It's been said that perception is reality, and this is never more evident than when it comes to authority figure, which makes sense when one considers how much of authority is a social construct. This is something that can be played with, for good or ill.

My dad told me a story that he heard from his dad, who was a sergeant in the US Air Force, and the Army Air Force before that. A guy showed up on base one day with a clipboard in hand, and who knew the language and procedures of the military. He acted with authority, went around appearing to take notes, was able to get assigned quarters, ate in the mess hall and so on, and this went on for a few days without anyone challenging him. Everyone assumed he was from the inspector general or the like. Finally someone did some digging and found out that he was actually AWOL from another unit, and that was the end of that.

A man named Wilhelm Voigt once did something similar in Germany, where he put on the uniform of an army captain, ordered a sergeant and some troopers to follow him, took them on a train ride to another town and had them arrest everyone in city hall and confiscated the city treasury, even leaving a receipt (with a false name). He was later found out, arrested, and wound up being pardoned.

There's a guy on the internet who has a fake company he made up to help him find a place to park. By putting official looking logos, caution tape, and vehicle numbers on his van and SUV, he made it appear that was on official business, and thus able to park in various no parking zones. Read the full story here.

These are great stories, but there's a definite lesson to be learned from them, and that is that people tend to defer to a perceived authority. The bad guys know this, and they use it to their advantage, using what's called social engineering. There's many different techniques they can use, but they all boil down to someone appearing to be someone in authority or with a legitimate reason to be intiating the conversation.

One example is when the target receives a telephone call from someone claiming to be from the power company, the IRS, the police, or someone like that, and the bad guy tells the target that they owe money of some sort. Maybe they say the power bill didn't get paid, or there's a parking ticket that they didn't pay, something like that, and they insist the target hand over credit card or other financial information to get it taken care of. Another common one is where the perpetrator claims to be from some variety of tech support, and they ask for the target's password or other information.

There are ways to protect yourself from these approaches. The simplest way is to remember the old slogan, “question authority.” Verify that someone is who they say they are, and that they actually do have the authority to do what they ask. A person who is who they claim to be won't begrudge this, while someone trying a scam is likely to move on to an easier target.