This Is How Con Artists Trick You

Why is it that audiences are drawn to stories about con artists? From the Paul Newman classic "The Sting" to the Leonardo DiCaprio romp "Catch Me If You Can," con artists have long since fascinated Hollywood audiences. But in recent years, the true-crime boom has been fueled by sensational documentaries detailing unbelievable real-life cons, including those of "The Tinder Swindler" and "The Puppet Master."

Much of the appeal of con artists — including real-life ones — is witnessing the sheer skill these people deploy in using people for their own ends. Con artists come across as smart, daring, and almost psychic in their ability to manipulate people. But unlike the mythologized glamor afforded to other criminals, like those who commit heists (think about how many movies have been made about them), con artists are deeply creepy, as anyone who has watched "The Puppet Master" knows. In fact, such figures seem to have more in common with compulsive serial killers than the characters depicted in "Ocean's Eleven."

It may be the case, then, that audiences' growing interest in hearing stories of con artists isn't simply to marvel at the ingenuity of the crime itself, but rather the implied risk that such crimes — unimaginable as it might be — could happen to us; that we could unsuspectingly find ourselves bent to the whim of a stranger who has caught us, somehow, at our most vulnerable. Here is how the experts say con artists get inside peoples' heads with the intention of exploiting them.

Con artists read people

In 2016, the psychologist Maria Konnikova published a book titled "The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It ... Every Time." In it, she details the steps that con artists take in choosing a target before extracting what they want from them.

According to Konnikova, the first step in the execution of a con is called "the put-up," the phase in which the con artist identifies their victim (via Inc.). But of course, the trickster doesn't just select someone at random. Instead, they take a look at the people they encounter — perhaps at their place of work or in bars and cafes — and, in talking to people, try to identify a desire they can exploit.

To do this, con artists have to be adept listeners — a skill that Konnikova identifies as foundational to their reeling in a potential victim. Konnikova suggests that most of us, even good conversationalists, are only ever really half-listening to our interlocutors as we expend our mental energy on reflecting on how what we hear makes us feel and where we might like the conversation to go next (via YouTube). Con artists, meanwhile, are as skilled as professed psychics at "reading" people and picking up clues about them that they can exploit further down the line.

Con artists make us like them

According to Maria Konnikova, alongside the "put-up" in the con artist's arsenal is "the play," which in essence is a cynical and orchestrated campaign to get their victims to like them. Per Inc., they also must build what Konnikova describes as "an emotional foundation [which] must be laid before any scheme is proposed, any game set in motion." Let's not forget: the "con" in "con artist" is short for "confidence," and such emotional fraudsters enter into their victim's confidence by exploiting their empathy and emotions.

According to Psychology Today, such emotional tricks are liable to work on us because con artists manipulate our feelings to stimulate a chemical in our brains called oxytocin, which is apparently released when we are put in a position of trust. One famous con is known as the "pigeon drop" and involves a con artist seemingly trusting their target with an expensive object, such as a found ring (of course, the object is actually a fake). 

The power of the con lies in the trickster explaining that they trust the victim: They say they've found an item and know who the owner is but are running late for an important appointment and don't have the time to claim the reward. The false samaritan then asks the primed target to do them a favor and return it — thus massaging the common desire to be charitable — before asking for a fraction of the reward money. The con is famous because it works, time and time again.

Growing requests

Conning doesn't typically involve the use of forceful demands — in most cases, that would be plain robbery. Instead, con artists make requests of their targets, which, in most cases, seem entirely reasonable in the context of the scheme but are actually the first step on the slippery slope to exploitation.

Discussing the psychology of con artists for Big Think,​​ Maria Konnikova identifies one technique known as the "foot in the door," in which a con artist — having gained someone's confidence — asks an insignificant favor of them, such as their opinion or a minimal amount of their time to perform a small favor. Afterward, they thank their target effusively so that they feel good about themselves. 

Down the line, the con artist will return to the same target, again and again, asking bigger and bigger requests. The con artist knows that most people like to be well thought of. And after they make a good impression on their target, the target would rather give in to a request than shatter the image of themselves they think they're presenting. It only takes a moment's reflection to consider how powerful this technique can be if orchestrated by the right person – i.e. someone we want to think highly of us.

Information asymmetry

Con artists practice heightened attention in their social interactions to identify their targets, extract information from them, and gain their trust. Conversely, Maria Konnikova argues on Big Think that it is our own natural inattention that makes us vulnerable to such malign social manipulation. In going about our daily lives, we often find that we are engaging with the world around us passively. (Not that this is a fault: In his book, "Thinking, Fast and Slow," economist Daniel Kahneman explains how our brains naturally compel us to automate many of our actions and interactions as a way of saving mental energy.)

Such passivity has repercussions for the depth at which we interpret the world and means that we are liable to fall victim to orchestrated cons that seem legit on the face of it. This includes Ponzi schemes (aka pyramid schemes), which have been the cause of financial hardship for countless people for generations. These scams work by presenting potential victims with what seems like a hard-and-fast system for making money, but in reality, is inherently unfair and sustainable. Of course, these downsides are unnoticeable at first blush (unless you have training in finance). Cons like these rely on what is known as "information asymmetry," which is a common phenomenon in fraudulent business transactions, according to MasterClass.

Do con artists feel guilty?

When we watch eye-popping documentaries chronicling the ruthlessness and cunning of con artists whose parasitic ploys render their victims utterly destitute, the obvious question to ask is: "How could they do it? How could they trick someone so completely and destructively knowing that the con would destroy their life?"

There are no simple answers to why humans do what we do, but experts who have studied hundreds of cases involving the deceptions of con artists have identified some commonalities in their behavior. Writing in Psychology Today, Cathy Scott, a crime writer, investigative journalist, and co-author of "The Crime Book," has identified three ever-present personality traits among successful con artists: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. Such a combination of cunning, self-obsession, and lack of empathy (psychopaths have been widely observed as showing a lack of guilt, per Nature) chillingly suggests that con artists truly are dangerous people who don't feel a hint of sadness at having exploited their victims for their own empowerment.