16-09 Segment 1: The Confidence Game: Why no one is immune

 

Synopsis: Films like The Sting, Oceans’ 11, and American Hustle show con artists as charismatic heroes out to help the little guy get his due. Well, our guest says that they are charismatic, but they’re hardly heroes. She’ll explain the personalities of the con man and woman, tell us some of the techniques they use to trick their victims, and warn us that anyone – including the con artists themselves – is vulnerable to their scams.

Host: Gary Price. Guest: Maria Konnikova, psychologist, author of The Confidence Game: Why we fall for it…every time.

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The Confidence Game: Why no one is immune

Gary Price: The films The Sting and the Ocean’s 11 series gave us a little insight into how con men operate, although in a much sanitized and entertaining way. Their antics were amazing, tricking their marks like magicians on a stage. Of course films are just make-believe, and nobody really gets hurt. In the real world, though, con artists are everywhere and they can ruin their victims financially and emotionally. Who are these people? What makes them tick? And how do they find their marks and rob them of their money, property and their trust in the human race? Maria Konnikova wanted to find out. Konnikova is a psychologist and author of the book, The Confidence Game: Why we fall for it…every time. She says that it’s difficult to pick out cons from the rest of the population because on the surface, they’re just like you and me…

Maria Konnikova: If you met one you would think, “This is a very charming, charismatic, wonderful human being,” because that’s how they actually seem, that’s how they come off to other people. Now, I know this. I spent so much time with them when I was researching this book and I was charmed even though I knew they were con artists I found myself buying their story. They are really, really good at what they do. You don’t see them coming. To you they’re just a really nice, friendly person.

Price: Beneath the charming façade, though, lies a dark inner core…

Konnikova: I write in the book about something called the “dark triad of traits,” and this is something that a lot of con artists have one, two or three of. The first is, I think, the word that most people associate with con artists which is “psychopath.” And that actually is not the most accurate descriptor because some con artists are psychopaths but there are plenty of con artists who aren’t, and there are plenty of psychopaths who don’t become con artists. So one of the things that the psychopath fails to do is experience emotion the way that regular people who aren’t psychopaths do. There’s no empathy there. They don’t actually have any sort of guilt or remorse for anything that they’re doing because that’s just not the way that their brains work.

Price: Konnikova says that the second part of the triad is narcissism – the belief that they deserve more; that the con artist is the MOST important person in the world, so whatever they take from their victims is justified. The last trait is Machiavellianism…

Konnikova: And that is derived from Machiavelli’s book, The Prince, from the characteristics of his ideal prince. So someone who is able to persuade you, to use those soft skills of manipulation to do what they want you to do but without your knowledge so you actually think you’re doing it yourself out of your own volition. And that’s a skill that many if not all con artists have: This ability to get us to do what we wouldn’t otherwise do without really realizing that it’s coming from them and not from us.

Price: There is also a process that a con artist uses to size up the mark and create a bond of trust. Konnikova says that the first step is called “the put-up,” which is basically a psychological profile…

Konnikova: This is where the con artist really figures out who is this person? What makes her tick? What are her weaknesses? What are her strengths? What are her motivations? Who is she really, not just the person she projects but inside, what is she made of? And this is in some ways the single most important part of the game because you have to be able to profile your mark accurately in order to figure out how exactly you’re going to sell them whatever it is you’re selling them, how you’re going to tell your story. If you do this properly, you can sell someone anything, you know, even the Eiffel Tower which one of the con artists that I write about in the book did – twice! So he was able to sell the Eiffel Tower to very savvy investors in Paris. You’d think that’s impossible, but he was very, very good at the put-up.

Price: That man is the legendary con artist Victor Lustig who, by the way, managed to con Chicago gangster Al Capone out of $5,000 by barely lifting a finger! The next part in the process is to create the bond of trust, which can be accomplished by finding ways that you’re alike…

Konnikova: You look familiar, you’re someone like me, you’re similar to me, so we start creating bonds based on what we’ve figured out about the person in the first stage, in the put-up, now we can use that, we can say, “Oh, I’m from the same part of the country. Oh, I like the same things. I hate the same things.” Suddenly this is not just some stranger, this is someone who’s really friendly and nice, someone who gets you, who understands you. And, by the way, the con artist hasn’t asked for anything at this stage. You know, you’re just meeting a cool, nice, new friend.

