The Cunning Art of Con Artistry, with Maria Konnikova

March 07, 2016

What is it about human behavior that allows con artists to pull off elaborate scams in which they fool thousands? Moreover what is about those thousands of people — many of them intelligent and sophisticated — that make them so vulnerable them to being scammed? New Yorker contributor Maria Konnikova joins us today to talk about her new book, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for it Every Time.

Konnikova analyses the tactics that con artists use to appeal to our sensibilities, gain our trust, and lower our defenses, and she explores what motivates these fraudsters to do what they do. Some cons are so complicated that they can actually be more difficult than accomplishing the same thing when playing by the rules. Konnikova posits that a combination of entitlement and power spurs con artists to jump through hoops most of us could never imagine.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, March seven, 2016. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And today I’m going to be talking to Maria Konnikova, a writer for The New Yorker magazine and the author of the acclaimed book How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. She’s here to talk about her new book, The Confidence Game, Why We Fall for It Every Time. It’s about the psychological principles behind successful swindles and cons. Con men are master psychologists and psychologists have learned a lot about how everyone’s mind works by studying the schemes of con men. It’s a tremendous book and one that I believe is destined to become a skeptical classic. 

Maria, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for having me, Lindsay. What motivated you to write a book about con games? 

Well, originally it happened on one wintry evening when I was watching David Mamet’s Health of Games. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen it, but the protagonist of the movie is this woman in her 30s. She has APHC in psychology, very smart. She’s a clinical psychologist. So she actually sees patients. She’s someone who should be very intimately familiar with human nature and with perception and with with how humans operate. And she ends up falling through this very intricate long con and she thinks she’s in on it. She thinks that she’s skeptical and savvy and kind of part of the whole thing. And she knows she’s dealing with con artists. But at the end of the film, she ends up just emotionally and financially devastated. And it really made me wonder, you know, how many of those types of victims are there out there, because that’s not your typical victim profile. That’s not what we normally see. And I realize that no one had ever really asked that question and no one had really investigated how it’s possible for someone who should really be the last person to fall for a con artist to, in fact, be such a victim. 

And this is something that happens in the real world, too, right? Not just in fiction that you’ve got these incredibly savvy, talented, accomplished, rich people who are falling victim to con games. 

Absolutely. Well, that was that was one of the things that I was curious about. I said. Well, obviously, you know David Mamet. He can invent anything. But when I started investigating, I still thought that someone like me, you know, I would be immune. Clearly, I’m skeptical. I know what questions to ask. I know that I’m not going to believe it’s too good to be true narrative. And yet what I found is that over and over and over, victims are incredibly intelligent, sophisticated people. I mean, I read about people who were physicists, people who were other types of scientists, Wall Street bankers made really wherever you turn, you see that every single person is susceptible. Even con artists. There’s some Collins designed to trick con artists themselves. 

Are there customers who specialize in grifting their fellow con men insensitive to professional courtesy? 

Well, normally it’s not. It’s not a specialty so much as they do it when they think that someone’s gotten a little too big for his britches. That is big. So they do it to kind of take them down a notch and to show them that there actually aren’t all that. It also happens if someone will go against one of the unspoken laws of conduct among con artists. So normally it’s more of a payback. 

What are the unspoken laws of conduct among con artists? 

Well, you know, it’s some sort of professional courtesy. So a lot of con artists, they don’t operate in isolation. They operate in teams. So you have, you know, someone who ropes you in as a kind of gets you into the game. Then you have the inside man who seems to be totally unrelated but ends up making you feel like you’re really part of some other narrative and really just making sure that you get emotionally invested in this. And then there are all sorts of big characters who all the time you think are totally unrelated bystanders and who end up being complicit in the con so that you have this whole drama that’s been played out for your benefit. And so there’s certain implicit rules in that. Right. You have to cooperate. There has to be some sort of trust, kind of an honor among thieves type of mentality. And if someone breaks that, if someone takes a little more for themselves, if someone had a little bit. If someone actually tries to break out of that team dynamic, then I think people will get very angry. 

It’s interesting, in the book, you talk a lot about cons working in sort of very rarefied subcultures and exploiting that subcultures isolation and their own sense of belonging. How does that work? 

I think that a lot of people want to belong to a community that either feels exclusive or feels like it will be a home for them. It’s not a. Unity of the entire world, it’s a community that’s been specifically chosen for some specific reason, and con artists really love these sorts of pre established communities. I think a lot of them, that’s the reason why they end up preying on religious communities. So Bernie Madoff, for instance, really used the Jewish network. Right. About another guy who ran this Ponzi scheme before Charles Ponzi was born called the Franklins Syndicate. And he used the Episcopalian Church network. People use private clubs and then they also sometimes create exclusive communities. So cults are really predicated on this notion of a select group of people. And no one thinks that it’s a cult. It’s just a really wonderful exclusive group that has some sort of higher purpose. 

I love all the guys in the book. All the con artists who are purported aristocrats who are selling everybody on the idea of getting a little taste of the aristocracy. 

I think that’s I was just fascinated by these. And we love to believe that, you know, throughout history we have multiple countesses, Anastasiya. We have the American version of Erich’s stock Recy, the fake Carnegie’s, the fake Rockefeller. There’s one woman, Cathy Chadwick, who had this ingenious scheme so that everyone thought that she was the illegitimate heir of Carnegie. She went with a lawyer, very exclusive lawyer to Carnegie’s house, went inside, actually didn’t obviously talked to Carnegie because he had no idea who she was. Talk to the maid. But it looked like she was going inside for a legitimate appointment, came out. And by mistake, on purpose, dropped a promissory note that was signed by, quote unquote, Carnegie. And so the lawyer then perpetuated the rumor Cassie didn’t need to do a single thing. And she kept this going for years and everyone wanted to help her because everyone wants to be in close proximity to prestige, to wealth, to that kind of rarefied name. 

And everyone thought that she could pay her debts because she had this huge inheritance coming, right? 

Absolutely. Absolutely. And this is the scam is as old as time. I mean, it happened in France. But anyway, it’s interesting that a lot of these sorts of scams, when it comes to the aristocracy at those con artists are often female, even though for the most part, artists are male. I’m not sure why that should be. But there is a sort of gender divide there. 

Can you tell us about the teenager who posed as a member of the aristocracy to go on an IMAX cognacs spree across Europe? 

So, yeah, this was a gentleman who goes by many names. 

He is still operational, actually. And he had this notion, which was a very smart notion, that in England they are star cracy is still quite alive and well and people definitely want to be associated with aristocratic people. And so what he did was he said that he was a member of an aristocratic family and he went to an American Express office and they actually gave him a card under a fake name. So his real name was Narky Brown. And I don’t remember Lord, I actually can’t pronounce the name. But something very long with an A.. There was something very, very elaborate sounding. And he ended up getting an annex, which he then proceeded to get all sorts of debt on. He would go on these elaborate train trips where he would treat everyone to champagne and wine. And these intricate dinners. Then he opened up a Barclaycard because he already had one credit card that was an annex. And so he started just getting multiple cards and no one questioned him because there’s a sort of gentleman’s code of honor that you don’t want to be this person who questions a member of the aristocracy. And he kept pretending to be various members of aristocracy for a number of years. On one occasion, he was a member of the Monaco aristocracy, on another occasion, a member of some German aristocratic family. So he had no shortage of lineages and he was able to get away with so much. He still is. As I said, as far as we know, he is out on their own. 

Some con men like him have an obvious motive of glamor and travel and adulation and wealth. But then there are some other people you talked about it in the book who don’t seem to be in it for the money, like Ferdinand Demara, who seem to gravitate towards cons that didn’t see prisons and being a ship’s doctor in the military didn’t seem to have a lot of obvious secondary gain there. Well, that drove him. 

Well, I think that’s an excellent question. And it also goes to something very important about con artists, which is it’s a common misperception that it’s all about money. It really isn’t. If it were all about money, a lot of con artists could go into legitimate professions and actually probably make more money than they do. Being con artists, because they’re really smart and being a con artist, especially if you’re an impostor, takes a lot of time and effort and energy. So it’s not like it’s an easy way out. I think the other thing that they want is this sense of power. I mean, it’s a huge rush to know that you are in control of other people’s lives, that they are trusting you, that you are able to direct the flow of their thoughts and their emotions. And it’s just this feeling of absolute power. It’s almost like playing God. And Fred, tomorrow you mentioned. I mean, you almost literally played God because he pretended to be a surgeon, was appointed as a surgeon to the Canadian Navy, ended up shipping out with hundreds of sailors under his care as the only medical doctor on board and virtually operated on them. So he never finished high school and he cut people open. 

And he did a pretty good job, which was what heart, as far as we know. 

As far as we know, he didn’t kill anyone. So he is the medical textbook. And he also had persuaded he’d conned another doctor to write a field guide for the troops. So in case the troops were out in battle and there was no doctor handy, and obviously that field guide was for Jama’a himself and he ended up using those two things together and lots and lots of antibiotics to make sure that he could pull some of the cells. But can you imagine not just the nerve, but the narcissism, the callousness, just the sheer sense of power that you have the power of life and death to cut someone open with no background in that? I think that gets at the heart of why a lot of con artists do what they do. 

For that rush, it’s an interesting discussion. The book about the dark triad, the personality traits and psychopathy is just part of it. Can you elaborate on that? 

Sure. So psychopathy, I think, is the one that we’re all most familiar with, and that’s this lack of empathy, this lack of emotion. He don’t really experience emotions the way other people do, and that enables you to be pretty cold mindedly irrational when you’re dealing with others. It also enables you actually to pretend to be empathetic because you can rationally kind of distance yourself from the situation to really figure out where someone else coming from rather than getting emotional about it. Then there is no stoicism, which is this overblown ego and sense of self. But it’s not just that. It’s also a really strong sense of entitlement that allows you to rationalize away anything you’re doing as not anything that you’re doing wrong to someone else, but rather as something you’re doing right to put the world right because you deserve it. So you’re taking it away from someone else because you deserve it more. So really, you’re just writing a wrong. That’s that kind of narcissistic drive. 

So someone like Demara saying to himself, well, it’s not fair. I deserved great educational credentials, so I’m going to take them. 

Exactly. He says I’m smarter than other P.H. do. So why in the world should I spend 10 years educating myself? Let me just take the P HD because I deserve it more than those schmucks who have it. So that’s that’s exactly right. That’s that kind of reasoning. And then finally, you have the Machiavellianism, which derives its name from Machiavelli’s The Prince. And that’s what enables you to persuade other people to do all of this, because it’s the power of persuasion for your own ends. So people who are high and mighty valiant ism are extremely good at convincing others to do their bidding. And the trick is that they often do it in a way that the others don’t think that they are being asked to do anything. They think that it’s their own idea that you think that they’re actually doing precisely what they want to be doing, not what the con artist wants them to be doing. 

What are some of the techniques that con artists use to make things seem like they were the Mark’s idea when in fact they were meticulously planted by the kind of artist? 

Well, you just use the word planted and that’s what they often will do. So they’re wonderful storytellers. They’re people who just expertly weave narratives that make sense of the world. And in those stories, they often will plant little suggestions that you don’t even really notice because you’re in the midst of the story. But then that suggestion can of worms its way into your mind. And so then you think that you thought of it yourself and all of a sudden you say, hey, you know what? Could it be a great idea to let’s think of an innocuous example. I could tell you a story where of a day in the park and there was some delicious ice cream in there somewhere. But really, the story isn’t about the day at the park. It’s about a cancer patient. And we would really focus on the cancer. 

We forget the ice cream, but then a few hours later, really go for some rocky road right now. Exactly. 

That’s the power of suggestion, and you think that you’re the one who who actually thought of that. And that’s a really silly example. But you can imagine how that can play out on a much deeper level where you really think that a lot of ideas are coming from you. And then they bolster that with a lot of persuasive techniques that you might see in any business school manual, honestly. Because one thing you realize is that a lot of these are you know, they go from one to the other very easily. The same exact tactics that can be used for legitimate purposes are also the things that a con artist uses. 

So things like firm handshakes and good eye contact and the stuff they tell you and the etiquette manual. Yep. 

And remembering someone’s name. So if I say hi, Lindsey, how nice to see you. You’re going in like me so much better than if I had just said hi. How nice to see you. Because you realize that, hey, you remembered my name. That means you’re a very smart person because I’m a very important person. So, of course, it’s good for you to remember my name and those small tricks that are totally innocuous and you have good etiquette. I mean, it’s nice to remember people’s names, but con artists will do this all the time. You know, they’ll remember every single detail about you. So that it makes you feel really special. I mean, it’s really flattering when someone remembers your name, remembers your kid’s name, remembers a birthday, remembers all this wonderful stuff. You say, wow, like you you really pay attention. And one that one thing, one common theme among con artists, and this is something that comes up again and again is that they don’t have to be great talkers. They have to be great listeners. They have to be people who really, really listen. And then they can use that against you because most people don’t listen. 

Certainly true. 

Do you feel like that sense of entitlement and specialness is also coming up in the marks of the con, the con men identifying people that have the same degree of entitlement to focus on them as people to exploit? Because those people also want to believe that they’re special and great things can happen to them and the rules don’t apply. 

Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I think all of us have. On one level or another, a sense of our own exceptionalism. We can’t help it. I mean, everyone sees the world from his or her own perspective, and we can’t depart from that very easily. And so we go through life with an exceptionalism bias. So we really do think that were, you know, better than average on most good things and that we’re below average on most bad things. One of my favorite illustrations of this came from an ingenious study that went to a hospital and talked to people who had been victims of car crashes and over two thirds of them had caused the crash themselves. And obviously, this was a pretty serious crash because they were in the hospital and they asked them to rate their driving skills. And everyone, even the people who had just caused an accident said that they were above average. And I think that kind of gets to the heart of it. We’re all, you know, we really want to believe that. And that’s exactly what the con artist feeds on. So when when someone else is getting suckered, right. When this is happening to a really good friend of ours, we say, hey, you know, that’s too good to be true. You should really be on alert. But it’s happening to us. We don’t actually even see it as too good to be true. We see it as precisely what we deserve. So we lack the rational ability to evaluate it the way we would if we were an outside observer, because we really think that we deserve good things. 

Do you think that this is something that’s overblown in our really Western individualistic culture in which we’re taught from the cradle that we’re all special? Or do you think it’s universal? 

You know, that’s such a good question. And I wish that there were work that that was done on this. Unfortunately, I can’t find anything. But this is something that I wonder about, too. I mean, I think that Corning is universal, that con artists can thrive in any culture. But how do they sell it? Well, I think that there might be different approaches because I think you definitely have a good point. So, for instance, I was born in the Soviet Union back when it was the Soviet Union before the fall of the Berlin Wall. And, you know, if anyone said, oh, that’s not fair or I deserve this or I deserve that. 

I mean, people would laugh because those are not concepts that are at all a part of the culture. And people would think that you were just insane. 

You need to be in an insane asylum. And so there I think it’s probably a very different sort of approach. So there is definitely something to that in the fact that you do have this sort of bias towards exceptionalism in the West that you don’t necessarily have elsewhere. 

You’re listening to point of inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry, thanks to the generosity of our listeners, we’re able to bring you fascinating conversations with today’s brightest minds. Week after week. But we can’t make this show happen without your support. If you’d like to contribute to point of inquiry and our mission to promote science, reason and critical thinking, go to point of inquiry. Dawgs slash support. That’s point of inquiry. Dot o. R.G. slashed support. 

It’s an amazing story in the book about a physicist who was kind into becoming a drug smuggler, and he was so convinced of his superior intellect, which was very superior in many respects, that he got sucked into this bizarre drug smuggling scheme. He tell us that story. 

Sure. So this was a physics professor, Paul Frampton. And he was 67 years old. He’d he was divorced. I’m lonely. Kind of wanted wanted to settle down, had gone on a bunch of dating websites. I ended up being approached by Denise Malani, who, if you Google her, you’ll realize is an international supermodel, not someone likely to be on a dating site and going for a 67 year old man. But he thought that this was totally legitimate because he was I love this quote from him. He says, I am less than one percent. 

So he not only believes this, but he actually verbalizes it. 

He he is willing to say, I am the exception. I am exceptional. Of course, she’s going to love me. And so he didn’t even question it. He just said, of course, you know, I’m less than one percent who wouldn’t want to date me. And finally, you know, there’s a woman who’s worthy of me because he turned down a lot of other women. You know, they were too old. You know, who wants to date a woman in her 60s? 

You know, when you could get a woman in her 30s? I mean, you know, the horror. 

And so and so he’s really thought that he was getting just what he deserved. He developed a relationship with this, quote unquote, woman. I say, quote unquote, because we will soon find out that she was probably not even female, but ended up going down to South America to meet her because she said she was having a photo shoot down there. Surprise, surprise. He never showed up. And instead, she sent him this message that she’d forgotten a suitcase. And so could you take her suitcase for her? And then they would meet up later on. So he meets in this dark alley some guy who gives him this bag. 

Red flag. Red flag. Right. Is wrong here. 

And yet, once again, he says, oh, OK. You know, totally fine. This must be one of her associates. OK, so basically he gets nabbed at the border for drug smuggling and imprisoned. And he to the end, you know, says I don’t know what happened. Even as he’s sitting in prison, he still believes for a while that Denise Malani really was his future wife. That’s how strong his power of delusion was. 

It’s weird, though, in the book you talk about how there are all these text messages where he’s texting them. Ha ha. The cocaine that I’m bringing, huh? Where do you get out? It’s you you leave it ambiguous in the book. You let the reader decide whether this guy was actually kind actually believed he was smuggling cocaine, cause later he said that, you know, this was all a joke. What do you think? 

Well, you know, it’s something that I struggled with. And I don’t know that I have a definitive opinion. I can certainly understand if he were joking because she is a lot younger than he is and he doesn’t want to look like an old an old geezer who who doesn’t understand humor. 

And so one can imagine him kind of going, ha ha ha. Oh, yeah, of course, smuggling cocaine because I have an unknown suitcase in South America. Ha ha ha. And so you can actually, you know, because he’s already so invested in this, because he’s already in South America. One can one can imagine that that really is true, that he really doesn’t understand the repercussions of what he’s saying. I mean, that said, of course, it doesn’t really look bad. So did he on some level maybe realize that he was smuggling cocaine? I mean, that’s that’s certainly a possibility. 

It’s also a possibility that he was so thoroughly self-conscious that he had rationalized everything away so well that he that he didn’t really give it a second thought. 

I mean, it’s kind of interesting, a lot of cons where the con artist specializes in compromising the mark. I mean, it seems like it could have been a con where he was just simply convinced to smuggle cocaine for his love because then they’re going to move back to the states and have this glorious life with. Yeah. This one little act. 

Absolutely. Absolutely. So he he very well might have thought, you know, sure, I might be smuggling cocaine, but it’s worth it because I’m about to marry the love of my life and I being a devoted husband. So we’re already married, basically. And he he he’s just full of brilliant quotes because, you know, I’ve calculated the odds that she was going to be my next wife. And it was a near certainty. And so you could think that that is a very, very good way of looking at it, that maybe he didn’t know that there was cocaine. But he said, you know what? It’s worth it for the love of my life, because he really was kind. It’s kind of like going back to our opening conversation with the House of Games where you think you’re in on the con, but really you’re still the mark. So it’s like. You might have known that there was a con going on as well, but he thought he was in on it. He thought that they were doing it together when really he was just the mark all along. 

Do you think that it’s true? There’s a saying that you can’t con an honest person? 

Absolutely not. I think that that is one of the silliest things that I wish would just die a quick death and be buried. But it’s never going to happen because it’s such a convenient saying, because it exonerates you from possibly being conned, because it says, well, I’m honest. And so if I’m honest, I cannot be conned because I’m an honest man and you can’t fool an honest man. 

But pretty victim blaming, too. Exactly. A little old ladies who just wanted a good deal on getting their roof refinished and stuff like that. Like ordinary con victims. Exactly. 

