For his new series, NZ’s trusted TV dad dived head-first into the dodgy world of scammers – by becoming one himself. What he found made him mad as hell.
Nigel Latta is fuming. “There are a small number of people out there who are bad,” he says, scratching at his grey beard while nursing two beers in a TVNZ boardroom. “They can form walls in their mind or they don’t really have much of a conscience and they can do this stuff.”
He stares at the wall and shakes his head. Over the past few months, he’s seen the darker side of life. “They’re good at it and they’re making so much money out of it. They have no qualms about the fact that they’re taking people’s life savings. They’re fuckers. They’re just … they really are.”
Latta is normally the cool, calm and collected one. Across a series of sporadic but immensely watchable TV specials, the clinical psychologist has become a trusted TV face, one armed with a warm smile, curious eyes and a tell-it-like-it-is attitude that can sometimes spark controversy for its bluntness.
Over the past two decades, he’s warned us about serial killers (Beyond the Darklands), told us how to raise teenagers (The Politically Incorrect Guide to Teenagers), taught us how to look after ourselves (The Politically Incorrect guide to Grown Ups), examined the outer reaches of the brain (The Curious Mind) and straight up just blown shit up (Nigel Latta Blows Stuff Up).
For his latest show You’ve Been Scammed, he’s exploded. Airing in four parts on TVNZ 1 from Monday night, Latta dives into the dodgy world of scammers, examining how a growing number of them – often based overseas – are able to con millions of dollars out of New Zealanders, sometimes using just a quick phone call, email or text message.
He didn’t like what he found. “This stuff, it’s just everywhere and … it’s easy,” he says. “A lot of people are busy. We don’t pay attention to stuff. [Scammers] surf in and rely on our complacency. We have this idea that it’s only naive and gullible people are getting scammed. And it’s just not the case.”
Uncovering the scams and talking to victims wasn’t enough. To really get inside the heads of scammers and understand how they’re able to do what they do, Latta had to do something he’d never done before: he did some scamming himself.
Right now, scams can be found anywhere you want to look for them. They’re landing on your phone in the form of text messages purporting to be from NZ Post or NZTA asking you to click on links and pay fines or redirect packages.
They’re arriving in email inboxes pretending to be your bank. Dodgy websites are set up trying to secure your credit card details. They hit your Instagram and Facebook accounts trying to become your friends. “Google, ‘Term deposits,’” says Latta. “The first few in the first row of websites that come up … about three of them are scam ones.”
I thought I was vigilant, but lately I’m not so sure about that. The day before my interview with Latta, I received a text from a random cellphone number asking me to click on a link to redirect a courier package I wasn’t expecting. As I was writing this story, I received one of those NZTA text scam messages. Last year, I nearly fell for a dodgy high school reunion scam on Facebook.
Earlier this year, my wife logged into a legit-looking site while searching for a specific beauty product. Over five months, nearly $300 was siphoned from our credit card in small but regular instalments. “You could kind of miss that if you weren’t really watching it,” says Latta about that one, shaking his head again. “Fuckers.”
The number of people falling for scams is rising, and so’s the amount of money they’re losing. The Banking Ombudsman – which provided the funding and resources for You’ve Been Scammed to be made – reports 25,000 New Zealanders fell for scams in the past year. Losses are estimated at $200 million, but those estimates are almost certainly conservative: just a few days ago, an Auckland pensioner lost $1.4 million in a sharemarket investment scam.
Banking Ombudsman CEO Nicola Sladden calls those kinds of stories “heartbreaking”. “It’s not just the financial loss that can impact people’s financial future and freedom, it’s also the impact on their trust in humanity, their confidence in working and operating in an online and digital age, and it also has a toll on their mental health,” she says. “It can be quite life changing.”
If people keep falling for them, scammers will keep scamming. To prove how easy it can be, Latta teams up with a magician in the opening episode of You’ve Been Scammed. Using basic mind manipulation and confidence tricks reminiscent of TV mentalists like Derren Brown, he persuades participants into giving up personal items like watches and ties without them noticing.
