The best ways to avoid getting conned
In November, I came across a story that made absolutely no sense to me.
A 33-year-old consultant named Niall Rice gave $718,000, little by little, to two Manhattan psychics who promised to reunite him with an old flame. How could someone be so gullible? Rice himself didn’t even seem to know: “I just got sucked in,” he told The New York Times later.
As it turns out, it’s much easier to fall for these types of cons than many people think. As Maria Konnikova, a psychologist and New Yorker contributor, explains in her new book, “The Confidence Game,” grifters manipulate human emotions in genius (and evil) ways, striking right when we feel lovelorn or otherwise emotionally vulnerable.
I recently spoke with Konnikova about cons, why they happen, and if there’s any way to avoid becoming a fraudster’s next target. A lightly edited version of our conversation follows:
Khazan: You have so many great examples of cons in your book. Which one was the most remarkable to you?
Konnikova: I have too many favorites to choose. The one that really, I think, piqued my interest the most, which is why I explore it throughout the book, is the case I open the book with, of Ferdinand Waldo Demara. The fact that not only was he able to take on so many different guises, including as a surgeon — I mean that’s crazy, that he was able to fool the Navy into giving him an entire ship full of people. But, the fact that he was successful, that he actually performed surgery, so he was able to bluster his way through it, which is kind of remarkable if you think about it. That someone who didn’t even graduate from high school was able to do this. And I also thought it was really interesting that so much of his life isn’t known or at least, wasn’t known to the public, because he has a really dark side and he’s actually kind of a nasty person, but all of that got lost because his biographer was also conned by him, which is kind of incredible.
Khazan: Yeah, how can we even be sure what con artists’ life stories are?
Konnikova: The thing is, we actually can’t. I stopped talking to the con artists I was writing about, about halfway through the research process, because I realized that the same thing was happening to me. When I actually spoke with them and met them, I was no longer objective because they’re so good, so charismatic — you really start identifying with them and thinking, “Oh, they’re really not so bad.” You start making all sorts of excuses and it’s really not a good thing, so I stopped talking to them. I realized I needed to talk to the victims.
Khazan: What kinds of things would the con artists say to you?
Konnikova: Well, it’s not just what they say, but how they say it. Some of them were really nasty pieces of work. But, others, they empathize. They ask about you, they know a lot about you. I was surprised at how well they did their homework. I was a journalist interviewing them and they would talk to me about my first book, or about some article that they read. They actually did background research on me. They’d say, “You did such a good job understanding this,” and it’s flattering.
They have excuses for everything they did. They’ll say things like, “Oh, well I wasn’t really trying to make her lose all her money. I was actually trying to help her and all these things happened” — and you just get swept up in it. A lot of times, you don’t even realize they’re making excuses until you see yourself writing a paragraph where you are describing them as kind of a ‘jovial man’ and you suddenly see all these positive attributes coming out of your own mouth and you think, oh no, no, no, no, no.
When you’re vulnerable, your world no longer makes sense. Con artists are people who are happy to make sense of it for you.
Khazan: Explain what the “dark triad” is, and why is it essential to being a successful con artist.
Konnikova: The dark triad is three things, obviously, including psychopathy, the inability to feel emotion in the way that normal people do. It’s kind of a lack of empathy. Your brain is actually different, you process emotional stimuli differently. To you, they don’t mean that much. It’s very difficult for a non-psychopath to understand, but basically everything that would really make you emotionally engaged would leave you cold as a psychopath, so that’s one part of it.
The second part is narcissism, this overblown ego where you not only think you’re just the best thing that’s ever happened to anyone, but you also think you deserve a lot. You deserve basically everyone to bow down to you. And you have it coming to you, all these good things. So if you notice a lot of the con artists in the book, they want shortcuts, they don’t want to work hard for their rewards, because they think they deserve them. They are people who steal credentials because they don’t feel like getting a Ph.D. But they think they’re smarter than the people with Ph.D.s.
Finally, it’s Machiavellianism, or the ability to manipulate people into doing what you want. Kind of like Machiavelli’s Ideal Prince, you have your own ends and you use whatever means you want to get there. And you’re very good at tricking those people and getting them to do what you want.
The reason those traits are so important to con artists is that you are taking advantage of people, and in order to do it well, you can’t think that you’re taking advantage of people, because the moment you do, you start feeling bad for them. What this triad allows you to do is not have to deal with that, you don’t feel bad for people, because you don’t feel empathy. And you don’t think you’re doing anything wrong, because you deserve it. And you have the means, because you’re Machiavellian, and so you’re very good at convincing other people that what you say is correct. Those three things can really operate in tandem to create the perfect story. That said, and one thing that I do say in the book. It’s not destiny. There are plenty of people who have these traits who don’t become con artists. And there are also con artists who probably don’t have the entire dark triad of traits.