Exactly. Or think of even, you know, someone who is the victim of a sweetheart scam, an online dating scam. Who and that there are women and they usually are women who end up giving their life savings to people who don’t exist. On the other end of the Web dating site, because they’re lonely and they think that they found a love interest in the love match. And so they keep giving them money for a visa process for that, for a medical emergency to come visit. And all of a sudden they have no money and their love interest never existed. And I think that’s really sad. And it’s very difficult to call those people dishonest. 

I think that honesty has really nothing at all to do with it, though it is true sometimes that con men will exploit people’s own greed and their willingness to become complicit in order to insulate the scam. So if you thought you were in on a scam, it’s more difficult for you to then go to the police or something and explain how you came to be taken. 

Absolutely. Absolutely. But that is only a small subset of cons. And we like to think of them as all cons because that once again, it makes it very easy to say the victims deserved it. Which, ironically enough, is the exact same logic that con artists used to justify what they do. 

What do you think can be done to immunize? At least, I suppose the upshot of the book is that it’s impossible to really immunize yourself from coroners. But is there anything you can do to even increase your odds of avoiding a crime? 

Absolutely. I think that we can do a few things. One of them is really trying to sit down and think about your own weaknesses, your vulnerabilities, the things that you care about, the things that make you who you are, basically do the same sort of psychological profiling that the con artist will do on you, because we never really do that. We never sit down and take stock of who we are and what we want and the types of things we want to be true that if we know that, then we’re better prepared when someone approaches us on any of those points. And I think that’s very closely related to the next thing, which is to strut it in your head that if it seems too good to be true, it is. There are no exceptions. We always want to believe that it’s an exception in our own case. And it’s easier said than done to say there is no exception, because inevitably when it starts happening to you, you’re not going to question it. But perhaps knowing that will at least make you question some things that you would have otherwise taken for granted. So I would say there’s there’s no such thing as the exception to the rule. And you are not the exception. 

Do you feel like there’s any role for any kind of explicit instructions in, you know, consumer ad in public schools or anything like that to to clue people into the mechanics of basic scams so they can be on alertly? 

Absolutely. And there’s some work that’s been done by the AARP with the elderly that shows that if you, for instance, tell the elderly about the grandparents scam, which is when someone calls you saying, you know, your grandson has been in a horrible accident, you need to wire money right away, which really, you know, it works really well because he gets so scared. Oh, my God, my grandson. So people who’ve been warned against that are less likely to fall victim to that particular scam. So I think that, yes, education definitely plays a role. Unfortunately, the sort of stuff doesn’t generalize. So they’re less likely to fall for a grandparent scam, but they are still just as likely to fall force in investment scam. That said, if grandparents can often target grandparents, it’s pretty good to protect them against at least one. 

So I think it can’t it certainly can’t hurt to teach people from a young age that all of these things do exist and that they should be on the lookout. And one of the other things that you can do is talk about some of the persuasive tactics that are used so that you can kind of sometimes identify them when they’re being used against you. 

That’s all very useful advice. When I was in Mexico, the family that I was staying with, kidnaping is such a problem now. And it’s a fact of life that there are scams where people will just cop and claim to have kidnaped your loved one. This isn’t really a variant of the grandparents scam, but on a larger scale. And the kids at the house who are seven and nine, were so inured to this that they would just slam the phone down and these scammers to the point where. It was getting a bit alarmed because what if the real kidnaper costs something? 

Right. Right. Yeah, no, it’s definitely true that just that illustrates another point that, you know, we do become more immune to things that are a fact of life. So I actually think that probably in some societies like that, that particular con is not going to be as successful. I’m sure it’s still successful to some extent because otherwise they wouldn’t do it. But there are some other scams that no matter how many times it happens, people still fall for it. So in the U.S., for instance, the IRS scam where you’re told that you owes some back taxes. It’s incredibly common and it’s really, really effective because when someone calls you and says they’re from the government and say bad things are going to happen to you, you get scared. And you for that moment, you’re just emotionally destabilized. And that’s what the con artists are going for. They want to get you in an emotionally vulnerable position where you stop thinking rationally. 

That’s all the time we have for today. Maria, thank you so much for coming on the program. 

Thank you so much, Lindsey. It’s been a pleasure. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.