Then he steps it up, prompting them to reveal online passwords and pin numbers. “It’s astounding how easy it is to get stuff out of people,” he says. How did it feel becoming a scammer? “It was fun for us because we’re not actually stealing and we fronted up pretty quick,” he says. But he always kept his eye on the victims. “If a magician tricks us, it’s delightful. But if we get scammed, we feel ashamed … We made sure that people didn’t feel bad about it.”
He did it to showcase the tricks that scammers often use. His big takeaway is that people make it too easy for them. “We’re all really connected now. We’re used to doing things by email. We like doing stuff online. We don’t like having to call someone and talk to them. Legitimate companies and businesses have worked hard to make it easy for us to do this stuff,” he says.
Scammers use that to their advantage. “They surf in on the back of that. The fact that something looks kind of like a thing makes us go, ‘Sure that looks like a thing. I’ll just put my my little details in there’. A lot of people are reassured because they think, ‘Oh, that’s a New Zealand bank account that I’m transferring money into. So that … must be legit.’”
Latta ended up speaking to several scammers for the series. One was so good they started to question if he really was a scammer. “We interviewed a woman who lost $100,000 in an investment scam. She worked really hard to try to verify this guy was who he said that he was. And we talked to the same guy. We’re looking at his websites and even we were starting to think, ‘Is he actually legitimately from a particular bank?’ They are that good.”
This time, there was a giveaway. As their conversation continued, the scammer got annoyed at Latta’s increasingly personal questions trying to verify his bonafides. “No one from any legitimate business is gonna get cross about you trying to verify who they are,” he says. Latta found himself getting increasingly mad during those conversations. “I just wanted to burn [them], like, ‘Fuck you, you scammer.’”
Latta found many have been doing it so long they just can’t stop. Any morals they may have had vanished a long time ago. “We got ‘Candy’ to agree to talk to us for Apple iTunes cards,” he says. “We said, ‘We know you’re a scammer. We’ll give you cards to answer questions.’ She agreed to come back. As soon as she logged on, she said, ‘Hello, honey’. It was like, ‘We’re past that. Don’t do that.’”
They’re so prolific that Latta didn’t have to look far to find them. Even he expects to get snagged by one eventually. “There’s so much of it that sooner or later, everyone’s going to get caught with something,” he says. “I fully would expect that at some point, I’m going to get pinged for something because you’ve just got to make a mistake once.
“You just have to click on a website, you just have to put in a thing. It’s easy.”
How does anyone keep themselves safe from becoming a scam victim? Latta has plenty of tips because ultimately that’s the reason You’ve Been Scammed’s been made. He says he’s upgraded his anti-virus software to the paid version, and also has it installed on his phone. He’s extra vigilant when it comes to texts and emails from people he doesn’t know.
He’s always on the alert. “Don’t click links. Don’t give people your information,” he says. “Ultimately, scammers still need us to do things. We have to do something [for them to scam us]. So it is just about being a bit more vigilant around some of that stuff and understanding some of the basic tricks that they use.
“If you’re being pressured, if things seem pretty good, but not too good, just be suspicious of that.”
It’s enough to make you want to throw your phone away, cut off the internet, lock the doors and never leave the house. Latta says that would be taking it to an extreme. Despite his deep dive into dodgy scammers, he’s seen enough in his work over the years to believe that, deep down, most humans want to be good people. “I spent most of the first half of my life working with criminals in prisons,” he says. “Even people like that are fundamentally good, right?”
Kindness, he says, is the default human setting. “That’s what allowed us to get where we are. Humans are made to be kind and connect and be empathetic and help.” Latta hasn’t touched either of the beers in front of him, but after 20 minutes of furrowing his brow and stroking his beard, he finally smiles. “Anywhere that you go in the world, if you’re in trouble, people help you. They just do. That’s certainly been my experience every time I’ve ever gone anywhere.”
You’ve Been Scammed By Nigel Latta, TVNZ One and TVNZ+, from Monday.