In the classical sense, a confidence scam is the attempt to deceive a person or group of people after gaining their trust - or confidence.
These cons aim to exploit certain characteristics of the human consciousness, which include greed, vanity, desperation, compassion or naïveté.
For instance, possibly the smoothest con artist to ever live, Victor Lustig, once sold the Eiffel Tower (which definately did not belong to him) to a French scrap-metal dealer. While cons of such a grand scale are still around in modern times, smaller tricks and scams (such as ATM card skimming or mobile phone scams) have grown far more prevalent, and people fall victim to them each and every day.
So, how do we spot a scam?
There are chiefly two types of cons – long and short – both of which end with you, the mark, on the losing side.
Short cons are designed to be quick. They rob you of everything on your person. The long games could take months to unfold and aim to rob you of much larger sums of money or valuables.
First, preparations are made in advance, such as acquiring any assistants, equipment or props that may be required. Next, contact is made with you, the potential victim. Then you’re presented with an opportunity to profit. Natural greed is encouraged to the point that any rational judgment you may have possessed is impaired. Now, you receive a small payout, to convince you of the scheme's effectiveness. Before you know it, you've lost everything.
How did that happen?
We all know how a gambling hustle works. Game after game you may thrash some barfly in pool, for example, winning small amounts in bets or drinks. Finally, the con artist tables a ludicrously big bet. Why wouldn’t you take it? You’ve just beaten him forty times in a row. Plus, he seems pretty drunk. Once you accept, he suddenly turns into the Christiano Ronaldo of snooker and takes you for all you’ve got.
Many cons work in much the same way. Play to human nature's most vulnerable characteristics, get the victim to drop their guard or lose their focus, then capitalize on it.
But the con artist has a large arsenal of moves, all of them different in some way, and all of them ready to ensnare you. Get-rich-quick schemes, persuasion tricks, extortion, gold-brick scams or even false injuries.
The worst part is that these scams have been around since as far back as the middle ages, and even with all the advanced knowledge and technology we have at our disposal today, they still work.
Here are some classic confidence tricks, how they’ve evolved over the years, and what to watch out for.
The Spanish Prisoner scam originated late in the 18th century, and it runs thusly:
The con man tells the victim that he is (or is in correspondence with) a wealthy person who has been imprisoned in Spain under a false identity. Supposedly, the prisoner can’t reveal his true identity without the risk of the Spanish finding out what a rich man they’ve imprisoned, and thereafter holding him for a much higher ransom.
The man needs to raise a moderate amount money, as soon as possible, in order to secure his release. The con man then offers to let the mark put up some of the funds, and in return, they promise greater compensation once the wealthy prisoner has been released.
Once the mark has handed over the money, they’re informed that further difficulties have arisen and more money is needed. The trickster then continues to press for more and more money until the victim is cleaned out, or suddenly grows a brain and declines to put up any more funds.
Some versions of this con may present the imprisoned person as a remote, long-lost relative to the victim. Now, who among us haven’t gotten that email?
In one of the many modern variations, an estranged relative, sharing your last name, sends you an email offering to transfer a ton of lost inheritance (and sometimes even blood money) into your bank account. All they need is a small payment from your side, to cover any expenses or bribes. In exchange for transporting this ill-gotten fortune out of Wherever, you get to keep a large percentage.
The reason why this scam works is precisely because of how ludicrous it is. It would repel all but the most gullible, and those are precisely the kind of people that con artists are looking for.
Any person with half an ounce of decency would willingly pay for something that they’ve broken.
The Melon Drop scam gets its name from con men who would originally use melons to pull it off, at a time when melon prices were considerably higher than they are today. How it works is that the con would bump into other people in a crowd - preferably tourists - and drop the very expensive melon they’ve been carrying. The mark would then feel responsible enough to pay inflated prices to make amends.
The modern version of this trick involves filling a box with worthless, broken glass and wrapping it up to look expensive. The con artist waits for somebody inattentive (such as staring at their phone) to come along and then bumps into them, making it seem as if it was all the mark’s fault. The trickster then explains that the box contained something really expensive. It could be a vase. Usually a gift for their mother - or dying grandma. They may even produce a fabricated receipt to prove its value.
Most people, of course, feel so incredibly guilty that they immediately pay up.
This one is similar to other advance-fee scams or cheque fraud. The scam involves the con artist cultivating a romantic relationship with somebody via (today’s times) an internet dating site, app or email.
Promises of marriage and ever-lasting love are a hit with lonely people.
After some time, however, it turns out that this ‘sweetheart’ is stranded in some other country. They lack the money to leave and thus, are unable to be blissfully united with the love-struck victim.
The con artist might declare that he has cheques, which the mark can cash on his behalf and remit the money via a non-reversible transfer service to help facilitate the trip. Of course, the cheques are forged or stolen and the con-man never makes the trip. The victim ends up with large amounts of debt and a broken heart.
In some cases, an online dating site may itself be engaged in a type of fraud. These websites and apps have been known to create and fill their user database with fake profiles of very attractive and very fictional people, who happen to be looking for a date in your very location, right now. Of course, the ability to contact these people comes at a cost.
One classic swindle involves, you guessed it, fortune telling.
In this trick, a soothsayer proficient in cold reading (extracting information through a variety of factors such as body language, age, gender, sexual orientation or that which is offered by the mark themselves) detects that a person might be genuinely troubled.
Perhaps they're a gambler on the wrong end of luck, or they've just lost their job, just ended a relationship, or they've had a recent run of poor health.
The fortune teller then informs the (naturally) superstitious mark that they are the victim of a dark and mysterious curse. For a fee, a spell can be cast to remove it.
The scam manifested in the electronic age with the virus hoax. Fake anti-virus software pops up and claims that your computer is infected with viruses or malware, rendering your PC inoperable with warnings until a fee is paid. Alternatively, software is downloaded and later discovered to only work once you purchase the ‘full version.’ Oftentimes, the software never really works at all.
Scams and cons are everywhere, and it's important to keep an eye out for them. Have you ever fallen victim to them? Tell us about it, and we'll share your story.
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