The Long and Short Cons of Master Manipulators
To a Machiavellian, if you fell for the scam you deserved it.
Posted Dec 04, 2015
There are many types of confidence games, as you probably know. Some are “long cons” and some are “short cons.” Three-card monte is a short con. Ponzi schemes are long cons.
Did you know that some con artists can fold a short con into a long con and use them concurrently to run a sophisticated scam? I discovered and exposed just such a scheme — one that was being run behind the back of the U.S. Air Force. The con artists used the long con to gain trust and set the trap. The short con was then used to spring the trap and "gull the rubes" out of their money.
Here’s the story of how I discovered the scheme. As you read, you’ll begin to see how the long con and short con worked hand-in-glove to empower the scammers to cheat people literally in broad daylight.
In a previous life I was the CEO of a consulting firm that provided training and counseling programs at U.S. military bases. We operated under contract with the Department of Defense. Normally my staff handled the consulting work while I focused on running the company and bringing in new business. However, for a short time in the late 1990s I also doubled as a consultant. I was working on-site at MacDill Air Force Base as a financial consultant when a young airman brought me her newly-purchased “retirement plan” to review. She had bought it, but she didn’t understand it.
I asked her to show me the retirement plan documents. She handed me a whole life insurance policy. Drawing upon my inimitable powers of deduction, I said to her:
“This is a whole life insurance policy.”
“No it isn’t,” she said. “The VA representative who sold it to me said it’s a retirement plan.”
I replied, “Well, we have a problem, because the VA (i.e., Veterans Administration) doesn’t sell insurance or retirement plans.”
She had some other documents, so I asked to see those as well. Among the papers she handed me were two business cards. One of the cards bore the name, “Veterans Affairs Services,” and had an official-looking seal that mimicked the Veterans Administration emblem. The other card bore the name, “Military Financial Planning Association,” and also featured an official-looking seal. These business cards also bore the names of the sales representatives who had come onto the base to sell whole life insurance policies under false pretenses.
I asked the airman how she met these two insurance salesmen. She said they had contacted her first sergeant and arranged to give a briefing to everyone in her unit during duty hours. They said they were “VA representatives.”
So now I had the full picture. As devious as it sounds, it was in fact much worse:
- These salesmen had lied to gain entry to a restricted-access military base.
- They had impersonated U.S. government representatives, either explicitly or implicitly.
- Under the pretext that they were “VA representatives,” they had arranged “retirement briefings” that were nothing more than sales prospecting opportunities.
- They had conducted these “briefings” during duty hours — when military personnel were on the clock and supposed to be working, using the pretext that they were sent by the VA to provide advice to soldiers.
- They had misrepresented whole life policies as retirement plans and deliberately concealed the fact that they were selling insurance. (Military personnel can buy hundreds of thousands of dollars of cheap, group life insurance via payroll deduction. Expensive whole life insurance, with its underlying commissions and fees, is not something I would have recommended to a twenty-something airman interested in saving for retirement.)
I explained to the unfortunate airman that she had been duped, but so had numerous other people on the base who had accepted these con artists as trustworthy government representatives. I recommended that she file a complaint with the Florida Department of Insurance and with the company whose name appeared on the whole life policy. I advised her to demand cancellation of the policy and a full refund of her money, since it was fraudulently sold to her.
Meanwhile, I reported the matter to MacDill’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID). They immediately barred the two con artists from the base. An alert was sent to all units on base to be wary of salesmen masquerading as “VA representatives.” I also reported this matter to the Florida Department of Insurance for investigation and possible license revocation.
After I made these reports, the matter was out of my hands. I don’t know what further actions may have been taken by CID or the State of Florida. The young airman never returned to my office, so I have no further details from her.
To this day — almost 20 years later — the U.S. Army maintains a cautionary article on its website about this same con game, in which my discovery at MacDill is featured as an example.
Both the long con and short con were necessary to accomplish this scheme. The long con set the trap, then the short con sprang the trap. Here’s how:
The long con involved (a) printing deceptive business cards; (b) making calls to various authorities on the base, claiming to be VA representatives; (c) setting up “VA briefings” during duty hours; (d) gaining access to the base by falsely claiming to be from the VA; (e) dressing the part; and (f) disguising their sales pitch as “retirement planning” advice from the VA.
Having used their false cover as “VA representatives” to establish credibility and gain access to the base, the con artists then lured victims to a “retirement planning briefing” where they sold whole life policies under false pretenses.
What if the con artists had put that much effort and ingenuity into a legitimate sales career? But in the end, it's always their greed that undoes them. Greed makes them stupid.