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How to spot a con artist

A person crossing their fingers behind police tape
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Human interaction requires trust and confidence. These elements are the key components of interpersonal communication and the bedrock of cooperation. In order to successfully deal with others, we need to have a degree of confidence and a measure of trust in those we’re speaking to. From that platform, friendships and winning business relationships can form.

However, there are people out there - hustlers, scammers and fraudsters - who have created techniques and methodologies to prey on our weaknesses in this area. Using little more than convincing charm and charisma, confidence tricksters through the ages have taken the vulnerable for a ride - and it’s useful to know one or two of their methods, just in case we end up in their sights.

But where did the term ‘confidence trickster’ first come from? Smart money is on the phrase originating in the early 19th century from a questionable character known as William Thompson, who was widely reported as being criminally active with a confidence-based scheme in New York City in the 1840s. His modus operandi was a five-parter, and most confidence tricks to this day tend to follow the same process.

The approach

Initially, Thompson would approach a stranger (known as a ‘mark’ in criminal circles) dressed smartly and carrying the air of a well-to-do man about town. He would then strike up a friendly dialogue.

Earning trust

During the conversation, Thompson would gradually build rapport and trust with his target. He would present himself as a trustworthy individual, sometimes even pretending to know the person he was speaking to.

The borrow

As the conversation continued, Thompson would eventually ask his mark to lend him something valuable. This would be something they had about their person, be it a pocket watch or physical money. He would come up with a fabricated but convincing reason as to why he needed to borrow this object for a brief period of time. Using the strong rapport he’d already built up, the dupe would be easily convinced.

The quick exit

Once the possession was in his hands, Thompson would promptly make his exit, leaving the victim waiting for his return. Thompson, of course, would not come back.

The truth dawns

After some time, the mark would eventually understand that they had been swindled and, undoubtedly, cursed their own gullibility.

It’s this process that’s enabled con artists, scam artists and grifters to thrive - with the tactics remaining eerily consistent. When it comes to social interaction, we all have the innate desire for connection, we seek approval and, if financial gain is mentioned, all the better.

Thompson’s technique was simple and unadorned, and relied entirely on his ability to charm a target whilst selling a story. Combined with his ability to pick a suitably vulnerable mark, it demonstrates how tools and distractions aren’t particularly necessary in the confidence game, and that nerve and the ability to lie seamlessly are far more important.

That said, there are confidence tricks out there that rely on equipment and diversions to fool an unsuspecting victim.

The ‘gold brick’ scam historically involved blocks of lead painted with gold colouring to resemble ingots, with the reality only being revealed when the brick gets valued. This age-old trick has adhered to a much more modern interpretation. Ever heard of someone buying a laptop that turned out to be two or three bricks?

Sometimes entire premises are set up to defraud punters looking for an above-board time. One particularly egregious example is the ‘clip joint’, which notoriously preyed on the libido of gentlemen wandering the red light district. Tempted into a strip bar and having ordered a drink, punters would find they were charged astronomical prices for a single drink - and they wouldn’t be getting past security until they’d paid up.

Another trick which has taken different forms throughout history is the ‘melon drop’ scam which is thought to have originated in Japan - where at one time honeydew melons were extremely pricey items. A trickster would wander around with the fruit and feign dropping it after a deliberate collision with their mark - and then tax the unsuspecting target’s sympathy with a tale of woe.

All of these scams are brilliantly designed to prey on one or more mental failings or weaknesses which all human beings have. Be it naivety, curiosity or the urge to bag a bargain, confidence tricksters know how our minds tick and have the ruthless lack of sympathy required to exploit our shortcomings.

So, how can we avoid falling prey to these routines - especially when we consider that the techniques are constantly being updated in line with modern technology and are as prevalent today as they’ve ever been? The answer is to reduce our chances of becoming a victim - and we can do that by knowing how the tricksters operate.

Don’t become a mark

Sadly, naivety usually only fades after we’ve been twice bitten, but it’s still wise to treat any interaction with a stranger offering you an appealing benefit with a pinch of salt. Confidence tricksters are experienced at picking a mark who is vulnerable to flattery, confusion and a sob story. Don’t be one of those who fall for it.

Don’t be distracted

As the saying goes, it’s a jungle out there, and just as the rainforest has its predators, the streets contain some unsavoury characters who rely on distracting us whilst they rifle through our pockets, whether figuratively or literally. If you stay alert and treat all newcomers with healthy cynicism, you can avoid being distracted.

Don’t be pressured by time

Many confidence tricksters instil a sense of urgency to rush their marks and force the sense that they must comply to avoid some fabricated time pressure. If when we interact with a new individual and it seems they are hurrying us to some uncertain end, remember that your time is yours and you’re under no contract to do anything in line with a stranger’s timing.

Listen to your intuition

Tricksters can make us do things that don’t seem second nature, such as producing your wallet or handing over personal belongings - and they’re able to bypass our gut feelings to do this. If ever you get that sense that a stranger is making you do something you don’t want to do, take a step back and some time out to evaluate what’s really going on.

Trust and confidence can truly be a double-edged sword - being both positive character traits but also vulnerabilities in the eyes of those looking to empty our pockets. A little knowledge and a touch of scepticism can help us to hold on to our wits - whilst also holding on to our cash.