The Psychology of the Scamby Nick LaFleur on Jun. 18, 2012, under alert, Life, scam, Tips
There’s a science to just about everything. You can define a successful baseball pitch according to Physics or analyze the Chemistry of grilling a steak. Better Business Bureau of Southern Arizona has taken a page from the FBI’s handbook in looking at con men and their victims, and there’s a lot more Psychology at work on both sides of a scam than you might expect.
When we look at the common psychology of con men and scam artists. What do we learn?
- First and foremost, most career con men are sociopaths. They are self-absorbed and believe that anything they say and do justifies a positive outcome for themselves. They can’t imagine or don’t care about the consequences their actions have for the people they may hurt. They rationalize away any concern that they are harming other people with any number of self-delusional discussions, if they consider the ethical side of their scams at all. What’s good for them is, by definition, what’s good…period.
- A sociopath, according to Dr. Robert Hare in his book Without Conscience, is characterized by many factors, including a lack of empathy and guilt, an abundance of charm, an inflated sense of his self-worth, an inability to accept responsibility, difficulty forming deep relationships despite an accentuated ability to fake commitment, heightened skills for manipulation, and a parasitic lifestyle. Psychologically, you couldn’t formulate a better mix of traits to create a con artist, and someone who has developed to this mental point couldn’t find a more comfortable career fit.
- Based on their personal experience and personality traits, they probably have cultivated the skills to be an outstanding con man before they hit puberty, and would gravitate toward a con man’s lifestyle whether or not it was a conscious choice.
- Most career con men have above-average intelligence, and that may help them stay a step ahead of the law, concoct complex money-making schemes, or adopt new technologies to use as tools better than other folks. Studying the complexity of some scams would reveal that the con man has a vast array of skills, from a knowledge of computers to well-developed planning and organizational talents.
- A con man’s “people skills” are off the charts. To be a good con man, you need to be manipulative, charming, and a flawless pathological liar. Being a successful con man often depends on your ability to persuade people to ignore common sense and their own best interests, and you have to be convincing to do that. Sociopaths have developed those skills to the point of instinct.
- Being good at dealing with people also means being good at reading people. A con man isn’t going to be successful at his craft if he markets his bogus services to the wrong targets. He learns very quickly who he can take advantage of and who he should pass by. A con man looking for investors at $5,000 a pop is going to hang out at country clubs. The rat who sells fake magazine subscriptions is going to stick to upper-middle class neighborhoods where he knows someone is going to be home during the day to hear his pitch or identifies clusters of retirees.
- Con men can have incredible patience. For the right deal, a telemarketing scammer will invest several hours a day working on his friendship with a shut-in. He’ll learn the names of their grandchildren and make friends with the mark, sometimes bleeding them dry over months or even years.
- Some con men describe a “rush” from closing the deal. They know they are doing something wrong, often illegal, and the success of that activity combined with the physical stresses and rewards in the brain become addictive. The chemicals released in the brain from the pursuit and capture of the cash becomes its own reward; the game becomes more than just a way to get money. Other con men have been known to use their work as a way to massage a fragile ego: Every time they get away with stealing money, they’ve proven to themselves that they are smarter than the authorities and their victims. That reassurance, especially for someone with a poor self-image, becomes addictive and a method to cope with other failings in their lives. Con men who “enjoy” their work often prey on fresh victims even when they have money in the bank and no need to steal more at that moment; they will compulsively set up the next scam even when they know it would be smarter to lie low for a while.
- Con men tend to have a good mind for synthesis. This means that they can look at several apparently unrelated or loosely-related thoughts or situations and create a unifying train of thought to unify those items toward one goal. (The con man knows that people give money to charities. Disposable cell phones are sold at many outlets. He sees that there’s a devastating storm in Asia. Cash purchases are difficult to trace. A story runs in the national news media that most Asian water supplies have been tainted; he assumes that other people are seeing the same stories. The rich side of town’s phone prefix is 636. The Red Cross announces that it is soliciting cash donations to help with the immediate need. Credit card processing machines do not require the card to be swiped and can be purchased online for as little as $200; PayPal allows online transfers direct to bank accounts and can take as long as 30 days to shut down bogus operators. Take those few random facts, run them through the con man’s brain, and you get a telemarketing charity that promises to get fresh water to disaster victims, targets a specific group, and won’t be easily caught because it operates from a disposable phone line on a relatively anonymous machine paid for with cash or a blind online payment plan.)
- The best con men are chameleons. They are capable of adapting and fitting into different groups of people and different social situations, tailoring their behavior to their surroundings and their needs. They may also be able to switch from one con to another as needs or opportunities arise.
