Ramblings & ephemera

Why cons work on us

From Damien Carrick’s interview with Nicholas Johnson, “The psychology of conmen” (The Law Report: 30 September 2008):

Nicholas Johnson: I think what I love most about con artists and the world of scammers is that they’re criminals who manage to get their victims to hand over their possessions freely. Most thieves and robbers and the like, tend to use force, or deception, in order for them to take things, whereas a con artist manages to get their victim to freely give up their stuff.

The main thing that really makes people susceptible to con artists is the idea that we’re going to get something for nothing. So it really buys into our greed; it buys into sometimes our lust, and at the same time, sometimes even our sense that we’re going to do something good, so we’re going to get a great feeling from helping someone out, we’re going to make some money, we’re going to meet a beautiful girl—it really ties into our basest desires, and that’s what the con artist relies on.

Most con artists rely on this idea that the victim is in control. The victim is the one who is controlling the situation. So a great example of that is the classic Nigerian email scam, the person who writes to you and says, ‘I’ve got this money that I need to get out of the country, and I need your help.’ So you’re in control, you can help them, you can do a good deed, you can make some money, you’ve got this fantastic opportunity, and the con artist needs your help. It’s not the con artist doing you a favour. So really, you feel like you’re the one who’s controlling the situation when really it’s the con artist who knows the real deal.

I think for a lot of con artists they’re very proud of their work, and they like people to know exactly what they’ve gotten away with.

… for many of [the conmen], they really feel like even if they get caught, or even if they don’t get away with it, they feel like they’re giving their victim a good story, you know, something to dine out over, something to discuss down at the pub. They think that’s OK, you can scam somebody out of a couple of hundred bucks, because they’re getting a good story in return.

My all-time favourite one only makes the con artist a few dollars every time he does it, but I absolutely love it. These guys used to go door-to-door in the 1970s selling lightbulbs and they would offer to replace every single lightbulb in your house, so all your old lightbulbs would be replaced with a brand new lightbulb, and it would cost you, say $5, so a fraction of the cost of what new lightbulbs would cost. So the man comes in, he replaces each lightbulb, every single one in the house, and does it, you can check, and they all work, and then he takes all the lightbulbs that he’s just taken from the person’s house, goes next door and then sells them the same lightbulbs again. So it’s really just moving lightbulbs from one house to another and charging people a fee to do it.

But there’s all sorts of those homemaker scams, people offering to seal your roof so they say, ‘We’ll put a fresh coat of tar on your roof’, or ‘We’ll re-seal your driveway’. In actual fact all they do is get old black sump oil and smooth it over the roof or smooth it over the driveway. You come home and it looks like wet tar, and so ‘Don’t step on it for 24 hours’, and of course 24 hours later they’re long gone with the money, and you’re left with a sticky, smelly driveway.

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