Khazan: Why are we more likely to fall for cons when we’re feeling isolated and lonely?
Konnikova: Emotional vulnerability is one of the things that unites victims of cons, in the sense that it’s not so much a personality trait, as where you are in your life. Because what happens when you’re down, when you’re vulnerable, there’s change going on, and your world no longer makes sense the way that it used to, so you’re particularly vulnerable to people who make sense of it for you. You want that meaning. You want that sense of connection and con artists are very happy to supply it for you. One of the things that I found really interesting is that it transfers across domains. So, for instance, if you lose your job, you’re not just more vulnerable to finance frauds, you’re more vulnerable to romance frauds, you’re more vulnerable to every single thing even if it has nothing to do with money, just because you’re in an emotionally susceptible position.
Khazan: You talk about how it’s hard to spot a fraudster or liar in person, but also that microexpressions might be a clue. Why is it so hard to detect lying, and is there anything you can do to make yourself better at rooting it out?
Konnikova: It’s really difficult to do it because it’s actually not evolutionarily adaptive. We are better placed if we trust people than if we don’t trust anyone. I talk about infants and young children who need to trust that adults are going to take care of them. It makes us feel better when we accept people’s little white lies at face value. It would be terrible if I knew that every time you said, “Maria, you look so beautiful today!” you were really thinking, “Oh, she looks tired, she didn’t get enough sleep last night.”
We haven’t really evolved to spot lies. Instead, we like to think that we can tell people are lying because once again, it makes us feel better, it makes us feel like we are good judges of character, it makes us feel like we know what’s going on. So we often think that we are much better than we are.
So that’s the number one piece of advice I can give: to understand how bad you are. In a strange way, that makes you better, because you will try to find more signs to verify whether or not you’re accurate. Is there anything objective you can point to that is a sign of deception?
And to realize that things like gaze aversion or shifting around and being uncomfortable — all of those things are old wives’ tales, they’re not true, so we can’t rely on them. Instead, you need to rely on other things, like content.
By the way, you’re not going to be able to train yourself to spot microexpressions. It’s tough. I mean, you can, you can go through a training course, but once again, it gives you an overinflated sense of confidence. One of the people I spoke with, one of the super-deception-spotter-people in Paul Ekman’s original study of microexpressions, even she told me that when it comes to professionals, she’s off, because they’re so good at it. So when someone is very practiced and very good at lying, which good con artists are, they no longer have those sorts of tells.
When I was done with the book, I went through a period of really mistrusting all of humanity.
Khazan: What are some of the con-artist strategies that might bleed into everyday life? You know, many of us have had the, “Can my mom come stay with us for two weeks? No? Okay, how about two days?” and suddenly you’re more likely to say yes. Are there more subtle things like that we encounter every day?
Konnikova: It’s a thin line between con artist and good advertiser, good marketer, good politician, good lawyer, and there’s so many professions that use these sorts of techniques all the time. And as you pointed out, people do it in their everyday lives. Asking for a big favor followed by a small favor, that’s huge.
Another thing, something that I talk about it in the book is the Marc Antony gambit, which comes from Shakespeare. [“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”] It’s where you start out by saying that you are not going to do something. And people are like, good, good, we’re on the same page, and then you go and do it.
Nobody notices, because the way that you framed it, they’re not looking for it, and so you end up being able to sell them something totally different even though you promised them that you wouldn’t. I think that that kind of bait and switch is very common in a lot of different ad techniques and also just approaches to try to persuade someone where you use clever framing to get people to go along with you. And then you subtly change what you’re saying and end up saying the exact opposite.
When we’re talking about something a little bit more concrete, you can think of a lot of ad campaigns that use the combination of alpha and omega tactics — alpha tactics being things that make you approach something, and omega ones giving you reasons why you shouldn’t avoid it. You can, for instance, say, “Oh, this face cream is going to make you a million years younger,” and you obviously know on some level that that’s not true, but that’s something that we all want to believe. And they say, “Oh and free returns within 30 days, money back guaranteed, if you’re not showing any results.” So you do it. What can you lose? You realize that it’s actually a pain in the ass, you can’t really get your money back. But you let your guard down because it seemed to answer all of your queries.
