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Law and Crime

The Art of the Con and Why People Fall for It

How the con is pulled off, why fraudsters are successful, and how to spot them.

C. Scott
Source: C. Scott

By definition, a con artist is a manipulator who cheats, or tricks, others through persuading them to believe something that is not true. Through deception, they fool people into believing they can make easy money when, in fact, it is the con artist who ends up taking the victim’s money. The criminal and legal consequences of such indiscretions can be insignificant or great, depending on the circumstances and the laws of the land. In the course of co-authoring The Crime Book, which covered more than 100 crimes, I researched and wrote a chapter about con artists. Their crimes are varied, as are their behaviors. But the one thing they each have in common is the power of persuasion to take advantage of unsuspecting people.

Name of the Game

The confidence game, as scam artistry is called, is one of the oldest tricks in the trade. It exploits people’s trust. Human nature is on the side of these masters of fraud when it comes to defrauding their marks, or victims, and contributes to the con’s enduring success. Perpetrators have been referred to everything from flimflam operators, hustlers, grifters, and tricksters. The victims have been called marks, suckers, and gulls. And while media publicity has further romanticized cons and put their crimes in the public eye, their actions are anything but glamorous.

Even further, the cost of the capers to victims may run anywhere from a couple hundred to a few million dollars, with some victims learning the hard way, using their own free will, that when an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission reported that people lost $1.48 billion to fraud in 2018, an increase of 38 percent in 2017.

It Can Happen to You

How do unsuspecting people get duped to begin with? After all, even the most rational people have proven susceptible to crimes of trickery. That’s because con artists often prey on people’s trust and their propensity for believing what they wish was true—especially with get-rich-quick schemes and individual’s desire for a quick buck. They let their guard down and buy into what con artists feed them—all in the belief of the scammer and a high rate of return in exchange for a small investment, albeit a shady deal. But the convincing scammer skews the victim into thinking the payoff will come true and the scheme is legitimate.

Some famous con artists were at the top of their game—until they ultimately got caught. With impersonator Frank Abagnale and international career jewel thief Doris Payne, they are the epitome of the swindling game. By their own rights, they became experts at the art of the con and successfully evaded law enforcement for years. Two centuries earlier, Jeanne de la Motte, a cunning Frenchwoman, orchestrated a diamond necklace affair, which was one of several scandals that led to the French Revolution and helped destroy a monarchy.

Other significant confidence criminals, from forged artwork to fake manuscripts—Elmyr de Hory, a Hungarian-born forger of Picassos and Matisses, who sold more than a thousand pieces to art galleries worldwide, and novelist Clifford Irving, who wrote a fabricated autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. These stories break down how grifters pass off their own works as those of masters and literary greats—but eventually they too were caught.

A con artist can execute remarkable expertise in their trickery, as with Czechoslovakian Victor Lustig, who in an underhanded plot sold the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal—not once, but twice.

Psychology of the Con

Each of these con artists have one thing in common: the power of persuasion to swindle their victims. The successful ones exhibit three similar characteristics—psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism—which have been referred to by psychologists as “dark” personality traits.

Those characteristics allow con artists to swindle people out of their money without feeling any remorse or guilt. Another thing most chiselers have in common are their egos. These extortion sales people boost the psyche of the perpetrators and make them feel even more confident, thus the description of the con has been termed as a confidence game.

Because cons often change their identities as part of their game, it can be pesky for law enforcement to catch them. Also, police may not even go after them when the crime has to do with bilking property and even money from their marks. That’s because the law can consider the loss a civil issue and not a legal one, unless it’s a corporate white-collar crime, such as those committed by Bernie Madoff, a former stockbroker, financier, and operator of a massive pyramid scheme that perpetrated the largest financial fraud in recent US history. Going after grifters is often of low status, more difficult to prove, and less likely to be prosecuted, with violent crimes and terrorist acts of higher priority.

That happenstance leads to a message for everyday people: Buyer beware.


DK, Scott, C. (2017). The Crime Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. London, England: DK Books

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