Confidence men in Art & Literature


The best known example in film is the classic movie: “The Sting” with Robert Redford and Paul Newman set in 1936; but in literature a much earlier exploration of the confidence game can be read in Herman Melville’s ” The Confidence Man” written in 1857.

Two recent additions to the literature are Stephen Mihm’s “A Nation of Counterfeiters”, and Maria Konnikova’s “The Confidence Game”, each of which details the mindset and actions of the grifter, and especially in the latter book, the mindset of the typical mark. Ms. Konnikova is well known as the author of another N.Y. Times Best Seller: “Mastermind – How to think like Sherlock Holmes” published in 2013. In her latest book she provides a series of vignettes and stories to demonstrate her thesis about con men and their victims; similar in format to Melville’s work.

A related perspective is available from Dr. Hare’s work on sociopaths, especially as presented in his well received book: “Snakes in Suits”, in which he shows sociopaths and con men are congruent in form and function. Another memorable work is also from a Psychologist: George Simon, in his book: “In Sheep’s Clothing” -‘Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People’.

If a reader has another work in mind to add to the library, please drop me a note with a reference to the work. I’ll leave you with a review on Amazon of Konnikova’s book:

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful

By N. B. Kennedy TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 14, 2015

Recently, my father, his cousin and my spouse all fell (or nearly fell) for fraudulent scams. Two of them got the phone calls about the grandchild being in Mexico and needing cash. My spouse got the call about his computer needing to be repaired to the tune of $200. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue lately: How are we so easily scammed?

Maria Konnikova’s book is dense with psychological facts and theories surrounding this question. She opens her book with a case study concerning a surgeon for the Navy in the 1950s. Turns out the man was no surgeon at all — and yet he performed operations! He was a serial scammer who assumed identities in many professions, including the clergy. From there, she opens up her inquiries as to how scammers become what they become, and how we, the marks, are taken in. The bottom line, for her, is that humanity has a deep need to believe, and once a con man (or woman) gives us something to believe in, something that we think will make our lives meaningful, we’re sunk. “Ultimately, what a confidence artist sells is hope,” she writes. “Hope that you’ll be happier, healthier, richer, loved, accepted, better looking, younger, smarter, a deeper, more fulfilled human being.”

The case studies in the book follow a similar pattern: a skilled person carefully chooses and primes his or her target and then moves in for the kill. For the most part, the scammers work over a period of time, roping people in gradually. I could easily relate to these people: I was once scammed by a co-worker who rear-ended my car and promised to pay out of pocket. He was a charming person who over time had built friendships within the company. But he didn’t repay and when I finally insisted, he gave me a check that bounced. I pursued him in small claims court, won the judgment but still couldn’t collect. I didn’t know at the time that I could have just taken the bad check to the police and pursued him criminally.

The case studies are definitely the highlight of the book. I’d heard of several high profile cases, such as the Ponzi scheme run by William Franklin Miller in the late 1880s and the ruse of Samantha Azzopardi, who passed herself off as an abused runaway in Australia under various names in the 2010s. The case studies are broken up by long discussions of psychological concepts related to the cases, a construction that was confusing at times. Many times, I had to backtrack to remind myself of the backstory after a case study was reintroduced and resolved.

What I didn’t really find in the book is a discussion of why a person would fall for a scam in the space of a brief phone call with someone they don’t know. I don’t think these scammers try to establish much of a rapport; they just rely on a high enough response rate of people who don’t hang up to make the scam worthwhile. For example, in all the cases of my relatives, I think technology was their downfall. Technology is a mystery to many people, and we place our trust in people who seem to know what they’re doing. In the grandchild scam, I think the elderly relatives couldn’t imagine how a grandchild’s name could be known if it weren’t the grandchild him or herself. Those of us online, though, can see how freely information is shared. In the computer scam, the bogus screen that popped up on the computer looked fairly legitimate. It was our computer guy who alerted us to the scam. But even after we were taken, I wasn’t willing to concede defeat! I called the number back and yelled and screamed until they refunded our money. I made it clear I would keep calling until the credit card charge was removed and that I would waste a whole lot of their time doing so.

I guess the takeaway message of the book for me is that scammers prey on the vulnerable and so, it’s best not to place yourself in a position of vulnerability in the first place. Sounds good, but sometimes vulnerability is thrust upon you by age, infirmity, dire circumstances, emotional distress, financial hardship, etc. I worry about that as I age. That’s why I’ll keep Ms. Konnikova’s book at the ready on my bookshelf!


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