The aristocrats of crime

I have an unhealthy interest in con artists. There is something that draws me to these aristocrats of crime. I love the colourful language. For the practitioners we have such names as con man, swindler, grifter, swindler hustler, scam artist, flimflammer and mountebank. What do they do? The names of the tricks are also very evocative: Three-card Monte, The Magic Wallet, The Gold Brick, The Green Goods, Banco, The Big Store, The Wire, The Payoff and The Rag are just a few of the ways humans have found to deceive each other. Of course, these tricksters can destroy people’s lives, but there is something irresistible about them. I am not the only one, though, given the popularity of books and especially films about scams.

Such cons have been with us throughout history. Indeed other animals also engage in deceptive behaviour. There was a famous trick known as the Spanish Prisoner, which goes back until at least the 16th century. And although I haven’t looked into it, I’m sure the ancients must have had their scams.

The use of the term confidence man seems to go back to 19th century New York. Here is an extract from the “Police Intelligence” section of the New York Herald describing the arrest of one William Thompson:

For the last few months a man has been travelling about the city, known as the “Confidence Man,” that is, he would go up to a perfect stranger in the street, and being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview. Upon this interview he would say after some little conversation, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow;” the stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing “confidence” in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do. In this way many have been duped, and the last that we recollect was a Mr. Thomas McDonald, of No. 276 Madison street, who, on the 12th of May last, was met by this “Confidence Man” in William Street, who, in the manner as above described, took from him a gold lever watch valued at $110; and yesterday, singularly enough, Mr. McDonald was passing along Liberty street, when who should he meet but the “Confidence Man” who had stolen his watch. Officer Swayse, of the Third Ward, being near at hand, took the accused into custody on the charge made by Mr. McDonald. The accused at first refused to go with the officer; but after finding the officer determined to take him, he walked along for a short distance, when he showed desperate fight, and it was not until the officer had tied his hands together that he was able to convey him to the police office. On the prisoner being taken before Justice McGrath, he was recognized as an old offender by the name of Wm. Thompson, and is said to be a graduate of the college at Sing Sing. The magistrate committed him to prison for a further hearing.

I bring all this up because have just finished reading The Confidence Game. The author Maria Konnikova does not set out to provide a definitive history of the con. And this is not an exhaustive taxonomy of all the possible confidence tricks. What it is is an exploration of the psychological principles behind the behaviour of confidence tricksters and their victims. The book itself is structured like a con. Here is Konnikova’s introduction:

From the artist’s perspective, it’s a question of identifying the victim (the put-up): who is he, what does he want, and how can I play on that desire to achieve what I want? It requires the creation of empathy and rapport (the play): an emotional foundation must be laid before any scheme is proposed, any game set in motion. Only then does it move to logic and persuasion (the rope): the scheme (the tale), the evidence and the way it will work to your benefit (the convincer), the show of actual profits. And like a fly caught in a spider’s web, the more we struggle, the less able to extricate ourselves we become (the breakdown). By the time things begin to look dicey, we tend to be so invested, emotionally and often physically, that we do most of the persuasion ourselves. We may even choose to up our involvement ourselves, even as things turn south (the send), so that by the time we’re completely fleeced (the touch), we don’t quite know what hit us. The con artist may not even need to convince us to stay quiet (the blow-off and fix); we are more likely than not to do so ourselves.

Who are the con artists? In an interview Konnikova said that one of the books that’s considered the con-artist bible is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, a self-help classic. In fact, there is no definitive make-up, but the dark triad of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism tend to be important. The funny thing is that many of these people seem to be exceptionally talented and could have been successful in more legitimate fields. I don’t think it’s just about greed. There does seem to be some kind of power rush in being able to fool people and in getting them to do what you want.

What about the victims? I like to think of myself as a sceptic, but it is a big mistake to think that we are immune to such trickery. One factor is trust. Generally, as I pointed out in a previous post, trust is an important ingredient for successful societies, but with con artists, we can come unstuck. We also like to think we are above average. Other people will be fooled, but not us. We have a positivity bias, a belief in our own exceptionalism. We will come out on top in the end. We deserve a break. Confirmation bias, the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms our preconceptions plays a big part in victimology. And then we have cognitive dissonance the desire to avoid holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. Of course we could change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours, but this can be too painful, so instead we try to justify or rationalise them. Ultimately very few con artists actually end up in court – the victims are often too embarrassed to come forward.

