One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived. Machiavelli.
Con men roam the corridors of country clubs, infect industry meetings, and seem to magically materialize just when needed — “helping” those in a time of need or in search of prosperity. Prosperity, of course, is a euphemism for money. Con men promise money and deliver misery.
Cons result in billions of dollars of losses and waste. On a micro level the con man wrecks business and family wealth; on a broader level cons can destroy an entire nation’s economy.
Why, then, are there no courses in college or business school on con men? Why don’t we teach our children how to spot and avoid these monsters cloaked in legitimacy? Because our schools and households are behind the curve.
The purpose of this article is to balance the playing field. Con artists are just that — they are artists. To hold one’s own against such an artist requires understanding the dark art of the con.
YOU’VE BEEN HAD AND YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW IT
It is estimated that only 37% of people who have been the “mark” of a con man even know they have been conned. This astonishing statistic is depressing: if just over one in three people recognize a con after it has happened, how can there be any hope of identifying a con man before he has his hooks in you?
The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for it Every Time is a fascinating place to start for those seeking to look inside the world of the con man. More important, the book provides numerous anecdotes and tips to enable readers to spot con men and avoid being sucked, along with their money, into the con’s painful predicaments and emotional escapades.
From multimillion-dollar Ponzi schemes to small-time frauds, Maria Konnikova pulls together a selection of fascinating stories to demonstrate what all cons share in common, drawing on scientific, dramatic, and psychological perspectives. Insightful and gripping, the book brings readers into the world of the con, examining the relationship between artist and victim. The Confidence Game asks not only why we believe con artists, but also examines the very act of believing and how our sense of truth can be manipulated by those around us.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR — IF YOU CARE TO LOOK
A recent book review of The Confidence Game puts it best:
Con artists aren’t just master manipulators; they are expert storytellers. Much as we are intrinsically inclined to trust, we are naturally drawn to a compelling story. Just ask any advertising executive or political operative. “When a fact is plausible, we still need to test it,” Konnikova writes with characteristic concision. “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” And once we’ve accepted a story as true, we’re not likely to question it; on the contrary, we will probably unconsciously bend any contradictory information to conform to the conclusion we’ve already drawn. There’s a name for this phenomenon — confirmation bias. It provides the key psychological scaffolding for the long con, during the course of which the mark finds a way to rationalize any number of warning signs.
IN 24 YEARS I HAVE SEEN IT ALL — OR NOT
Many victims of cons are either too impoverished or too shamed to contact a lawyer or the authorities. Despite this, I have handled a number of investments scams, Ponzi schemes, embezzlements, and the like in my law practice over the last 24 years. Time and again I have seen victims ignore warning signs and rationalize ANYTHING to assure themselves they have not been conned.
Hanging out in lawyers’ offices is no fun. So, avoid being conned in the first instance. Here is what to look for when a person enters your life and “shares” with you how they can help you make money:
- The con man will flatter you from the start (case in point: to engender my trust, a con man recently told me that I was the “most honest” lawyer he had ever met a mere 30 minutes after we were introduced)
- The con man may have a seemingly “legitimate” background, having worked for name recognized companies or having lots of “contacts” in your industry
- Cons will tell you that they have obtained a special ability, “formula”, or license to make or get something that no one else possesses
- Skilled con artists can bring out your least enviable traits, like greed, fear, and insecurity. They well know that promises of outsized returns with no risk will get your attention
- Cons often work with silent partners (e.g. one con man may tout his silent partner as an industry expert or someone who possesses a product that will make you millions)
- Cons carefully develop their reputations; many con men are “philanthropists” and well known in their industry
- Con men often pose as altruists: they often state that they entered your industry only to help you or solely to improve humanity
- Cons mirror their victims — selecting those of the same race, religion, political affiliation, and culture (thus the victim thinks: he is just like me, he could never deceive or be dishonest)
- Con artists create crises that require immediate answers (and more money, which they promise will fix everything)
- Con artists try to make you feel inadequate if you don’t believe them or ask too many questions; many of their “answers” are nonsensical gobbledygook that the victim is shamed into accepting for fear of looking stupid
- Con artists will isolate you from friends and family who are skeptical of their money making scheme
- Last but not least, cons will tell you that you will make outrageous sums of money thru a “relatively” small initial investment
Have you just met someone who is trying to “help” you navigate a challenging situation? Are they doing it “just” for you? Are they immediately flattering you and ingratiating themselves with you — touting their vast experience and name-dropping?
It is possible that this new person in your life has been heaven sent just when you need him. But, it’s more likely this man is too good to be true. He is a con man. Politely tell him to hit the road.
Art Bourque has guarded and guided victims of business and investment scams for many years; he hopes this article will help others avoid being conned or deceived. Contact Mr. Bourque with any questions concerning this article. In the interim, “enjoy” this gritty Henry Rollins video, Liar, which symbolizes how a con man thinks and what a con man really looks like on the inside: