A confidence game, also known as a con, scam, grift, or flim flam, is an attempt to win the trust and confidence of a victim, known as the "mark," in order to defraud them. Although general expectation is that con artists are untrustworthy, their particular ability is actually to be able to gain the trust of their victims. They play on people's selfish desires, greed and the desire to obtain much with minimal effort. Victims often do not report con men due to their own complicity in an activity of dubious, if not criminal, nature, and their embarrassment at having been tricked.
The cleverness of con men often makes them appear sympathetic even after their deceit has been revealed, leading to their popularity as fictional heroes. Ultimately, though, the confidence game is a deception that leads to criminal results, and its perpetrators deserve no acclaim as they do not embody any characteristics of true human nature.
Origin of the term
The term "confidence man" (usually shortened to "con"), first came into use in 1849, when the New York Herald published a story about the arrest of William Thompson, entitled, "Arrest of the Confidence Man." Thompson would approach strangers on the street, talk a while with them, and then ask if they had "confidence in [him] to trust [him] with [their] watch until to-morrow.” The victims would then give Thompson their expensive watches, believing him to be an acquaintance they didn't remember.
How confidence games work
The con man
The term "con man" may bring to mind images of shady, underworld characters, but reality is quite different. A good con artist needs to appear trustworthy and likable in order to win the trust of his victim. Con artists are charismatic, intelligent, have good memories, and know how to manipulate people's hopes and fears. They attempt to blend in, to look and sound familiar, and often work diligently at appearing to be smooth, professional, and successful. A con man may wear an expensive suit and appear to work in a high class office. Or, conversely, a con artist may put him or herself in a weaker position to play on a victim's sympathies: They may take on the role of illegal immigrant, a likable man down on his luck, or a woman with a small child who needs to use the bathroom. From city official to roofer, the con artist can appear to be just about anyone.
The "mark," or victim, may also be just about anyone who wants something. Con artists prey on human desires for money, health, happiness, and even the desire to help others. Some may argue that con artists are a sort of Robin Hood, nobly cheating the greedy and dishonest out of their money; hence the old adage, "you can't cheat an honest man." In many cases, this holds true, as many cons exploit the greed and willingness to go "around the law" in their victims. Many cons dangle the prospect of "something for nothing (or very little)" in front of their marks.
However, there are just as many cons that don't depend on greedy or dishonest marks; many scams involving the elderly and "charity" scams often exploit the fear or good intentions of their marks. Some believe that an intelligent, educated person is much more difficult to con, as he or she would more easily recognize an offer that sounded "too good to be true." In actuality, this belief of invulnerability makes one a good target. Good con artists have a great deal of charm and intelligence, and a good con man can make just about anything sound reasonable.
Types of confidence tricks are limited only by the imagination of the con artists, who are constantly inventing new ways of tricking people out of their money. However, there are two main categories of confidence games: The "short con" and the "long con." Sometimes called a "street con," the "short con" takes little set up and little time to execute. The "long con," on the other hand, involves much more time to set up, more planning, more money, and often more accomplices. Unlike the short con, though, the long con usually scams the victim out of a sizable amount of cash. The long con is sometimes referred to as a "big store scam," where the "big store" is an elaborately set up fake bank, lawyer's office, betting parlor, and so forth.
Many confidence games are simply variations on "classic" cons. The following are some of the more well known classic short cons:
- The Pigeon drop
In this con, the con artist and the mark, or "pigeon," find a wad of cash in the street that appears to be from an illegal activity, such as gambling or drug money. Since there is no way to return the money directly to its rightful owner, the con artist determines, after speaking with a "lawyer (or banker) friend," that if no one claims it within thirty days, the money is theirs. The "lawyer" says that it is best if each of them put up some extra money, as "good faith money," "proof of individual financial responsibility," or "to show that the people involved are above board" to be held by the lawyer until they can split the found cash. Naturally, the mark never sees either their money or the "found" money again.
- The Spanish Prisoner
This con first appeared in 1588, where a man with an attractive young girl approached British nobility, claiming that the girl's father, a British nobleman, was imprisoned in Spain. The nobleman's identity had to be kept a secret, lest the Spanish discover who their prisoner was. If the mark helped pay the ransom, the freed nobleman would surely reward him, and perhaps even give him the hand of the lovely daughter in marriage. Over the years, this scam has evolved into the popular "Nigerian Email Scam," where marks are asked to help "liberate" funds of wealthy Nigerians.
- The Glasses Drop and the Flop
In the "glasses drop," the con man drops a pair of broken glasses where the mark will step on them. The con man then demands that the mark pay for the glasses he "broke." "The flop" is a similar type of scam where con artists use a preexisting injury in the same fashion. An accident is staged, the injury is claimed to be new, and insurance companies are scammed out of their money.
