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The Art of Con

Con is actually short for confidence, but it’s most commonly used in confidence tricks context. The word con got so closely tied with confidence because it’s the basic principle of every fraud that exploits humans. If you can persuade someone, make him truly believe into something false, then you can probably get money out of it.

Unlike most kinds of crime, the grifters have not actually done anything overtly illegal – they’ve simply used lies and manipulation to get their victim to willingly hand over their own money.

Throughout the article, the grifter of confidence tricks is called the “con artist” or simply “artist”, and the intended victim is the “mark”. Let’s start with some very old tricks. Many modern online scams are based on same principles as the old tricks with the plus of being anonymous. Those examples are in the second half of the article.

Pigeon Drop

The pigeon drop, which is depicted early in the film The Sting, involves 2 artists and 1 mark. First, the mark is approached by the 1st artist, usually acting like a tourist asking about directions. While they are talking, third person joins the conversation (2nd artist), usually a local that seemingly can’t know the other artist.

Second artist shows the mark sizeable sum of money, e.g. $1000, and asks the mark to keep the money safe (for a cut) while he does some quick job. Artist seals the envelope and switches it for the one containing worthless paper. He gives the envelope to the mark and then asks for insurance.

That’s where the 1st artist comes into play. He offers some money and encourages the mark to do so as well. The mark will hopefully give his wallet or some money because he feels safe with all that “cash” in his pocket. 1st artist acts like he’s the victim too or gets an excuse to get away, e.g. leaves to see what’s the 2nd artist doing.

Sometimes, there is an acted scene that makes the mark run away (police or gang chases him). If that happens, he’s running away from his own money to protect an envelope of magazine paper.

Fiddle Game

A pair of con men work together, one going into an expensive restaurant in shabby clothes, eating, and claiming to have left his wallet at home, which is nearby. 1st artist leaves his only worldly possession, the violin that provides his livelihood as insurance.

After he leaves, the 2nd artist swoops in, offers an outrageously large amount (for example $10,000) for such a rare instrument, then looks at his watch and runs off to an appointment, leaving his card for the mark to call him when the fiddle-owner returns.

The 1st artist comes back, having gotten the money to pay for his meal and redeem his violin. The mark, thinking he has an offer on the table, then (hopefully) buys the violin from the artist who reluctantly agrees to sell it for outrageously big price.

In the 1981 Only Fools and Horses episode Cash and Curry, the main character, Del Boy, is tricked into paying £2000 for a statue worth £17, believing it to be worth £4000. This idea is used in countless confidence tricks.

Lottery fraud by proxy

Lottery fraud by proxy is a scam in which the artist buys a lottery ticket with old winning numbers and alters the date on the ticket so that it appears to be from the day before and therefore a winning ticket. He then sells the ticket to the mark, claiming it is a winning ticket, but for some reason, he or she is unable to collect the prize (usually too young).

The particular cruelty in this scam is that if the mark attempts to collect the prize, the fraudulently altered ticket will be discovered and the mark is held criminally liable.

This con was featured in the movie “Matchstick Men”, where Nicolas Cage teaches it to his daughter.

Ponzi Scheme

This is a must-know example because of its simplicity and effectiveness. It was popularized by Charles Ponzi in the first half of 20th century. The artist offers a great return on investment such as double in 2 weeks. When someone asks to withdraw the money, he pays them with new investors’ money to build trust and encourage the victims to give more cash.

Eventually, the scheme collapses under its own weight of exponential growth (check the picture) and the con artists disappears with huge amount of cash.

More recent example is Bernard Madoff’s 10 years long Ponzi Scheme fraud estimated to be in the neighborhood of $65 billion. Madoff was eventually caught and sentenced to 150 years in prison, but not before pulling off what is essentially the biggest con of all time. There’s a movie about Madoff.

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Fake Antivirus

It’s very similar to the blessing scam: the goal is to convince a superstitious mark that an evil spirit threatens their family and that this threat can be removed by removing the curse from their savings, jewelry or other valuables. During the ceremony, the con artists switch the bag of valuables with an identical bag with valueless contents and make off with the victim’s cash or jewelry.

In its modern version, computer users unwittingly download and install malware disguised as antivirus software. The software then pretends to find multiple viruses on the victim’s computer, “removes” a few, and asks for payment in order to take care of the rest.

They are then linked to con artists’ websites, professionally designed to make their bogus software appear legitimate, where they must pay a fee to download the “full version” of their “antivirus software”. Another variant uses fake support call to achieve the same thing.

Grandparent scam

A grandparent gets a call or an e-mail from someone claiming to be their grandchild, saying that they are in trouble abroad. For instance, the artist may claim to have been arrested and require money to be wired for bail, and asking that the victim doesn’t tell the grandchild’s parents, as they would “only get upset”.

Romance scam

Traditional romance scams boomed in the internet era. The artist actively cultivates a romantic relationship which often involves a promise of marriage. However, after some time it becomes evident that his “love” is stuck in his or her third world country, lacking the money to leave.

The artist extracts as much money as possible for the trip. Of course, the con artist never makes the trip: the hapless victim ends up with a large debt and an aching heart. This scam can be seen in the movie Nights of Cabiria.

In some cases, an online dating site is itself engaged in fraud, allowing posting profiles of fictional people. The operator knows exactly what they’re up to.

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Although you’ve probably heard of phishing, many victims did too and that didn’t prevent them from falling to some very crafty phishing e-mails and give up their credentials for bitcoin wallet or any other online currency service.

Quick google search for “free email spoofing” allows anyone to send a legit looking e-mail from e.g. [email protected]

They can copy any login page in minutes with their own back-end. When you type in your credentials, they are sent to the attacker’s database. Sometimes you’ll be forwarded to legit site too.

The e-mail’s purpose is to make you visit the attacker’s fake website. For example, “someone tried to break into your account. You are strongly advised to secure your account by changing your password and e-mail. Click here to do so.” The e-mail hardly differs from the original (it has the official logo, header, footer etc.), except for the link!

The attacker cannot register an existing root domain, so you should always check for that before opening sensitive links. The root domain is the part of the website address including suffix (.com, .org, .net) and the string before that dot (facebook.com). However, the attacker can choose any subdomain such as facebook.loginpage.com.

Here’s an example of phishing e-mail:

If you enjoyed these stories, I suggest you watch some movies on the topic. Moreover, you can do some of these for fun, just make sure you return the money to your mark. Instead of leaving someone robbed and feeling stupid, you will increase their awareness of these scams. Who knows, they might buy you a beer :).

Protection Advice

Despite many warnings from authorities and well-publicized stories, a lot of people continue to fall prey to these con artists. One of the best ways to ensure that an individual or even a business does not fall prey to these scams is for them to ask themselves whether the offer is too good to be true.

Banking or other sensitive details should not be transmitted over the phone or to suspicious emails.

As for frauds which involve personal relationships, it is wise to be cautious of possible con artists. Always bear in mind that it is easy to lie on the internet, and easier to run away after the deed has been committed. Their address, picture and conversations can be mere lies to entice you to open your wallet. Hence, should you wish to look into dating websites, invest in reputable online services where they do background checks and ensure that the personal details given are genuine.

Nevertheless, nothing can substitute for common sense. Depend on yourself to judge whether a certain activity is fraud or real.


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