Scams are everywhere, and it's a safe bet to say that almost everyone has fallen for some sort of con at some time in their life. Despite this, most people think they are too smart to fall for a con and believe that they could easily identify any attempt to deceive or defraud. Nothing could be further from the truth. Confidence is one of the primary goals of a con artist, and thanks to human nature, there is a never-ending supply of suckers with a ready supply of naive assurance.
This misplaced belief in our own abilities is one of the most powerful and enduring weapons in the arsenal of professional deceivers. As I often say, if you don't think you can be conned, you're just the person a con artist would like to meet. It's easy to look at a seemingly unbelievable or outlandish proposition with hindsight or from a distance and recognize a scam, but, for anyone who has ever succumbed to a con game, the experience feels perfectly real and believable while under the spell of a gifted or experienced con artist. It would therefore be useful to recognize that no matter who you are, how much you know or how street-wise or experienced you may be, it is entirely possible that, someday, you might be hustled.
The following scams could target anyone at any time and, if you can honestly say that you would never fall for any of these, please get in touch: I have a fantastic business opportunity for you.
Anna Anderson claimed to be Russian Princess Anastasia Romanov; Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter claimed he was actually "Clark Rockefeller" and David Hampton easily convinced New York society that he was the son of actor/director Sidney Poitier. Throughout history, famous impostors often capture the imagination of the public but not all such swindlers need to spin a complex web of lies to steal from the unwary. For example, in the United Kingdom and other countries around the world, fluorescent yellow ("Hi-Viz") jackets have become the accepted uniform of the police, public workers and security personnel. Simply by wearing one of these jackets, which may be easily obtained, people naturally assume that the wearer holds some sort of official position depending on where they happen to be seen wearing it. I've often found that a suit and an easily made fake ID have proven more than enough to convince most people that I'm a plain-clothes policeman. A few years ago I re-enacted Frank Abagnale's famous scam where he simply dressed as a security guard, placed an "out of order" sign over a bank's night deposit box and collected money from customers who came to deposit their daily takings. It worked like a charm: people simply read the sign, saw the uniform and handed over their money. The right clothes and the right situation can easily convince people that someone is who they appear to be and, in many cases, the con artists need to say very little other than let their victims assume the obvious. Around the U.S., impostor scams are on the rise as people are targeted by bogus government officials, fake help desks and phony repairmen. Many of these scammers go after the elderly but, in the right circumstances, anyone might be targeted. Only last month, a friend of mine received a phone call threatening to arrest his wife for unpaid utility bills at their business address. Luckily, I was right beside him when he got the call.
THE TRAVELING TARGET
One reason many of us feel immune to deception is a misguided sense of comfort within our own environment. In New York, most people have an inflated sense of their own ability to spot a scam because they have learned to negotiate a minefield of street hustlers, pan-handlers and solicitors. In the Big Apple, most of these scams target tourists while locals look on, somewhat amused by the naivety of visiting victims. Take that same Manhattan dweller out of New York and drop them in Paris, London, Madrid or Bangkok without the same local advantage, and they are suddenly a much easier mark for resident grifters. Being out of your element automatically exposes you to fraudsters. While you might recognize many con games depending on your past experience it would be impossible to know every possible variation on every type of scam. Even when taking sensible precautions, hustlers often anticipate these and are prepared to weasel their way into your pocket by whatever means necessary. The trick is to limit your exposure to potential problems and to avoid looking like a ripe melon to hungry scammers.