Price: Then comes the story that will hit their victim’s emotional core. Konnikova says that con artists are master storytellers…

Konnikova: They are able to weave narratives that really draw you in. You become part of the action. You are now an actor in that story. And this is something you care about, you empathize, you really are involved. And whenever our emotions are engaged, our logic starts turning off. We become less able to spot red flags and inconsistencies, anything that should raise an eyebrow no longer does. And that’s the point where the con artist will actually make the pitch which is really what they want from you. And that doesn’t have to be money. It’s a very common misperception that all cons are financial. Oftentimes it’s not about money at all, it’s about love, it’s about respect, admiration, so many different things can come into play, but whatever it is this is now where you start asking it. But it’s after you’ve told the story, after the person is already emotionally hooked.

Price: After the story has hooked the victim, Konnikova says that the con artist is home free…

Konnikova: Because the rest of the con is spent in us convincing ourselves, because once we’ve bought into it at the beginning we are going to rationalize everything in order to fit in with that initial buying in. What I mean by that is, we want to be consistent. We want to think that we acted correctly from the beginning, that we didn’t make a mistake. So we start, if there are any red flags, if anything’s going wrong, we kind of dismiss them as the con artist convinces us more an more that “No, no, no. This is actually a good thing.”

Price: Konnikova says that the mark often doesn’t realize that they’ve been fleeced. If the phony investment turns south or if the business deal falls through, the victim might think it’s just bad luck and never report the con. If they do realize that they’ve been taken for a ride, she says the con has ways of wriggling out of the situation…

Konnikova: Now if they do report it — that’s the final stage of the con, is when the con artist actually tries to minimize the damage, get you to not report it or try to figure out a way to infiltrate law enforcement so that nothing happens to them, so that they won’t be prosecuted. But that part of the con is almost never needed because most people will not report that the con has even taken place.

Price: Konnikova says that anyone can be tricked at any time, but con artists often try to catch a mark when they are at their most vulnerable…

Konnikova: Researchers find that when you’re in an emotionally vulnerable place in your life, and that often happens in moments of transition, moments of uncertainty when there’s a big life change, you become a better mark. So that can be a positive life change or a negative life change. So, you know, you could be out of a job, someone might have died, you might have been going through a divorce, those are all negative and you’re very destabilized. But maybe you got a new job and you’ve moved across the country and it’s wonderful and you’re really excited but you don’t know anyone and you have that sense of uncertainty of not quite knowing which end is up. And at those moments all of us become more likely to become victims because con artists can sense that and they actually give you that sense of certainty where it’s missing.

Price: Cons also use some tactics to fool or confuse their victims by talking a lot, talking fast and convoluting their arguments. Konnikova says that absolutely anyone can be conned – even a con artist! In fact, she has a story of a master con who was taken in by a psychic…

Konnikova: Oscar Hartzell who conned hundreds of people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars for many, many years, who ended up falling for a psychic. So he theoretically knew that psychics weren’t real, that there was nothing to it, he was a savvy person. And yet, this woman convinced him that she was the real deal, and I think that everyone who falls for a psychic will say that “Yeah, I know that in general you can’t trust them, but this one was the exception. This one really knew what she was talking about.” That’s what happened to this guy, and he ended up spending tens of thousands of dollars on her, all the while she’s hired a private investigator, put him on his tail, figured out exactly what he’s up to and is able to keep feeding him information. She’s very, very good at what she does.

Price: Konnikova says that she wrote her book to help people to understand how con artists work, and to highlight some of the biggest and most outrageous confidence games in history. However, she doesn’t want readers to become distrusting of others in the hope of never getting conned themselves…

Konnikova: I want them to come away not being cynical about humanity. I want them to actually come away with a sense of hope, of saying that even though these people are terrible most people aren’t out to get you. Most people aren’t con artists, and trusting other people is usually absolutely fine. I want this book to be a hopeful book rather than a scary book. To say, “Yeah, okay, you know I might be a victim. I might fall for this, but that’s okay. That’s what makes me human. It doesn’t make me stupid. It doesn’t make me greedy. It doesn’t make me dishonest. It just makes me a human being.”

Price: You can read up on the ways that con artists ply their trade and find out how the master cons got away with their scams in Maria Konnikova’s book, The Confidence Game, available now in stores and online. She also invites listeners to her website at MariaKonnikova.com. To find out more about all of our guests visit our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.

 

 

 

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