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The Truly American Hustle

In Maria Konnikova's new book no one is safe from the con artist.

John Moore / Getty Images News

In 1951, Dr. Joseph Cyr, a lieutenant of the Royal Canadian Navy, performed life-saving surgeries on Korean combat soldiers discovered drifting in a boat off the shore of North Korea. He was hailed back home as a hero, but his moment in the spotlight was also his undoing. Dr. Cyr, it turned out, wasn’t Dr. Cyr. He wasn’t even a doctor. Fred Demara, a serial con artist, pulled off the surgeries by following a medical textbook. Embarrassed to have been so thoroughly duped, the Navy quietly dismissed him without pressing charges.

Demara wasn’t fazed. He had already impersonated a psychologist, a teacher, the founder of a religious order, and more than one monk. After his stint as a surgeon, he went on to be a Texas prison warden, a chaplain, and even his own biographer. In one incarnation as a civil engineer, Demara was nearly awarded a contract to build a bridge in Mexico. Most of his victims were happy to let him disappear (which only facilitated his whack-a-mole-like reappearance somewhere else). Others were moved by his professed desire for redemption and continued to fall for the act even after his cons had come to light. How did he pull it off? And why did people from all walks of life, the naïve and the highly educated, all fall so easily?  

Con artists might be scoundrels but as movies from Hard to Handle (1933) to American Hustle (2013) suggest, we can’t help being impressed—by the cleverness of their schemes, by their near-supernatural ability to read other people, by their deft maneuvering in impossible situations. Above all, we’re impressed by their confidence. Indeed, the skills of the con artist bear an uncanny resemblance to formulas for success from social psychologists and leadership gurus the world over: Fake it till you make it. Others won’t believe you unless you believe in yourself. Con artists manage with ease the feat we all work to achieve: Becoming who we want to be. As Maria Konnikova explains in her new book, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It…Every Time, they do it by understanding what their victims need and appearing in the right way, at the right moment. The respected investment advisor offering a rare opportunity. The art dealer who has discovered a lost masterpiece. The priest or shaman or psychic who sells you a story that comforts and affirms, that restores meaning to the universe and to your life—something to believe in.

The term “confidence man” was first used, Konnikova writes, in the 1849 trial of William Thompson (and later popularized by Herman Melville’s 1857 novel, The Confidence Man). Thompson snagged his victims by striking up conversations with them on the streets of New York. After establishing rapport, he’d suggest a game: “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” Unbelievably, people wanted to trust him. The “confidence” in the confidence game isn’t just about the swindler’s self-assurance; it’s also about the trust that people are all too happy to place in him (or, in many instances, her). But what kind of person becomes a con artist in the first place? And what kind of person falls for the game?

Viking, 352 pp., $28.00

Neither answer is straightforward. Con artists tend to possess the immoral characteristics that psychologists refer to as the triad of “dark traits”: psychopathy (lack of empathy for others), narcissism (an inflated sense of self-worth and entitlement), and Machiavellianism (the propensity to manipulate others for one’s own ends). But plenty of people with these traits also don’t become con artists. To create anyone from a back-alley fortune teller to Bernie Madoff, the predisposition for deception has to intersect with the opportunity to deceive and the capacity to justify it. At the same time, Konnikova points out, everyone carries out a deception of some sort at some point in their lives; everyone has the capacity to manipulate. Studies show that we lie, on average, three times in an ordinary, 10-minute conversation. Mostly, these are white lies: We say we’re happy to see someone when we’re not. We agree that we enjoyed something when we didn’t. Are con artists merely exaggerated versions of our worst selves? Are we all, in some sense, small-time con artists in the performances of everyday life?

The con man, self-fashioned and self-assured, convinced he can be whoever he dreams of being, also looks rather similar to the modern ideal of the self-made man—with, of course, a stiff twist of dishonesty. Isn’t he Jay Gatsby, Andrew Carnegie, and any one of the rootless cowboys or salesmen of the American imagination? He springs, like Fitzgerald’s hero, “from his Platonic conception of himself.” He lives in the service of “a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty… and to this conception he [is] faithful to the end.” Con men have turned up everywhere, at every point in human history, but America suits their purposes particularly well. Demara observed that Americans are among the most trusting people in the world, ever forgiving of the repentant sinner, ever willing to take you at your word, ever eager to be liked: “Where else but in America,” he wondered, “could a guy like me operate?” Konnikova notes that there could easily have been an alternate reality in which Madoff’s victims never woke up to his deceptions. How much of the con artist lies beneath the masks of respected, self-made men? And to what extent is the con artist just trying to live out the American dream of self-actualization?

