There has been a big surge in online scammery and con artistry in the past two years. Economic hardship and desperation have been contributing causes, but this kind of activity has been with us since the dawn of time. And con games will always be with us, because they are rooted in the timeless and predictable ingredients of human nature.
My purpose in this article is to provide a rudimentary outline of the basic features that I believe most, if not all, scams and con jobs share. I have worked as a criminal defense lawyer for over twenty years, and have seen a few scenarios that have helped me compile this information. I have also benefitted from observing scam artists in action on Twitter and in other electronic arenas. I have also learned much from watching the “infomercial” hucksters of the 1990s, such as Don Lapre, Kevin Trudeau, and many others. Readers looking for demonstrations of these ideas in action may profit from watching several movies of David Mamet, who seems to have an interest in con games. One of Mr. Mamet’s mainstay actors was the late magician Ricky Jay; and my understanding is that Mr. Jay, as a scholar of the magician’s art, provided a great deal of insight into the psychological bases of con games in the Mamet films House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner.
All con jobs follow a sequence of identifiable stages. The mark (the “pidgeon”) must be led through a series of steps that “soften him up” and make him more pliable to suggestion. We must remember that all con games play on two elements: greed and ignorance. Other emotions can be used, such as pity or guilt, but greed and ignorance are the mainstays. Greed, meaning the mark’s desire to gain easy money; and ignorance, in that the mark will be led into unfamiliar waters, where he can be more easily parted with his money. Young or old, rich or poor, all human beings are vulnerable to cons. Never believe you are exempt. I have seen highly educated people fall victim to them, as well as the humblest laborer. Here are the basic stages of the traditional scam:
The Picture. A successful frame-up has to begin with an image that the scammer is selling. He wants to show you just how successful he is. He wants to overwhelm you with cars, money, hotels, exotic locales, and, of course, women. The reason for this is very simple: he must establish himself as someone who has “made it big.” The message conveyed to the mark is a simple one: “Look how rich and great I am. You can be just like me if you do what I recommend.”
It does not matter whether The Picture is true. It is important to remember this. The scammer may indeed be very rich. Some scammers rent their luxury cars and lifestyles; some scammers lie about their lifestyle completely and without shame. But some scammers actually are rich. Remember: some con artists really do have what they say they have. You may find this a paradox, but it is not. There really are rich people who love to scam others. Their motivations may be darker than the purely financial impulses of lesser scammers. They are not so much interested in squeezing money out of marks; what they are after is power, validation, and an affirmation of their own superiority. We are dealing with psychological factors here, friends: some people are just sadistic, and love to “lord it” over others.
In establishing The Picture, some con artists can get very aggressive. They will demand you acknowledge their “superiority.” They will yell. They will castigate. They will berate. They will try to shame you with bullying tactics. They will try to question your manhood, your character, your intelligence. All of this is part of the well-staged con. The goal is to throw you off balance, to make you question your judgment or value system.
The Secret. This is a critical part of the scam. All successful cons must have an enticing secret involved. What it amounts to is this. The secret involves some “special knowledge.” The scammer will communicate to you, in one way or another, that he has special knowledge of some trade, industry, or whatever. He will play on your desire to make a quick buck. He will play on your desire to cut corners and find shortcuts. “I have a secret, and if you listen to me, you can be just as rich as I am.” This is the essence of The Secret.
In the days of cold-calling stock brokers, there was a certain scam that I was once told about. A crook would send two batches of letters to two groups of people. One batch would say, “You should buy stock X because it’s going up.” Another batch would say, “You should sell stock X because it’s going down.” Of course, one batch would be a correct “prediction.” To the people who received the correct prediction, the scammer would then send another two groups of letters, following the same principle as before: one batch recommending a buy, the other recommending a sell. Over time, and as the sample group narrowed, eventually a very small group of people would have received “correct predictions” multiple times. The marks would get excited, thinking that the broker knew some special secret. The scammer would then say, “I’ve been right in every prediction I’ve made. You should invest with me.” The pitch was often irresistible. Of course, the marks would not know that the scammer was not a wizard; he just used mathematics and probability to his advantage.
The Huddle. This refers to the stage where the scammer draws the “pigeon” deeper into his world. Have you ever seen players on a field huddled together, sharing the details of their next play? That’s what this refers to. The mark will be asked to join a team, a group, an email list, a special clique that will share all the coveted “insider knowledge,” playing back to the “I have a secret” pitch. Isolation is a very effective technique for convincing someone to do something he does not really want to do.
The Directive. Once the psychological groundwork has been laid out as described above, the pigeon will be softened up for the big pitch. Now comes The Directive. The mark is told what to do with his money: what to buy, what to invest in, or what to put his confidence in. The reason why confidence games are called confidence games is because the mark is giving his confidence to the scammer. A frequently used technique here is called the “pigeon drop,” in which the mark is enticed to put up a small amount of money based on the hope that he will receive an even greater payout in the future. This is also the basis for one of the oldest and most effective of cons, the so-called “Spanish Prisoner.” In the Spanish Prisoner con, the mark is enticed by both the prospect of a beautiful woman, and a large sum of money. All he has to do is leave a deposit of money under terms of strict secrecy. Of course, the scammer then vanishes with the money.
Do not underestimate the effectiveness of scams and cons. Good scammers are sociopaths. They can be extremely convincing. You may not even know you have been taken, even after losing your money. Once you underestimate them, you become that much more vulnerable. As I said earlier, extremely intelligent people can fall for them, because they operate at the most basic level of human need: the desire to be secure, wealthy, handsome, or beautiful. The only effective defenses against scams are: (1) a true understanding that nothing in this world is for free, and there is not such thing as easy money; and (2) success takes a long time. Along these lines, I would recommend readers revisit my previous comments on investing.
Scammers are not genial rascals. They are manipulative, depraved people who find satisfaction in preying on others. Understand what is going on around you. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. There is no such thing as a quick buck. That was true in 5000 B.C., and it is true today.
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