The Anonymous Confessions of a Con Artist

A veteran scammer reveals how he made millions by ripping off unsuspecting investors—and how you can protect yourself from people like him.

By Doug Shadel from AARP the Magazine
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine November 2013

confessions of a con artist

Chris Pecoraro /Getty Images

I learned how to do this at an early age. I’ve got a natural ability to talk people into things. As a child growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, folks called me Fonzie; they would say, “Hey, Fonzie, that mouth of yours is gonna make you a million dollars someday.”

In my neighborhood, 500 families lived on my street, giving me a lot of parents to manipulate. You learned what works. I played the heartstrings; I intimidated; I made people feel bad for me. Whether it was manipulating my three older sisters or convincing the neighbor lady that I needed one more ice cream bar from the Mister Softee truck, I always knew what to say. And as I got older, I got better.

In 1995, I got a chance to apply these gifts of persuasion in the workplace. I went to work for a Florida company that sold prepaid-calling-card vending machines. At first I thought it was a real job. But it seemed like a lot of customers were calling back to complain that the cards didn’t work. In fact, they all called back to complain. Believe it or not, for a long time, I thought every business was like this. Gradually, it dawned on me that this was the dark side of corporate America. But by then I had developed my own dark side—drug addiction.

I first tried heroin when I was 22 and became instantly addicted. For the next 15 years, I would move in and out of rehab centers and in and out of fraud boiler rooms. Drug addiction gave me the two characteristics all scam operators want in a closer: selfishness and greed. If you are strung out and in need of a fix, you will do anything to feed your habit.

This may explain why the owners of many of these scam operations in South Florida recruited their boiler room staff at local Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Who’s a better talker than an addict? Nobody. Who is more manipulative than an addict? Nobody. Who is more desperate for money than an addict? Nobody.

So you combine that with my experience selling over the phone in Florida and you have the perfect storm. I’m a hustler from New York and an addict. These boiler rooms were dying to hire me.

This was lesson No. 1: Swindling is really acting, and you play a character who will help you appear legitimate, confident, and successful … even when you are not.

I’ve trained hundreds of salespeople who worked in scam boiler rooms. I always told them to picture themselves in the big sprawling office, sitting behind the
mahogany desk, with the family portrait on the credenza. Their autographed football and jerseys are hanging on the wall, along with awards and pictures of themselves with famous actors. They are these bigwigs to whom everybody wants to talk. The idea is to build up their confidence so that when they ask for the money, they won’t show one lick of fear or hesitation or doubt that this isn’t absolutely the greatest decision this client is making for his or her family and future.

The persona explains how a barrel of dented-can drug addicts can persuade successful businesspeople to write big checks without reading the paperwork. On the outside, you will see nothing but charm, an engaging personality, and swagger. On the inside lies a predator. There is no conscience in this business.

The business needs to have a persona, too, to look legitimate and trustworthy. So we would run television commercials and hire famous actors to appear in them. In that Internet-kiosk scam, we hired Adam West of the 1960s TV show Batman. The first day we ran that ad, it generated more than 10,000 phone calls.

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. The celebrity probably doesn’t know that people are getting ripped off; he may know nothing at all about the business. He just comes in, reads his lines, and leaves.

Next: The two most powerful ways to scam a victim »

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