The profile of a typical victim is no less fuzzy. The scams Konnikova recounts cheat lonely young women and esteemed academics alike. No one is really safe, because the con is less about who you are than where you are at a certain time in your life. People fall more easily when they’re already down, when divorce or job loss or mounting debt has left them vulnerable and eager for an easy solution. But this doesn’t account for all cases. The main problem is that humans are, by nature, very trusting beings. We survive by relying on each other. People have to cooperate in order to get along, and so we’ve evolved to believe that other people are basically decent. For the most part, this is a good bet, but a small slice of the population has learned to take advantage of everyone else’s tendency to trust.

Con men prey on a number of other human weaknesses too, and Konnikova explicates each in turn. For instance, we tend to see the world the way we want it to be, dismissing red flags in favor of a more optimistic outcome. We like to think of ourselves as nice people, which disposes us to affirming that image by being nice even to people who make us uncomfortable. We are drawn by the allure of scarcity: the one-time-only offer, the limited edition, the investment advisor who only takes on select clients. We’re wired to believe that good things will happen to us: The offer that sounds too good to be true when it’s presented to someone else makes perfect sense when it’s presented to us because we deserve good things; our future is bright. And because, well, what if it’s not a scam? Downturns happen to other people, not to us and certainly not now. 

In fact, cons flourish in times of uncertainty and upheaval, when the old ways of doing things have been cast aside. Technological transformation can bring about these times, and so can social and political transformation. Since 2008, Konnikova notes, consumer fraud in the U.S. has risen by more than 60 percent. Online scams have more than doubled. In 2012, the Internet Crime Complaint Center reported 300,000 complaints of online fraud, totaling $525 million in absconded funds. And that was in 2012 alone. As Konnikova puts it, “the conning risks that used to come your way only in circumscribed situations—a walk down Canal Street past a three-card monte table, an ‘investment opportunity’ from the man in your club, and so forth—are a constant presence anytime you open your iPad.”

More than anything else, con artists play on our need to believe, our hunger for stories that explain our lives and confirm our innate sense of self-importance. Most religions from new age cults to the world’s oldest institutions could be accused of this: This or that leader has come to save you. He loves you. You matter. All you have to do is believe! If you think secular modernity has largely cured us of this need, think again. God might be dead, but we’ve found an endless supply of gods and religions to replace him: psychics, therapists, yoga masters, Oprah, Lance Armstrong, Dr. Oz, your favorite football team. A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found, for example, that half of American sports fans—70 million people—believed some higher power had a hand in the outcome of the 2014 NFL playoffs.

In some ways, Konnikova suggests, we are the real charlatans: “Confidence artists like Demara have it easy. We’ve done most of the work for them; we want to believe in what they’re telling us.” In 2001, Thierry Tilly, a master fraudster, managed to convince the aristocratic de Vedrines family that they were guardians of a precious part of history and the target of a secret masonic plot. Playing on their pride in their heritage and sense of exceptionality, he succeeded in making them hand over $6 million in assets, the 300-year-old family estate, and countless personal items before he was sentenced to prison in 2011 for “despoiling” them and “depriving them of 10 years of their lives.”

What is perhaps most unnerving about the weaknesses Konnikova outlines is that each is, in a way, the underside of our strengths. Our desire to trust, to dream, to hope, to seek meaning, to believe in ourselves are all things that mostly serve us well in life. We wouldn’t want to get rid of them even if we could. Psychologists prescribe the Socratic dictum, “Know thyself,” as the best means of inoculation against the con: Know your vanities, your emotional triggers, your deepest desires, your sympathies and soft spots—everything that a con artist will prey on. But there is no final safeguard. You cannot escape the need to believe. Short of making cynicism your overriding philosophy, the surest safety might be to understand the workings of the con man as he understands you. Understand his psychology, his motivation, his tricks, and his games. Konnikova’s book promises to make life just a little bit harder for con artists everywhere.