- Pig in a Poke
One of the oldest cons, this scam dates from the late Middle Ages. The con man would sell a suckling pig in a bag (or "poke") to an unsuspecting customer. When the victim reached home, he would open the bag only to find that his "pig" had mysteriously become a cat. This confidence game may have given rise to the phrases "let the cat out of the bag," "you got left holding the bag," as well as the adage "never buy a pig in a poke."
- The Fiddle Game
In this con, a shabbily dressed "musician" leaves his fiddle as collateral in a restaurant, claiming to have left his money at home. While he is getting his money, another accomplice comes by and offers to purchase such a "rare" instrument for a large amount of money. When the musician returns, the restaurant owner offers to buy the fiddle for a lesser amount of money, thinking that he will be able to sell it to the accomplice and make a tidy profit. In need of money, the musician reluctantly sells his "beloved instrument." Naturally, the accomplice never returns, and the restaurant owner is left having paid a tidy sum for a nearly worthless fiddle.
- Three-card Monte
"Three-card monte," or "Follow The Lady," is essentially the same as the probably centuries-older "shell game" or "thimblerig." The trickster shows three playing cards to the audience, one of which is a queen (the "lady"), then places the cards face-down, shuffles them around and invites the audience to bet on which one is the queen. At first the audience may be skeptical, so the "shill," or accomplice, places a bet and the con artist allows him to win. This is sometimes enough to entice the audience to place bets, but the trickster uses sleight of hand to ensure that they always lose, unless the con man decides to let them win to lure them into betting even more. The mark loses whenever the dealer chooses to make him lose.
- Change Raising
"Change raising" is a short con generally performed at the cash register of a store. The con artist performs several money exchanges involving finding the correct change to pay for a purchase ("Wait, I do have a ten; could you give me two fives instead?"), with the end result that he walks out of the store with more money than he had coming in, leaving a vaguely confused clerk wondering if everything made as much sense as it seemed to.
The above list is only a sampling. Confidence games are continually evolving and subject to many variations and refinements, and con artists are continually seeking to improve their swindles. Some con artists prey upon the lonely, seeking out marks through internet dating sites, convincing men and women to "loan" them money so they can come visit. Ironically enough, some con artists find people who have already been conned, telling them that, for a fee, they can recover most of the money that the victim lost. The internet, partly because of its accessibility and anonymity, is a popular place for scam artists.
How con artists avoid the police
Many victims of confidence games are embarrassed to admit they fell victim to a scam, feeling foolish and stupid for being taken in by the con artist's game. Sometimes, the con artist is so convincing with the pitiful tales he tells the mark about his family, children, and so forth, that, even though the mark knows he has been swindled, he still feels bad for the con man and fails to report him. Other times, the con artist will manipulate the situation so that the mark cannot go to the police without admitting that he has committed a crime. Because of this surefire way to escape punishment, many confidence games include a minor element of crime. For example, the victim may be encouraged to use money concealed from the tax authorities to invest in the con artist's scheme; if they go to the authorities, they must reveal that they have committed tax fraud. Similarly, the mark who buys a stolen television off the back of a truck, only to find he has bought an empty case filled with bricks, cannot report the seller without admitted to attempted purchase of stolen goods. Illegal pornographic images, pirated software, and bootleg music, drugs, and firearms are all good candidates for fraud.
Famous con artists
- Frank Abagnale was one of the world's most famous con men, as well as one of the youngest. Between the ages of 16 and 21, he cashed $2.5 million in forged checks, scammed free flights by posing as an airline pilot, and successfully passed himself off as an attorney, a college professor, and a pediatrician. At 21, he was apprehended by the French police, and served a total of five years in the French, Swedish, and U.S. prison systems. He was released on the condition that he use his skills to assist the federal government with fraud prevention, and currently lectures extensively at the FBI Academy. His best selling book, Catch Me if You Can, was later made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. He has received accolades for his contributions to fraud prevention, and was made national spokesperson for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) in 2004. On his website, Abagnale says, "I consider my past immoral, unethical, and illegal. It is something I am not proud of. I am proud that I have been able to turn my life around and in the past 25 years, helped my government, my clients, thousands of corporations and consumers deal with the problems of white collar crime and fraud."
- Joseph Weil, also known as "The Yellow Kid," was born in 1877, to a German grocer, lived for 101 years, and theoretically made millions of dollars by cheating his fellow man. His exploits partially inspired the film The Sting, starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman.
- Victor Lustig was born in Czechoslovakia in 1890. Lustig had 45 known aliases, nearly fifty arrests in the United States alone, and was fluent in five languages. In 1922, he posed as "Count" Lustig from Austria, and conned a bank out of $32,000 by switching envelopes. Upon capture, he used the long train ride to convince his captors that, not only should they let him go, but that they should also give him $1,000 for the inconvenience of being arrested. Lustig's most famous con, however, was the sale of the Eiffel Tower. In 1925, Lustig invited five scrap iron dealers to meet with him in a hotel, and auctioned off the famous landmark to Andre Poisson, who used a bribe to seal the deal. Lustig traveled to Austria and kept a close eye on the Parisian newspapers. When no mention was made of the scam, Lustig determined that Poisson had been too ashamed to admit he fell for such a scheme and had never reported it. Lustig promptly headed back to Paris and sold the Eiffel Tower a second time, after which the victims did go to the police, forcing Lustig to leave Europe and head to the United States. In 1934, Lustig was arrested for counterfeiting, and served time in Alcatraz prison. He died of pneumonia in 1947, at the age of 57.
