If you haven’t already been conned, chances are, you will be at some point in life. We’re all susceptible to a scam, no matter how smart we are and especially how smart we think we are. Put simply, a con artist plays on one fatal flaw in our evolutionary development; our readiness to trust.
Your human instincts make you the perfect target for a con artist
Trust is programmed into our genes. We’re the only species born completely useless who solely rely on others for care. The default assumption that people are decent and harmless is key to our survival.
Our instinct to trust is triggered by internal and external cues, that, unsurprisingly, con artists are experts at manipulating. Like yin and yang, in every society, a small minority co-evolved to exploit the trusting majority. The bias that skews our better judgment include;
Confirmation bias and Commitment bias
A con artist sells us a dream; and we always favour what we want to see, more readily than we favour truth. If, and when, cracks appear, our commitment bias encourages us to double down on our prior actions and beliefs, in fear of appearing outwardly inconsistent.
Positivity illusion and Optimism Bias
We all perceive ourselves as above average and think nothing bad will ever happen to us. The more you think, “it won’t happen to me,” your superiority becomes blinding.
We are more willing to open up to people who are similar to us, in looks, ideas and behaviours, because we perceive them to better understand us. Next, we use other people’s opinions to confirm our own. This usually works, until it doesn’t, like when Bernard Madoff fleeced the best of Wall Street in his $65 billion Ponzi scheme.
We have to fight bloody hard not to get scammed; yet instead of celebrating the achievement, we elevate con artists to legendary status: card sharks, art forgers, sweetheart scammers, cult leaders, snake oil salesmen and catfishers. They excite us, and Hollywood.
Some scams, however, are truly spectacular – they don’t call them con artists for nothing.
The MacGregor Scam
In the 1820s, Scotsman Gregor MacGregor the ‘Prince of Poyais,’ convinced seven ships of settlers to depart Scotland for ‘Poyais’ on the coast of Central America. He sold it as the investment of a lifetime. MacGregor collected over £200,000 of capital from eager Scots who willingly traded gold bars for ‘Poyais’ bonds and ‘Poyais Dollars.’
The ships sailed for two months to reach “crystal clear waters and riverbeds filled with chunks of gold.” But, you guessed it, Poyais, and its ‘prince’ was completely made up. Settlers disembarked to the mosquito-infested coastline of Honduras. Only one-third survived the hostile landscape, saved months later by British naval ships. MacGregor escaped to France.
The bond market value over his life ran to £1.3 million, the equivalent to £3.6 billion or $6.5 billion Aussie dollars today. The scale of MacGregor’s con likely inspired Emmanuel Nwude, a Nigerian man who sold an airport that didn’t exist in the late 1990s.
Eiffel Tower twice faux sale
In 1925, ‘Count’ Victor Lustig, (a self-proclaimed Count) posed as a French government official coordinating a ‘top-secret’ operation to demolish the Eiffel Tower. Lustig rented a limousine to give each of Europe’s wealthiest scrap-metal tycoons a tour of Paris, as he sized each of them up.
Lustig fed Andre Poisson a sob story about being a lowly paid government official, and Poisson took the bait. Poisson presented Lustig with a $70,000 bribe to secure his company the (fake) contract. Within an hour of taking the cash, the equivalent of US$1.4 million today, Lustig fled to Austria.
Lustig is known as the “Man Who Sold The Eiffel Tower Twice,” because Poisson was too ashamed to report him, and he repeated the scam. Lustig wasn’t alone in the business of selling city monuments. Just years earlier, across the pond, American con artist George C. Parker repeatedly sold the Brooklyn Bridge to new immigrants, as well as Madison Square Garden and the Statue of Liberty. Respect.
‘The Great Imposter’
Ferdinand Waldo Demara was a different breed altogether; he was in the game purely for reputation and status. He posed as just about anything and everything in his lifetime: a psychologist, professor, monk, doctor, prison warden, religious leader and writer.
During the Korean War, he posed as a surgeon onboard a Canadian naval ship and performed 19 surgeries. Demara commissioned a biography on his life, and then unsurprisingly stole the identity of his biographer. He described his own motivation as “Rascality, pure rascality”. He was portrayed by Tony Curtis in the 1961 film, The Great Imposter.
All of these scams pre-dated the internet, before we freely started surrendering our entire lives online. Not only is it easier for con artists to access and trade your victim profile, but all of the filters and lies we buy into on platforms like Instagram condition us to buy into bigger and bigger lies every day.
How to spot a con artist
Most of the Bernie Madoffs, Frank Abignales, Jordan Belforts of the world display the dark triad of personality traits:
- Narcissism: A grandiose sense of self, endless pride and total lack of empathy.
- Machiavellianism: Overtly manipulates others, lacks any moral code, and believes the ends justify the means.
- Psychopathy: Antisocial, impulsive, and feels no remorse.
The majority of con artists are psychopaths, but not every psychopath will develop into a con artist. Each one is an expert manipulator and shapeshifter, so it can be a better strategy to focus on the game, not the man.
The anatomy of the con
New York Times best-selling author Maria Konnikova outlines the basic scam play-by-play in The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It… Every Time. If you can see through the system, you can see through the illusion.
- The “Put-up” and “The Mark”
The con artist identifies a victim; who are they? What do they want? The con artist must reflect their deepest needs and desires back to them.
- The “Play” and the “Rope”
The con artist creates an emotional bond with the victim and tests their loyalty through a series of small favours, including the Benjamin Franklin Effect.
- The “Tale”
The con artist presents their highly customised scam through a persuasive story. Stories pull on the victim’s heartstrings, and the best con artists plant very small seeds the victim mistakes as ideas they formed themselves. This is some seriously skilful Inception work at play.
- The “Convincer”
The con artist falsifies evidence so the victim believes they are ‘winning,’ at whatever is being promised to them.
- The “Breakdown”
Cracks begin to reveal themselves; either accidentally, or purposefully instigated by the con artist so the victim can be persuaded to double down and recommit.
- The “Send”
The victim is encouraged to prove their loyalty by increasing their investment.
- The “Touch”
Game over. The con artist completely fleeces the victim: financially, emotionally or physically.
- The “blow-off”
The con artist disappears after the deed has been done.
- “The Fix”
The victim is oftentimes too ashamed to publicly reveal the scam, but if the victim is a fighter, the con artist may reappear to scare the victim off.
How to defend yourself against yourself
Con artists have it really easy because we’ve done most of the work – we want to believe it ourselves. But you can reclaim your victim profile by identifying your triggers and putting safeguards in place to prevent them.
The right place, and time
You should always have a healthy dose of scepticism, especially if you’re mid-crisis. Financial, emotional or physical stress cause us to make snap judgments, which normally end up terribly. Post-break up, in the midst of moving house move or you’ve just lost your job? Up your defences! Spend less time on social media and ask your mates or family to check in on you more.
Pride is blinding
Con artists need you to silence your critical thinking. Repeating their own lines back to them can slow the pace of the conversation, and give you more time to ingest the information. It sends a clear signal to scammers that you are consciously listening, and you’re not easy prey.
Vigilance is Key
Once we’ve made a decision, we tend to file it away and hardly ever bring it up again. This can be highly dangerous. It effectively prompts the “Breakdown” phase, but at your own discretion and will. The nature of the response you get will be very telling about their character. While con artists struggle to express empathy, they often get undone by uncharacteristic fits of rage. If you don’t like what you see, get out of there!
Now, as far as griftings go, a payday of $330 million is by no means a simple street con. You can read up about that Nigerian airport scam I mentioned earlier over in this article.