Con artists are masters of trustiStock/stevanovicigor
You can learn a lot about trust from the people who violate it for a living. “A hood planning a bank holdup might case the treasury for rudimentary facts, but in the end he depends on his gun. A con artist's only weapon is his brain,” says celebrity con man Frank Abagnale, author of the memoir Catch Me If You Can. So what do Abagnale and other con artists know that you don’t? For starters, how to earn the confidence of strangers in seconds flat. Watch out for these 12 common tricks scammers use to breach your defenses—and remember them the next time you need to build trust just a little faster.
Con artists target the vulnerableiStock/NADOFOTOS
If you’ve ever been scammed (and most of us have, in one way or another) it doesn’t mean you’re stupid—it only means you were vulnerable. That’s because scam artists play to emotions, not intelligence. “People who are going through times of extreme life change, for instance, are very vulnerable to con artists because you lose your equilibrium,” says science writer Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time. “You end up more susceptible to all types of cons when you, for instance, have lost a job… [but] positive changes also make you vulnerable—you start being more credulous of good things in general.” Other easy targets? The lonely, the elderly, and the insecure (usually men) are notoriously easy targets.
Con artists get you talking—a lotiStock/dolgachov
The most successful cons hinge on desire—what can the con artist offer the victim that will make them abandon rational thought for the promise of fantasy? The best way to discover someone’s desires: Ask. “Victims don’t ask a lot of questions; they answer a lot of questions,” writes a retired telemarketing scammer in this shocking true confession. “Victims don’t look for why the offer is a scam; they look for why the offer will make them money. They want you to make them feel good so they can pull the trigger.” A scammer not only needs to be a master actor, but a master listener. And they have tricks for that, too.
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Con artists say your nameiStock/g-stockstudio
“It is crazy how much more we will like someone if they remember our name,” Konnikova says. “And you can fake this: If I’ve looked up your picture and I can say, ‘Hey, [name], do you remember me?’ you are not going to say, 'I don’t know who the hell you are.' You will fake it, and you might even convince yourself that you have met me in the past.” A name creates a sense of familiarity, but it can also serve as a distraction. Professional card hustlers might even say your name to draw your attention away from their mischievous hands.
Con artists mimic your postureiStock/opolja
Numerous studies show that mirroring body language increases empathy. It makes salesmen more likely to close deals, and it allows con men to build subconscious bonds with their victims. Retired con artist Simon Lovell, author of How to Cheat at Everything: A Con Man Reveals the Secrets of the Esoteric Trade of Cheating, Scams, and Hustles, admits to drawing people in by mirroring their body language at bars. Mirroring creates a feeling of familiarity and belonging, and most importantly to scammers, it breaks down mental defenses by allowing access to their victims’ physical space.
Con artists show their "flaws"iStock/PeopleImages
Con men tend to be great talkers. "Many men kissed the Blarney Stone," former scammer Lovell likes to say, "a con man has swallowed it." And speech can be manipulated just as effectively as body language to build a quick sense of familiarity between scammer and victim. A good con man will put his victim at ease by telling stories that reveal his own anxieties, faults, and desires, thereby fabricating what feels like common ground. As research shows, we’re quicker to trust people we see as imperfect (like ourselves).
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Con men call on influential friendsiStock/TCShutter
Social proof, one of psychologist Robert Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion, says that people are more likely to do things if they see other people doing them first; You’re more likely to friend a stranger on Facebook if the two of you have mutual friends, right? But social proof is easier to fabricate than you’d think. A retired telephone scammer recalls how his company hired TV’s Adam West to unwittingly help sell an Internet-kiosk scam. “I guess people see an Adam West or an Ernest Borgnine (we also hired him) on TV and assume the product he’s selling is the real deal or else he wouldn’t be selling it. But the celebrity’s contract frequently states that he or she cannot be held responsible for the accuracy of the claims in the script… he may know nothing at all about the business. He just comes in, reads his lines, and leaves.” The first day the company’s Adam West ad ran, it generated more than 10,000 phone calls.
Con artists let you win—at firstiStock/SurkovDimitri
The easiest way to build up a victim’s confidence is to give them a taste of reward. To that end, many scams begin by letting the victim win something—be it money, affection, social acceptance, etc. The classic three card monte scam is a great example. The dealer draws players in by letting them correctly pick one out of three shuffled cards a few times in a row before subtly changing his shuffling method, tricking the player’s brain and robbing them blind.
Con artists set a ticking clockiStock/ferrerivideo
The same way retailers influence shoppers to buy more with tempting “limited time only” sales, con artists use the “time principle” to persuade their victims to act quickly before rational thought and self-control can kick in. Retired scammer Lovell sites a favorite trick where the artist chats the victim up about a special card-counting method before inviting the victim to a secret poker game that very night. The scammer needs a partner, he says—is the victim free tonight?
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Con artists start smalliStock/kosmos111
In the card-counting scam above, the con artist lets the victim win a $500 pot before taking him for thousands. Other scams start by asking the victim for progressively larger favors, starting small. Konnikova calls this the “foot in the door” technique. “Clearly, if I’ve said yes to you in the past, that means that you’re worth it,” she says, “otherwise it would have been very stupid of me to say yes before.” In one devastating online dating story, a woman was seduced by a dating site scammer who asked her for progressively larger money transfers—first $8,000, then $10,000, then $15,000—with the promise that it would help him clear customs and permit a long-term relationship together. She ended up giving him more than $300,000 before the scam was exposed.
Con artists dress the partiStock/David Stuart
“This was lesson No. 1,” admits one retired conman, “Swindling is really acting, and you play a character who will help you appear legitimate, confident, and successful … even when you are not.” At age 17, Frank Abagnale famously bought a pilot’s uniform so he could pass fake checks at any hotel, bank, or business in the country without question. “Airline pilots are men to be admired and respected,” he wrote, “Men to be trusted. Men of means. And you don't expect an airline pilot to be a local resident. Or a check swindler.”
Con artists rely on your embarrassmentiStock/IakovKalinin
“It’s crazy how often you have people who, even when you present them with evidence that they’ve been the victim of a scam, refuse to believe it,” says Konnikova. “We often don’t want to let other people know, because we’re embarrassed.” Such was the case when early con man Victor Lustig convinced a Paris metal dealer that he was selling the Eiffel Tower for scrap to the highest bidder. Lustig conned the man out of a $70,000 bribe in exchange for rights to demolish the Tower and take possession of 7,000 tons of metal. Of course, this was all a lie. But the dealer never reported the scam; he was too ashamed.
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Finally: Con artists love this phraseiStock/Saklakova
“You and I are going to make a lot of money together.” If someone says this to you, ask yourself, what’s in it for him? If you can’t find an answer, run.