- Gregor MacGregor was a Scottish conman who, in 1822, tried to attract investors and settlers for a non-existent country of "Poyais." Poyais, he claimed, was a fertile "Garden of Eden" on the Caribbean coast of Central America, with an efficient, European-style government. Successfully duping not only land investors and adventurers, but also bankers and aristocrats, MacGregor's scam ended with 250 settlers left stranded on the "beautiful" islands of Poyais. Instead of cotton growing wild and European-style cities, they found forest, swampland, malaria, and yellow fever. Before they managed to find passage back to England, approximately 180 were dead from tropical diseases.
- Phillip Arnold and John Slack, were perpetrators of the 1872 "Great Diamond Hoax" in San Francisco. Through a series of deceptions, the pair sold over a half-million dollars in Colorado land and stock shares to wealthy businessmen. In addition to the use of bags of "found" diamonds, they also "salted" the potential "diamond mine," scattering diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds where they would be likely to be discovered by potential investors. The hoax was discovered by Clarence King, a geologist leading a government survey team. When he heard about the diamonds found in Colorado, he feared that missing such a large diamond deposit would result in the loss of his funding, and immediately took a team to Colorado to investigate. When King found that the only gems that turned up were only several inches below the surface, and only underneath previously disturbed ground, he promptly notified the investors. The investors pleaded with him to stay silent long enough for them to sell their stock to others, but King refused and the hoax was exposed.
- Jefferson "Soapy" Smith got his nickname from his infamous soap swindle, where he would sell bars of soap from a suitcase on the sidewalk. He would make a show of wrapping an occasional bar of soap with a bill, ranging in size from $1 to $100. He would then mix the wrapped bars together, and sell them for between $1 and $5. Naturally, the "winners" of the currency-wrapped soap were always associates of Soapy. From 1887 to 1895, Soapy was king of Denver's underworld, making money through a variety scams, and becoming more of a gangster than a confidence man. Despite his reputation as a bad man, Soapy was also generous to charitable causes, and was often sought out by men like Parson Uzzell of the People's church for assistance. Smith was killed in 1898, during a gunfight.
Confidence tricks in the movies
The public has long had a fascination with confidence men, evident in the number of movies about con artists. Author Robert Nash summed up this feeling, saying, "we have a secret admiration for con artists. We get a vicarious thrill."
In the movies, con artists often prey upon the corrupt and greedy, meting out justice through their deceptive schemes. Instead of conscience-less criminals, they are portrayed as heroes. In The Sting, Robert Redford and Paul Newman use an elaborate set up to fleece a corrupt crime boss. In Matchstick Men, Nicolas Cage portrays a quirky, likable guy who meets his 14 year old daughter for the first time. He teaches her how to con a woman using a fake "found" lottery ticket, but when the con is over, he insists that she return the woman's money. In Paper Moon, a good looking and likable depression-era con man and his young daughter travel across the country, conning everyone from little old ladies to bootleggers. Despite the fact that such a young girl is being introduced into a dangerous life of crime, the audience is still left rooting for the two to stay together at the end of the film.
Confidence games are often portrayed in the movies as impressive schemes thought up by basically good, likable men and women. Rarely do innocent people suffer, and rarely does one see any noteworthy impact on the lives of ordinary, hardworking people. Instead, it is the crime bosses, the corrupt businessmen, the greedy and dishonest who suffer. Hollywood perpetrates the concept of con men who love the challenge of cheating the wealthy, greedy and arrogant. However, this is a sentimental way of looking at confidence men. There is not, nor has there ever been any "code of honor" among con artists.
- New York Herald, Arrest of the Confidence Man. Retrieved May 29, 2017.
- North American Securities Administrators Association, How to Spot a Con Artist. Retrieved May 29, 2017.
- Crimes of Persuasion, Pigeon Drop Theft. Retrieved May 29, 2017.
- www.abagnale.com, About Frank Abagnale. Retrieved May 29, 2017.
- Jeff Maysh, The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower…Twice. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved May 29, 2017.
- Robert Wilson, The Great Diamond Hoax of 1872. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved May 29, 2017.
- Friends of Badman Soapy Smith, History Part 1. Retrieved May 29, 2017.
- Chris Wright, Love of the Game. Boston Phoenix. Retrieved May 29, 2017
All links retrieved May 29, 2017.
- FraudAid: site giving anti-scam information.
- Interview with author and policeman Dennis Marlock
- Quackwatch: scams in the health industry.
- "The Blonger Gang" details the exploits and arrest of Denver's "Million Dollar Bunko Ring."
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