The book has a cast of characters. Some of them are old favourites: Bernie Madoff, who was the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, Frank Abagnale, who was played by Leonardo Di Caprio in Catch Me If You Can, and Victor Lustig who twice sold the Eiffel Tower to unwitting investors.

There were others I hadn’t heard of, though. Here is my selection:

Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr.

Demara almost makes Frank Abagnale look like an amateur. Under a series of stolen identities Demara worked as a civil engineer, a doctor of applied psychology, a child-care expert, a cancer researcher, an assistant prison warden, a philosophy dean at a Pennsylvania college and  both a Trappist and Benedictine monk. But his greatest hit was as a doctor on a Royal Canadian Navy Destroyer during the Korean War. Demara who had a prodigious IQ and a photographic memory went into quarters with a medical textbook to do a bit of cramming. Yet, he somehow managed to save the lives of all of the men, including performing major chest surgery. The ensuing fame made it hard to keep on fooling people. There was a biography, The Great Imposter, followed by a film of the same name, with Tony Curtis in the eponymous role. He even managed to con the author of his biography, Robert Crichton.

Samantha Lyndell Azzopardi

In 2010 she appeared as Dakota Johnson (this alias was based on an American  actress who would later go on to star in the movie Fifty Shades of Grey) in a Brisbane police station claiming that she was fourteen and had been sexually abused by a relative. She was given shelter and food.  She told her support group that all she wanted was to go back to school and finish her education, just like any normal teen. On further investigation the police discovered that Azzopardi was already wanted for identity fraud in Queensland. She was charged with two counts of false representation, one count of intention to forge documents, and one count of contravening directions. She was convicted, but her sentence was just a five-hundred-dollar fine. She continued her alternative and it was in 2013 that she ended up in Dublin.  This young Australian woman led the Garda to believe, for a time, that she was a vulnerable teenager a victim of human trafficking. In reality she was now 25 years old with a history of more that forty false identities in her past. This was not the end of her exploits. The following year she appeared in Canada under another name. The “success” of Azzopardi is for Konnikova an illustration of the power of a good story.

Oscar Hartzell, (1876–1943)

This American con man managed to persuade many people in North America to join him in a fraudulent lawsuit against the British government for a share of the fortune of Sir Francis Drake. He hit upon the scam in 1915 after a couple of small-time grifters tried to convince him to part with his money. They had promised that they could turn his mother’s $6000 into a cool $6 million. Hartxell, however, had bigger plans. Claiming to be distant relative of the legendary seaman/pirate/hero, Hartzell got in touch with Iowans who had the surname Drake. He told them that the estate of Sir Francis had never been paid to the heirs. Having gathered interest for over three centuries, it was now worth $100 billion. As well as $500 for every dollar they invested in the scheme, the inheritance would include the whole city of Plymouth in England. In 1924 he set himself up in London in order, he claimed, to carry out negotiations with the British government. The curious thing about the scam is that the victims continued believing him, thwarting attempts by the Iowa state legislature to act. This refusal to accept reality continued even after the UK Home Office informed the American embassy that there was no unclaimed Sir Francis Drake estate, and an FBI investigation confirmed that Drake’s wife had inherited his estate in 1597.

Sylvia Mitchell

Fake psychic is a tautology. Nevertheless, Mitchell is an example of the worst of this “profession” One client, Debra Saalfield, was feeling particularly vulnerable when she saw Mitchell – she had just lost her job as a ballroom-dancing instructor and a boyfriend. Mitchell told her that she had been an ancient Egyptian princess in a past life and that her problems stemmed from having been too attached to money in her royal life in ancient Egypt. The solution would be to experiment parting with that money. Saalfield wrote a cheque for $27,000. She did not get it back. Mitchell was convicted of conning clients for tens of thousands of dollars, and in November 2013 she was sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison.

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