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Can You Be Conned?

Psychologist explains how con artists "take your brain."

M. Konnikova
Source: M. Konnikova

This past November, a New York Times article described the saga of Niall Rice, who spent a fortune on two psychics in Manhattan. He could barely understand how he’d been “sucked in.” Rice had been a successful businessman, yet these hustlers had fleeced him for all he had. He’s just the kind of person that confidence men and women look for.

At the time, Rice was feeling needy and anxious. He wished to rekindle a flame with a woman he loved. He spotted the sign in a psychic’s shop on Delancy Street and went in. A woman there claimed that for $2500, she could fulfill his hopes. During the first week, Rice spent over ten grand. Then he switched to psychic Priscilla Delmaro.

When Rice discovered that the woman he loved was deceased, he was heartbroken. However, because he’d consulted a psychic, he was in luck. Delmaro assured him that she had access to the Other Side; she could still reunite the couple. But it would cost him. A lot.

The weekly visits became addictive, until Rice had “invested” $90,000. He also became intimate with Delmaro – a “massive mistake.” Now he was truly compromised. He made a final payment of $100,000, afraid that if he didn’t, bad things would happen.

Nevertheless, Rice finally reported Delmaro for the hustle. Too late. He lost everything.

The answer to the question posed in the title of this blog is yes. You can be conned. We all can. Con artists exploit basic human need and desire. For them, it’s a game of belief.

Maria Konnikova’s new book, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It… Every Time, offers many similar stories to Rice and the psychics, and explains how it happens. She starts with Ferdinand Demara (the Great Impostor), a high school dropout who successfully posed as several different competent professionals (including a trauma surgeon), and moves on to one surprising story after another.

Her previous book, the bestselling Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes, deconstructed Holmes’ perspective. Now this award-winning journalist/psychologist turns her keen eye to the world of barracudas, swindlers, impostors, and scammers.

The complex deceptions are both engaging and disturbing: a man who successfully wove an alternative reality for an aristocratic family, a woman who hosed art lovers for two decades, a couple that used religion to hoodwink and fleece their followers. These connivers know how to gain our trust while leading us along the path of destruction.

We think we’re immune, and they count on that. We think we’re too smart to be taken, and that’s good for them. They love that we believe we can spot a con a mile away. The key to their success lies in such aspects of basic human cognition as denial, exceptionalism, and confirmation bias.

Among the surprises in Konnikova’s book are statistics about who the victims are. It’s true that certain vulnerabilities are open invitations, like in the story of Rice above, but plenty of well-educated, financially stable people have been stung as well. Easily.

Religion, money, love, and self-improvement are the breeding grounds for the con game.

Blending news accounts with first-person published narratives, public records, and original interviews, Konnikova dissects the techniques of some of the world’s most successful con artists. A page-turner, this book provides plenty of insight about them and about us, their targets.

Some of these cons lasted for years. After reading about them, I began to look at even people I knew well with suspicion. So I asked Konnikova whether she, too, grew paranoid after immersing in this subject.

“Yes, I did,” she said. “I went through a stage where I basically lost faith in much of humanity. I was so focused on the people out there to get you that I became highly skeptical of most any interaction. I've tried to remind myself that I've been dealing with outliers and the outlook isn't quite so grim!”

In addition, those flim-flammers that she actually interviewed disturbed her. “I had to stop interviewing the con artists themselves about halfway through. They were, for the most part, far too charismatic, and I started worrying I'd portray them in too positive a light as I got to know them.”

The takeaway message is that we should all be more careful. Within our own sense of immunity lies our vulnerability. If you have goals of any kind – to be “happier, healthier, richer, loved, accepted, better looking, younger, smarter a deeper more fulfilled human being” – you can be groomed for a hustle.

Featured in another recent article, a man who’d worked the well-known Nigerian “419” scandals, which baited people into false investments, described the grooming process he'd done on romance sites as “taking the brain.” The aim is to bond with targets such that their lives – and bank accounts – feel shared. The targets gradually form an allegiance to the scammer, losing their ability to be objective (and careful). That’s when the scammer can start asking for money.

It's a formula that exploits human bias, and it's successful.

No matter what the scam, once targets are invested, they don’t want to lose their stake so they keep going, because there’s always a promise at the other end that forms the goal: romance, gain, security, peace of mind. There will be a payoff. There must be. A bias sets in toward believing the scammer. The more they lose, the more they convince themselves that it will all work out.

“We’re often sucked up in cons,” says Konnikova, “because we don’t quite know how to disengage – it feels like we’re losing face, letting someone down.”

For many, there comes a stunning moment when the hustle is realized: disbelief, helplessness, anger, and the need to reclaim one’s funds and self-respect. One feels played for a fool.

Yet many of the duped get duped again.

Still, you can prepare yourself defensively. “You can’t learn about a scam that you don’t realize is happening,” says Konnikova, “but what you can do is learn about cons more broadly: the types, the approaches, the methods, the techniques.”

The Confidence Game provides a good education. One chapter offers an array of tools, such as defining an escape route, setting limits, becoming observant, and developing a firm – and honest – sense of self. Nothing will immunize you entirely, but you can get smarter about those who are out here among us fishing for victims.