How to Spot a Con

Categories Foundations of Leadership, Success Habits0 Comments

I don’t know if it’s true, but the number one reason I hear from people who are not interested in church is that it’s full of hypocrites.

And, I agree. It is full of hypocrites. That’s the whole idea behind becoming more like Jesus. It’s a fight and a struggle, and all the failure in between is, well, hypocritical.

But there’s a difference between trying and failing and outright manipulation. A difference, I would add, that in the hands of the right people is deceptively hard to spot.

Jesus warned us on this front when He said:

“Stay alert. This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove” (Matthew 10:16).

So with that, it’s our job not only to watch ourselves, but to watch out for those who may be looking to take advantage of others. These are the manipulators–the con artists seeking to strip the sheep. As Jesus said, it’s not good enough to be as inoffensive as a dove, we must be cunning as snakes, too.

Maria Konnikova, PhD in psychology and a columnist for The New Yorker, has done something to help us here. In her book, The Confidence Game, she has dissected the con and broken it into eight parts.

Understanding this kind of thinking helps us better spot the wolves. And, most importantly, not get eaten ourselves.

So you know, here’s how it looks:

Step 1: The Put-Up

The Put-Up is the first filter the con artist uses.

As Konnikova put it, it’s “the moment when a confidence artist investigates and chooses his prey.” This first step is about finding a mark–a person with a weakness that can be exploited. And then, it’s a matter of building trust.

That trust component is what social scientist Robert Zajonc calls the “mere exposure effect.” The more you see something, the easier it is to like. The scary part is that this isn’t a warning for suckers–it’s for all of us. We’re all susceptible to this.

Liking is where it starts. When we’re skeptical, we’re on guard. But when we like someone, our defenses are relaxed. And this makes us open to the next step, the Play.

Step 2: The Play

The Play is all about the shared story. It’s the narrative we have in common.

“Stories bring us together,” writes Konnikova. “They are shared knowledge, shared legend, shared history, and, in a sense, shared future.”

Here’s a true story.

In 2013, a teenage girl was found wandering around Dublin, Ireland. She spoke only a few words of English and seemed confused. As good people do, the city began rallying around her. And as more details quietly slipped out, they began to piece together that she was a victim of human trafficking and was from somewhere in Eastern Europe. Dublin spent 250,000 euros, calling it Operation Shepherd, to help this girl get back home.

It wasn’t until an odd lead from Interpol that eventually revealed the girl to be Samantha Azzopardi–the twice convicted con artist from Brisbane, Australia. Less than a year after her deportation, she showed up in a Calgary, Alberta clinic with a powerful (but familiar) story. And the con continued.

“When we’re immersed in a story we let down our guard. We focus in a way we wouldn’t if someone were just trying to catch us with a random phrase or picture or interaction. And in those moments of fully immersed attention, we may absorb things under the radar, so to speak, that would normally either pass us by or put us on high alert.”

Step 3: The Rope

The Rope is when you begin to the see the world like the con artist–or at least like the con artist is portraying it. It’s at this point a mark becomes a victim.

As Konnikova puts it, “the put-up identified the mark…the play caught the mark’s attention and…the rope makes sure he bites.”

What does a typical rope look like? A good amount of time it’s favors. Robert Cialdini, author of the now famous book Influence, calls this the law of reciprocation.

Simply put, the rule is as the name implies: “we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us,” writes Cialdini. “Sociologists such as Alvin Gouldner can report that there is no human society that does subscribe to this rule.”

In the 1970s, the Hare Krishna Society grew remarkably with this strategy. They would walk up, give you a rose, and ask for a donation. Sounds silly. But, it worked extremely well.

What’s interesting about the Rope is that you don’t need to cognitively agree with the con artist. Techniques, like the rule or reciprocation, trigger a deep reaction that’s built into all of us.

Psychologist Joel Brockener developed something similar in the 1980s with the “even a penny helps” plea. This is called the legitimization effect.  “If you were a swindler,” writes Konnikova, “you’d ask for a lot.” But you’re not asking for a lot (“just a penny,” I’m clearly not getting swindled), then you’re probably legit.

Step 4: The Tale

In the Rope you begin to understand the world of the con artist. In the Tale, you find yourself inside that story. In business terms, this is the buy in.

The buy in is “the moment when ‘too good to be true’ turns into ‘Actually, this makes perfect sense’.”

Here is Konnikova at length:

“In the things that truly matter to us, the core characteristics that we view as central to our identity, we exhibit the greatest bias of all. We all become, in a sense [the] ‘less than one percent.’ Each one of us is exceptional in our own minds. And exceptional individuals are not chumps. Exceptional individuals are in charge. They don’t get conned. Which is precisely why the tale works as well as it does. We are ready–eager, even–to believe we will personally benefit, no matter what.”

The Tale plays to a very specific desire. It’s to be special. And so much of that is true. We are special. God has handcrafted each of us uniquely.

Where we go wrong is when we interpret unique and special to mean privileged.

“The power of the tale isn’t the strength of its logic; it’s that at the point it’s told, we’re past being reasonable.” And it’s this that blinds us to the next step, the Convincer.

Step 5: The Convincer

Life is tough. A lot of things go wrong. It’s the job of the Convincer to, well, convince us that we’re on the right track. We’ve chosen wisely. Konnikova writes, “the convincer makes it seem like you’re winning and everything is going to come out on top.”

And once you’ve bought in, this is not too hard. You’re already filtering information in this direction. But, as Konnikova notes, “no self-respecting con artist is complete fluff. There needs to be something real there to anchor the whole thing.”

