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The con business: Chances are you’ve fallen victim more times than you’ll ever know

Our unshakable belief that we can spot a huckster a mile away is the very thing that keeps us off guard when it comes to con jobs, writer Maria Konnikova says.

You would never click on a lottery scam in your inbox. You're too smart for that. But have you ever made an online donation to a disaster-relief fund, only to find that your charitable tax receipt never materialized? How about that investment tip from a friend of a friend, which never did pan out?

Chances are you've been fleeced more times than you'll ever know, says Maria Konnikova, a columnist for The New Yorker and author of The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time.

The lingo in her book sounds like something out of a 1940s detective novel. There's the grifter and the mark. The snow job. The bait and switch. But make no mistake: The con business is brisker than ever. Since 2008, consumer fraud in the United States has soared 60 per cent. Online scams have more than doubled.

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Cons bilk us by catering to our inner desires and self-perceptions as generous people, lucky people or savvy investors, writes Konnikova, who received her PhD in psychology from Columbia University. Bernie Madoff didn't take money from any old sap. His Ivy League dupes had to work their way into his expertly disguised Ponzi scheme. "You had to earn his trust."

Our unshakable belief that we can spot a huckster a mile away is the very thing that keeps us off guard, Konnikova says on the line from her home in New York City. The true masters of deception, she argues, are ourselves.

What captured your interest in the psychology of scamming?

I was watching House of Games, David Mamet's first directorial film, which deals with a confidence scam. The protagonist is a woman with whom I kind of identified. She was in her mid-30s, had a PhD in psychology, had just written a bestselling book and ended up falling for this very intricate long con. She thought she was in on it, but she ended up completely devastated financially and emotionally. The media perpetuates this notion that con artists prey on gullible victims. [But] here we have someone who was obviously not a sucker. I thought, okay, how does that happen? I tried to find a book that would explain it to me, and it didn't exist.

Swindlers are masters at reading people, you say. How do they do this in the digital age?

It's much easier for con artists to operate [today] because they can use all of this information that we drop online, every single day, against us. There's some fascinating work that shows that you can actually tell, with pretty good accuracy, someone's personality from something as benign as a Facebook post. Couple this with the type of information con artists can very easily obtain – our Amazon wish lists, our bidding history on eBay – and suddenly you see moods, desires and patterns of behaviours. You can start inferring not just personality but inner drives, what makes this person tick. And you've never met.

How do unlikely con stories short-circuit our natural skepticism?

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Because we want to believe them. There is a very deep human need for meaning and for stories that actually make sense. If there's something we really hate, it's the feeling of uncertainty. We hate shades of grey. Con artists make things black and white.

How do scammers make us think we're calling the shots?

They feed us information so we think things are coming from our own fertile imaginations, from our own initiative. It's easy, when you're telling a story, to embed different snippets in there to prime people to think a certain way. Sob stories work remarkably well because everyone wants to be a kind, understanding, helpful human being. You're getting a sense of yourself as the type of person you want to be.

You insist that anyone can be made a sucker. How can we tell we're being conned?

This advice is easier said than done. When things are going wrong, we're skeptical already. When things are going beautifully and we're really happy, we have to start questioning and saying, "Okay, why is this happening?" It may not be a con, but it might be. Hopefully, understanding how con artists work and how they take advantage of us will make us slightly less susceptible. [But] I am sure that I am still a wonderful target if someone were to approach me in the right way.

Your book details how top scientists, physicians and seasoned investors succumbed to swindlers. How did emotion get the better of them?

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I think that anyone, if you press that person's buttons in the right way, will end up being emotionally involved and stop thinking rationally. There have been books written about this: Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. Walter Mischel's "hot" and "cold" systems [in The Marshmallow Test]. Once you're hot, once you're in that emotional mode of thinking, it doesn't matter [who you are].

What makes some people more vulnerable?

It's not who we are, but where we happen to find ourselves in our lives. People who are in a state of uncertainty or transition become much more emotionally vulnerable. It could be anything that really uproots you, such as the loss of a job or a death in the family. It might also be something positive, like a marriage. It doesn't matter, as long as things are changing.

What is the best way to help a friend who has been reeled in?

We can often tell when other people are getting conned because we're not in that emotional narrative ourselves. We're still thinking logically. The bad news is that it's almost impossible to convince people that they're being conned when they're in the midst of it, especially if it's a good con artist. They will say that you're cynical, that you just don't know what you're talking about. We want to deceive ourselves. That's the problem.

If cons work by giving us something to believe in, can we protect ourselves by feeding our need for meaning in constructive ways?

Absolutely. I don't think we can inoculate ourselves against scams, but this can certainly help.

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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