- They don’t play well with others. Because they are focused on themselves and their own needs, partnerships are temporary, suspicious, and tenuous. They get what they might need from one supplier and move on. To keep the biggest share of the cash pie, they involve as few people as possible in the game.
- They’re capable of tricking those closest to them. The wife of a huckster probably doesn’t know that he runs con games for a living and can’t be blamed for being deceived; the con man will give every impression that he’s running a legitimate business under any number of ruses, and will blatantly lie to protect that image if it serves to keep his own life stable and himself happy. It’s also typical for true sociopaths to find monogamy impossible; they will have strings of relationships in their personal lives and/or multiple affairs, sometimes seducing the victims of their cons as a means of appearing trustworthy or proving to themselves that they are desirable. They also will often make their closest family their primary targets for scams or outright theft.
- The good news is that most con men get caught because they are so good at convincing people of mistruths that they con themselves into believing they won’t get caught. Over-confidence is what traps most of them. They over-reach their skills or underestimate the victim. They get sloppy or lazy, making bad assumptions after some successes. Conversely, they may become too ambitious, have too many “irons in the fire,” and trip themselves up. Some scams collapse under the weight of too many lies or are exposed when a third party identifies the pattern. Others crack wide open when a victim realizes that he’s been rooked and contacts authorities to complain.
Criminologists often talk about “victimology.” What kind of profile do the victims of scams have in common?
- It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about multi-million dollar Ponzi Pyramid or a thirty-dollar sweepstake rip off, people who are scammed let their guard down for a minute (or for years, depending on the sort of scam they’re involved in) and fall into a trap. That doesn’t mean that they’re naïve, it means that for whatever reason, they didn’t look at all the angles of the deal before they handed over their money. The “con” in “con man” comes from the word “confidence” because a scam artist gains the confidence of the victim. The con man gained that victim’s trust. The con man may have all the tools to cajole his victim into surrendering his bank account numbers, but it’s the victim who is distracted from his own best interests during the execution of the con.
- If all scams could be defended against with a single piece of advice, it might be: Make business decisions with your head, not your heart. Too often, what con men have in common is an ability to get their victims thinking emotionally, not observing and checking the facts. No business deal, no purchase, no request for payment should be taken at face value. Check it out, and don’t hand over your credit card, write a check or open your wallet until you know that you’ve truly valued the decision. The higher the dollar value, the more enthusiastic your fact-checking should be.
- Certain scams work on certain people. One con game does not fit all. That means that there are different weaknesses in different people that are exploited by different con men. Someone who refuses to do business by phone or give a credit card number online may be safe from faceless con men, but may be more susceptible to the scammer on his doorstep. The same can be said of the style of con that might trip up a particular person. Some folks are immediately turned off when approached by a fast-talker, but are more easily taken in by someone who lays out the story slowly and convincingly. Remember that a sociopath adapts to situations. He can talk fast to one client or cultivate a long game over months.
- Another reason people fall for financial cons is because they get desperate. In the worst of circumstances, a drowning man doesn’t care who throws him a life preserver or what renting it will cost him; someone facing a home foreclosure may not take the time to read a contract or check out the business that promises to help him keep his house. No matter what the situation or how badly you need the money, stay calm when considering business propositions. There should be no emotional content to a financial decision, difficult as that may be to maintain. Con men are expert at generating emotions – good or bad – and can play a victim like a harp. Watch out for anyone who tries to put you on an emotional rollercoaster as part of a business proposition, particularly where there are few facts to back up his proposal or where he’s giving you insufficient time to check the offer or other options.
- Your current financial status says a lot to a con man. If you’ve struggled your entire life to make ends meet and someone dangles a wad of cash in front of you, it’s easy to jump at the chance to grab at what appears to be easy money. A lot of con games that have been around since the 1930’s still manage to work because they promise folks a chance at wealth they’ve never had before. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the very poor are instantly prone to be victims – despite being typically less educated, sometimes the poor are better able to watch what little money they have and are possibly less trusting the con man is going to go where he can grab a chunk of money. Who is at greatest risk? The upper middle class (who may have some education but lack specific understanding in areas where the con man appears expert) homeowner (owning a home gives you collateral and some liquid cash that could be targeted by a scammer) with assets (like a 401k or other nest egg) looking for opportunities to improve his financial status. You have some money you could put up toward the right venture, you’re “world aware” enough to understand that investment is a way to make more money, and ambitious enough to be convinced that a risk is worthwhile. Any investment is a risk, but the least you should do to protect yourself before you cash out a CD is to check out the opportunity and the guy offering it to within an inch of your life.
