ron Hubbard depicts him as the greatest person ever to live, kindness still does not logically preclude somebody from being a cult leader. It depends what they’re trying to accomplish by starting a cult.

These protestations are like saying “this cannot be a 419 email scam, because it’s not from a Nigerian prince!” or “This cannot be a pyramid scheme, because there’s a product, and it’s good quality!” (Cutco for example). Such irrelevant window dressing is not what identifies something as fraudulent, it’s the structure of how it operates, and the outcome it produces.

Like MLM distributors, cult members will often equivocate, saying “any organization has at least some cult-like qualities” and “you may as well call every business, club, sports team, etc. a cult!” ignoring that the term is not actually being applied that loosely and it isn’t just the fact that it’s a group of people that sends up the red flags.

What if Christians were to use heuristic analysis to evaluate whether early Christianity, as described in scripture, was structurally and behaviorally what we’d today refer to as an end of the world cult? Or if, as a thought exercise, they were to imagine what an apocalyptic, messianic cult would look like after many centuries if it outlived the death of it’s founder and continued to grow in membership, cultural establishment and sociopolitical influence? They might have an important epiphany.

After all, most of them already recognize this is how Islam and Mormonism got started. They rightly look upon these religions with disdain, able to recognize from the outside what they actually are vs. what they pretend to be, and lament how profoundly deceived people on the inside are. Even while those on the inside don’t understand what the fuss is about. They can stare the truth right in the face and not recognize it because the teachings of their religion condition them not to.

Somehow, while looking at religions they regard as false and wondering how those inside of them can be so deceived, Christians never think to themselves “maybe I’m in the same boat”. They must think they’re just too smart for that. “Those poor, stupid Muslims and Mormons. Can’t they see their religions are just very old, successful cults? If only they would come around to Christianity, the religion.”

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