Khazan: One thing I found surprising was that cons are underreported. Why is that?
Konnikova: Part of it is that people really value their reputations, so they don’t want others to know that they fell victim. The other thing is that they value their reputation so much is that they don’t want themselves to know. They would much rather believe that they were the victims of bad luck than that they were victims of a con artist. Our self-deception is incredibly powerful, because we have this very strong protective mechanism where we want to think of ourselves in the best possible light. No one wants to think of themselves as a sucker or as someone who falls for some con artist, who to someone else might seem obvious.
You want to think of yourself as someone who’s smart, as someone who’s savvy, as someone who would know better, and so that’s exactly what you do, you say, “Oh, bad luck, luck of the draw, it was just a bad investment decision or this person just wasn’t ready for a serious relationship,” whatever it is. So the funny thing is, most people don’t learn from their mistakes because they don’t acknowledge that they made them. One thing that I learned while I was researching the book, which I had no idea existed, was that there are sucker lists out there that con artists buy and sell of people who’ve already fallen for a scam. Those are the best victims, the ones who have already been victimized once, because they’ve done such a good job rationalizing that they’ll do it again.
Khazan: That’s sad, because that means it’s more likely to happen to those people over and over again.
Konnikova: Absolutely. It’s crazy and it is very sad. Something that doesn’t come out that much in the book, on purpose, because it would have been a very different book, but I struggled with it a bit, is how much of the victims to really put in there, because if you write the entire book from the victim’s point of view, you’ll be crying by the end, because there are a lot of really terrible stories. People might seem glamorous and fun, and their stories are a lot of fun, but they do ruin lives. I had people talking to me about how they tried to commit suicide after some of these cons.
Khazan: If you’re evaluating a new opportunity, is there anything you do differently now that you know all this stuff?
There really is no such thing as the exception to the rule.
Konnikova: Two things. One, when I was done with the book, I definitely went through a point in time of really just mistrusting all of humanity and thinking that people totally suck and that everyone is just a horrible human being. And then I kind of got over it and I realized, you know, “you’ve spent the past three years with these people, but they’re still a minority.” I went through this cycle when at first, I did do everything differently, I was much more skeptical, I was much more cynical. And it wasn’t just difficult, it was also unpleasant. Because you don’t really meet new people or have new experiences because you say ‘no’ to everything. So I’ve come around to be more like I used to be beforehand. With the exception that I do really, really try to stand by the fact that if it seems too good to be true, it is.
There’s no “probably” about it. There’s no caveat whatsoever. There really is no such thing as the exception to the rule. It’s a rule for a reason. And you are not the exception. If you have that sort of mentality, I think it can help you through a lot of those types of situations. That said, it’s really had to put that into practice. It’s much easier said than done, because you always want to think of yourself as an exception. I mean, we’re all exceptional.
Khazan: Have you ever fallen for a con?
Konnikova: I don’t know. I am sure that I’ve fallen for some small cons. I’m sure that some of the people I’ve given money to probably weren’t who they said they are. I’m sure that I fell for their stories. I’m sure that some of the people I’ve met weren’t who they said they are, and I just took it at face value that they are. For instance, I met someone a few years ago who said that he was a fellow Harvard alum and I said, “Oh, sure, great” and we talked. I told someone else and they said, you know, it’s a strange story, I don’t think he actually went to Harvard, because he wasn’t in any alumni databases. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know if he did or didn’t.
If I’m writing a story about someone, I’ll fact-check what they say. But if I just meet them at a party, I’m not going to verify where they went to school or that they work where they say they work.
I’ve never fallen for a huge con that I know of. No Ponzi schemes in my past. I’ve never done internet dating, so I haven’t dated anyone fraudulent online. I did date a psychopath once.
Khazan: Haven’t we all? Is there a way for good people, who aren’t con artists, to harness the power of con artistry to get more of what they want. I’m talking like, a promotion, not someone else’s identity.
Konnikova: Absolutely. You can imagine people using it to get charity donations for noble causes, getting people to change their lives in good ways. I think a lot of these techniques can be used for good or for ill and it’s just a question of intention.
But, on the other hand, who’s to say what’s for good and what’s for ill? Obviously, if you’re trying to take advantage of someone, it’s very easy to say it’s a con artist. But, what about the other way? If you’re trying to get someone to donate to a charity and it’s a charity that someone else really disagrees with, is that a good cause, is that using it for good ends?
I think it’s funny that one of the books that’s considered the con-artist bible is Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which was meant as a book of business advice. Which I think is quite funny.