- Never risk what you can’t afford to lose, and don’t jump into what you don’t understand – especially if you’re pressured to do so. A sociopathic con man is going to read you like a book and know your pressure points, no matter how good you think your poker face might be in business. He’s going to tell you what you need to hear, whether he’s selling aluminum siding with the promise that it will increase the value of your home (and your financial security) or running a high-end Wall Street con. He’ll paint rosy pictures of your future when all he cares about is getting into your checkbook. Before you get invest in anything from a new roof to an unfamiliar buying club, expand your expertise by learning a bit about what you’re trying to buy. The more you know, the harder a con man will have to work to trick you.
- Studies show that con men often target seniors. Despicable as that simple fact may be, con men are uniquely equipped to play to the needs of a shut-in, whether in person or by phone or e-mail. A lonely person who “makes a friend” may trust them with far more information than is prudent, and a con man knows what buttons to push and has the time to build a relationship. He feels no remorse or guilt, so he won’t hesitate to rob a retiree blind.
- A few con games work because some people are just plain greedy. They become convinced that someone has found a shortcut to turn a little cash into a treasure and – often under the cover of secrecy – they invest in a bad deal. We might want to believe that there’s a legal way around paying taxes, or that an offshore investment will pay off, or even that a Nigerian prince wants us to launder a lost vault through our bank accounts. Buying into this kind of flight of fancy will cost you, but the con man will make it seem very real.
- Among the profiles prepared for professional salespeople, there are said to be three basic personalities among buyers. First, there’s the fact-based purchaser who needs to gather as much information as possible about an item or service to be comfortable making a purchase. Next is the buyer who purchases to avoid some form of discomfort or inconvenience; he can be convinced that making the purchase is in his best interest. Last, there is the sort of person who buys on impulse. Knowing which type of buyer you are (and in which situations) can help you become a smarter shopper overall, but will definitely help you avoid being taken in by a con man. Your “buying attitude” can be situational. You may feel no concern about giving up five dollars, but spending $100 brings up more care and scrutiny; you probably care less about what you spend on a quick, disposable purchase than a major investment. Those traits are perfectly normal, but con men have a way of slipping past them, and worse, they convince victims to come along for the ride. A fast-talking scammer will convince a rube that all the facts are on the table when the victim still has questions. There’s no excuse for moving ahead when the only person satisfied with the situation is the person who stands the most to gain from you writing a check. We all have weaknesses. The point is that there’s a con man willing to exploit your weakness at whatever level you’re at during a buying experience. Being mindful of your weaknesses is the first step of sensing when someone is trying to hit on them.
If the key to a con game is gaining the victim’s trust, how can we spot a con man?
- Most victims will tell you that they knew something was wrong with the deal, but they went ahead anyway. Don’t ignore that nagging gut feeling. If you don’t feel right about the deal – even if you can’t say why — don’t do it. At least check it out with a friend, attorney, or an organization like the Better Business Bureau.
- It doesn’t matter what kind of deal we’re talking about, from selling a timeshare to giving a check to a door-to-door salesman. If you haven’t had time to think about and check the deal out, walk away. If you don’t understand a contract, don’t sign it. Don’t be pressured into getting involved “right now” just because the salesman wants you to, or offers what appear to be good reasons or incentives to move ahead before you’re satisfied.
- Being able to spot a con man is like being able to spot a liar. Look for inconsistencies in his story. Look for parts of the deal that just don’t make sense or sound too good to be true. If the salesman is offering testimonials as proof his system or products works, verify them – if you’ve been given enough information to try to verify the claim. Many times, those listed in testimonials are so vague it would be impossible to track down the proud client.
- You might be flattered when the salesman offers you an exclusive deal and understand when he explains that you shouldn’t tell anyone about this “secret, special offer” he’s designed just for you. No legitimate salesman is going to cook deal so secret he’s afraid anyone would find out about it. Ethical sales pitches are made above-board, with the facts available to you. Don’t get caught up in the excitement he’s trying to generate: Check out the deal before you sign up or pay money.
- Always remember that it’s your money…until you hand it over. It’s rarely a good idea to pay cash to an individual, especially in your home, or to make out a check in the name of an individual when he is supposed to represent a business. A con man might say he owns the business, but there are serious liabilities and limitations on your end if you fail to make a company responsible for a purchase. In the worst of all worlds, a rogue salesman has talked a victim into making a check out to himself for a home improvement contract and the legitimate business knows nothing about the deal. When the customer calls to ask why the work hasn’t started on the contracted date, the business is left holding the bag – and the salesman has skipped town with the victim’s money in his account. Ultimately, it’s the customer who will lose on that deal.
- Don’t let emotions or desperation get in the way of common sense. Watch out for impassioned pleas that are short on verifiable facts.
P. T. Barnum famously said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but there’s no shortage of con men in the world to take advantage of them. Taking a few steps to protect yourself and your money will keep you from becoming another statistic in the BBB’s files.