In other words, there needs to be some rationale for us to grab on to. You can be blind to the danger, but if you don’t see some light, there’s no reason to keep moving forward.

The housing bubble of the last decade is a great example of this. Sub-prime mortgages are when banks lend to people with credit at or lower than the reliability threshold. Or when banks give people more house than they can really afford. And, as a result, a lot of these people (obviously) defaulted.

What does this have to do with con artists?

Think about it: who lost out? It was the mortgage holders who went bankrupt in the process. And so who won? The exact people who should have (and did) know better: the loan officers and banks approving these ridiculous mortgages.

In what led to the housing crisis, the Rope was an unprecedented availability of loans, the Tale was people realizing they could ‘qualify,’ and the Convincer was the loan officer sliding the paperwork across the table.

In hindsight, all we see were warning signs. But, in the moment, it’s a lot harder to see through the very real carrot setting in front of us. As I mentioned before, these weren’t suckers, they were all of us. So much of us, in fact, fell for these smooth lies that it sent out entire country into a financial crisis.

Step 6: The Breakdown

Ironically, the con isn’t all about good news. The breakdown is when things start to go wrong. It’s critical, however, that the Breakdown comes after the Tale and the Convincer (after we’ve started to win). Because it too is all part of the plan.

“When we should be cutting our losses, we instead recommit,” says Konnikova, “and that is entirely what the breakdown is meant to accomplish.”

This is the nervous guy at the blackjack tables who’s already cashed his paycheck and is working on collateral he can’t afford to loose. If he can just hold on, he’ll come out on top, and it’ll all be okay.

Psychologists have termed this the confirmation bias. We know it’s going to turn around. “We can revise our interpretation of the present reality: there actually isn’t any inconsistency; we were just looking at it wrong.”

When you get this far into a con, it becomes extremely important to have good friends who know you well. I knew a woman who had some money (but not a lot), and a few decent pieces of property. She was being conned by a man in Indonesia. There was a full story behind it. He was a business man. He wanted to marry her. They’d Skype regularly and giggle about marriage and a happy life. He just needed some help with a business deal that went bad. Oh, and his government had frozen his money on some bureaucratic technicality. She was in the process of selling another piece of property for him last I talked to her.

She was a good person. I tried to tell her, this doesn’t sound right. She’d already alienated her daughter over it. For some reason, her daughter didn’t want her to “finally” be happy, she told me. “Why couldn’t she understand and just be happy for me?” she asked.

It was sad. Like watching a crash in slow motion.

If you’ve got people watching out for you, you need to be, in return, watching for their signals. They probably really are trying to help you.

My friend when I last talked to her was in the middle of step 6–the Breakdown–when her soon-to-be husband started talking about breaking things off. But she wouldn’t accept that. She wanted it too bad.

Step 7: The Send and the Touch

The Send (the victim’s re-commitment) and the Touch (the final move) is the end of the con. Coming off of the Breakdown, the you have become your own Convincer. You need this.

For two decades, ending just a few years ago, Glafira Rosales gave the art world an unprecedented amount of Abstract Expressionists artists. Works by artists like Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still. All, of course, verified and legitimate.

Except they weren’t.

Rosales supplied Ann Freedman of Knoedler Gallery with over 60 fake painting during this time, some selling for as much as $17,000,000. From a Vanity Fair interview, Freeman said, “It’s amazing to think that this institution never stopped for 165 years. It didn’t stop during the Civil War, World War I, World War II .. I kept it open on 9/11.”

But after Rosales and her incredible con, the gallery couldn’t stay open. How did this happen?

It was the Send.

Freedman came to rely on Rosales. Even after she began to question strange little misfires, it was then too late to go back. All those pieces she’d sold. Her reputation. The gallery’s reputation. That kind of second-guessing doesn’t help anything at this point. It’s best to just keep focused. And hope none there’s no reality to those feelings.

But there was. Eventually it all caught up, as it always does.

Status quo has a powerful hold over the victim at this point. William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser of Boston University and Harvard University, respectively, watched how five hundred economics students made decisions about investments they’d made. What Samuelson and Zeckhauser found, despite diminishing returns and new data, was that “86 percent overall [stuck] to their guns despite the changing landscape and the new information.”

When you get this far, it’s not about logic, it’s about consistency.

Step 8: The Blow-off and the Fix

The Blow-off and the Fix, while not technically part of the con, are why we don’t hear more about these things. They are the perfect post script. And this is why con artists, like Samantha Azzopardi, are able to essentially travel from place to place pulling the same con over again.

Specifically, the Blow-off is the con artist’s getaway, while the Fix is the victim’s retribution. But there’s a catch. And it’s an important one.

As Konnikova notes, “we ourselves are the con artist’s best chance of a successful blow-off: we don’t want anyone to know we’ve been duped. That’s why the fix is so incredibly rare–why would it ever come to pressing charges, when usually all we want is for it all to quietly go away?”

In the end, the power of the con is our own reputation. What’s your wife going to think of you if you admit you were taken for $8,000 over the phone? Is your boss really going to push for that promotion when you can’t even tell the difference between a responsible investment and snake-oil?

Our reputation (and shame) present a powerful counterargument to our having fallen victim. And that, in turn, feeds the cycle.

Cons

In the end, we’re all susceptible to this stuff. The best defense is knowing what a con looks like, having good friends who watch you, and, most importantly, listening to God’s prompting.

Sometimes God turns us from paths that seem to have nothing but advantages. But they’re not good for us. Other times, after we’re licking our wounds, we wonder why God didn’t somehow warn us.

None of this is foolproof. But with every experience, good or terrible, we’re a little bit better than we were before. And with that, we share it.

And that’s really the point of this all.

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