I was watching a documentary recently about magic, revealing how magicians distract their audience to be able to pull a trick. The distraction can be the magician’s hand movements that make people look away or, more importantly, the magician saying something that distorts people’s comprehension of what is going on.
That speech, usually rapid, is called patter, and is used not just by magicians but also by scammers, swindlers, extortionists. Patter, then, is performed speech that has been practiced and mastered with a motive, usually related to deception. Note that there’s a gray area around what deception is; salespersons are usually also masters of patter.
I thought of patter again on Saturday night when I got an SOS text from one of our faculty members who said she just got a call from someone who told her he had been given a contract to kill her, but that his conscience was bothering him and he was willing to back out of the job order if the faculty could give him the equivalent of the contract price.
One of our university officials had received similar calls last year, which terrified him to the point where he reported it to the police, and was referred to the Philippine National Police cybercrime division.
There was one important difference between the incident last year and the current one: Our university official had allowed the caller to keep talking, and was on the verge of agreeing to meet to arrange payment. In the more recent incident, our faculty member cut off the conversation shortly after it started and, fortunately, the caller did not make another attempt.
This is classic criminal patter, which you find also with “budol-budol” and “dugo-dugo” extortion attempts. What’s common to all these criminal attempts is that the callers will speak fast, including mentioning extraneous information and playing on your emotions, especially fear, to produce what psychologists call a cognitive overload, which means your brain is hijacked, unable to think clearly.
This is why the criminals like to prey on older people. Typically, the criminals approach the elderly and ask them how their son or daughter is, sometimes with a name and other background information (e.g., is she still in California?) obtained from gossiping with drivers, household help or even security guards.
Disarmed by the friendly introductory patter, the victim is then receptive for more patter, and is soon withdrawing large amounts of money from the bank to give to the patter master. Many will report that they were hypnotized, when in reality it was really patter that did the trick.
You’ll find that the masters of patter are not necessarily criminals, at least not in the strict sense of the word. I’ve found elderly people being “pattered” by their cunning children, or grandchildren, to get money or, simply, to gain a favor. Being a senior citizen, I sometimes feel my kids are trying to patter me, and I tell them, “Slow down, slow down. Let’s go through this slowly.” After I learned about patter, I shared my new word with them, together with stories of budol-budol, dugo-dugo, etc., and how they sometimes patter, too.
Be careful, too, when several people approach you, like sales people. They will patter together and short-circuit your brain.
If you feel you’re being victimized, interrupt the “magician” with questions, or your own distractions. This throws them off from their script. Some of the distractions can be inadvertent. Our faculty member had answered the call with “Congressman?,” thinking it was one of her former students. The police told her that might have unnerved the caller.
When I got a budol-budol call some years back, I innocently said, “Oh, let me check if my driver’s here so I can bring the money,” and when I came back and said the driver had gone home, the con artist was at a loss, slowed down, which allowed my brain to take over again. I realized I was being scammed.
If you’re wondering, the apparent origin of patter is “Pater Noster,” Latin for “Our Father,” a reference to the rapid murmuring of prayers which does have its effects, creating a certain mood or ambience depending on the occasion: Prayers for the dead, for example, generate solemnity and reinforce the grieving.
Preachers, incidentally, can be quite good at patter, complemented by hand movements and walking back and forth on the stage, mesmerizing the audience as music plays in the background.
Soon, we will be assaulted by the patter of some politicians. Be on guard, look at it as entertainment and laugh out loud.