A lot has been written recently about how distraction works, particularly by misguided neuroscientists trying to nail Jell-O to the wall by defining rules for something that is, by nature, ever-changing and dependent on too many factors to be crammed into one convenient box. In a way, all con games depend on distracting victims from the truth but physical distraction -- misdirection -- is an excellent illustration of how we can easily be misled. A simple example of this is to drop some change on the street and, as someone stops and bends over to pick it up, their pocket is picked or their property stolen. For pickpockets on the street, getting close to someone without raising suspicion often depends on natural, environmental distractions like waiting at a crowded crosswalk, using an escalator or pushing through a busy train station. More daring pickpockets have engineered scenarios to get close to (and make contact with) their targets. Squirting ketchup or "accidentally" dropping ice cream onto someone's coat creates a familiar scenario where the culprit attempts to help wipe it off with one hand, while their other is deep inside the victim's pocket. A few years ago, in Madrid, a young boy approached two friends of mine with a laminated piece of card, apparently to sell items pictured on the card. My friends refused and the boy left but, a few minutes later, my friends realized that one of them had just lost his brand new iPhone, which had been on the table when the boy walked up. This is an old trick, which I've used several times on my TV shows and is surprisingly easy to pull off but I was surprised that it had been successful on my two friends. Both are extremely knowledgeable about such things and are also two of the finest sleight-of-hand artists in the world. Despite this, they were duped by a twelve-year-old boy with a piece of cardboard.
GAMES OF CHANCE
If you've ever gambled on the turn of a card or the roll of a dice, you have been especially vulnerable to being preyed upon by those who decide the rules, by more experienced players or by outright cheaters. Around the United States, games are regularly played for high stakes and are often frequented or organized by unscrupulous or crooked individuals hoping to either skim the cream or steal the whole cow. But you don't have to be in a casino or a smoke-filled card room to take unusual chances. Many of us have earned enough money to consider investing but, as history has shown, this often exposes people to corrupt or dishonest individuals who take advantage of people's lack of knowledge to sell worthless shares or encourage futile investments. As with traveling to unfamiliar places, getting involved in any new endeavor or activity exposes us to potential deception. If we are unlucky enough to encounter the wrong people at the outset, it is all too easy to be bamboozled or betrayed. Whether investing in the stock market, buying a home abroad or getting involved in an unusual venture, we have to depend on what we learn through experience and are therefore at the mercy of who and where our information comes from. It could be something as mundane as buying your first car or as exotic as taking a share in a tropical island. Both could easily prove to be either a bad deal or an out-and-out scam. Any time you might be out of your depth, do your research but be aware that some of what you learn (especially on the Internet) might have been provided by the very people you hope to avoid.
THE CUTTING EDGE
Most of you will be reading this on a device that has proven highly convenient, even essential to your daily lives. Computers, smart phones and tablets give us access to the internet and help us manage everything from money to music. Unfortunately, they also expose us to greater risks of data exposure, identity theft and countless other digital disasters. Public wifi, for example, is a terrible place to access any site that requests a password or gives access to sensitive information. With the right hardware and software, hackers using the same network could capture your transmissions and unravel enough data to gain access to the same websites using your information. Cellular data is constantly under attack from gifted hackers who take any claim of safety or security to be a challenge and, should their methods become available to criminals, anyone might be walking around with an enormous electronic hole in their pocket. Service providers and software developers depend on convenience to cater to a public who are increasingly averse to multi-step protocols that might better protect them. The trade-off usually results in a glossy user interface that often pretends to have much better protection than it really does. Even when systems employ solid, proven security methods, the weakest link is often the human element (the user) so many hackers simply make direct contact with their potential victims under the guise of being a help desk or official. Much of the time, people who have succumbed to these attacks realize that they opened the door to hackers simply by answering a phone call or responding to an email. As technology progresses, we are all increasingly vulnerable to the multitude of possible flaws that are routinely being unearthed by hackers. Not all of these hackers are bad; in fact, many have no intention of doing actual harm, but once a hole has been found, the chances are excellent that someone will try to take advantage of it.
These are just a few examples of how and when you might be deceived. I haven't mentioned romantic scams, dark patterns or institutionalized deception. There are so many ways to con you that it would take years to learn them all. I have personally dedicated a lifetime to studying every variation of con game I could find, and, in my TV work, I've personally pulled off more scams than anyone in history, but I'm still finding new twists and new angles on old ideas. The best way to protect ourselves is to understand the underlying principles that all scams depend upon to succeed. In my book, The Art of the Con, I describe how these principles are applied to every type of con game but, while knowledge is the best defense, we must all learn to accept our own susceptibility. Once we understand that we might one day be conned, we automatically become more aware and far more difficult to deceive.