For as long as there have been suckers in the world, there have been con artists waiting to take advantage of them. Grifters' deceptions can be both incredible and incredibly humiliating to their victims – just ask the Oxford historian who lost his formidable reputation swearing fake Hitler diaries were real or the man who "sold" the Eiffel Tower to a metal-scrap dealer in Paris in the 1920s.
But as psychologist and journalist Maria Konnikova explains in her new book, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It, Every Time, you don't have to be particularly gullible or greedy to fall for one of these schemes. Anyone who doesn't believe life has quite meted out what it owes them is also likely to fall for a fraud who promises they can. And our reliance on technology is making us even easier to fool.
Indeed, 25.6 million Americans fell prey to hucksters in between 2011 and 2012, based on the most recent data from the Federal Trade Commission's survey on consumer fraud. (The biggest culprit? Fake weight loss products.) The Confidence Game is a gripping examination of exactly why so many of us are such suckers for schemes that shut down our saner instincts.
VICE sat down with Konnikova to discuss why cons thrive when we're on technological overload, the insecurity and shame that bind the scammer and the mark alike, and some tips on how to resist that particularly persuasive Nigerian prince – even as new technologies allow the scam to evolve.
VICE: You explain that people are more likely to fall for a con when they have multiple streams of information competing for their attention. This seems like a pretty good description of many people's average, hyper-connected days. How do con artists capitalise on our constant connectivity?
Maria Konnikova: You are absolutely right. Few things throw us off our game as much as so-called cognitive load: how taxed our mental capacities are at any given moment. And few things create as much cognitive load as that constant companion of hyper-connectivity, multitasking. A con artist doesn't even need to do much to capitalise on it. All he has to do is approach us when our attention is distracted – we're texting a friend, checking Twitter, posting the view of the park on Instagram – and we become far more likely to believe what he says. Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert points out that we understand the world in two stages: First, we believe everything, and only then do we verify and confirm or disconfirm. Cognitive load disrupts that verification step, so we end up remaining in the "believing" state, which is precisely where the grifter wants us.
I was struck by the number of people and institutions mentioned in the book – from Sotheby's auction house to the United States Navy – who were too embarrassed to prosecute people who conned them. Do you think con artists pick their victims in part based on how much their pride would prohibit them from prosecuting?
I do think that's part of it: Who has too much to lose by admitting they fell for my wiles? The other part, though, is that con artists are expert at creating such a situation in most any victim – almost all of us can be held back by pride in certain circumstances. If you've been strung along long enough, and have invested enough emotional and material resources, you become far less likely to admit it. Because admitting it would mean admitting you're a sap, and no one wants to believe that.
Do you think there are some people who don't really want to know if they are being conned?
Oh, absolutely. I think most of us would rather not know. We love having a positive image of ourselves in our heads. We love to think of ourselves as intelligent, discerning people. We want to believe we're good judges of character. Being a victim of a con goes against all of that. Far better to keep believing it was simply bad luck.
Are there any particular cons you predict will become more common in the future?
I think we're in the midst of huge technological changes, some of which we can't even begin to imagine. We're living in a con artist's dream land. It's like the Wild West of yore (and it's no coincidence that cons absolutely flourished in the days of westward expansion). Honestly, we are all becoming more vulnerable along with every rapid technological advance.
How have cons have evolved with technology?
Technology breeds crime in two ways: First, it has expanded the possible ways for grifters to approach us – social media, dating sites, and the like – so that our area of vulnerability, so to speak, is far greater. All it takes is for one weak link to bring down an entire network. And second, it has made us feel safer. We think we are terribly sophisticated because we've created all of these tech advances, so we let down our guard. Technology makes us feel invulnerable, and it shouldn't.
Right – you have a great story in the book about the evolution of the Nigerian prince scam. Do you think that will continue to evolve with new technology?
Yes, the original Nigerian scam was perpetrated through the newspapers. I'll leave the particulars in the book, but it looked remarkably similar to what we get these days in the 419 scams that pepper our inboxes. All you need is to give a small advance amount, and lo and behold, countless riches are yours. It's the good old Spanish Prisoner, one of the oldest scams of all time.
How will it evolve? We will always want something for nothing, huge returns with little investment – and so, we will always be susceptible to different ways of framing that same basic request. It might be via email, or maybe a Facebook request, or perhaps a Twitter follower, or through a platform not yet invented, but the basic contours of the story won't change. Someone will be able to offer us a lot of money, and we won't have to do all that much for it.
Unlike old media, which was largely run by publishing houses and other corporations, the internet has few gatekeepers. How have scammers manipulated this impulse to believe what might seem credible because it is published online?
There's a lot of [research] that shows that people don't really discriminate between outlet quality online. Many are just as likely to believe some shady site as the New York Times. It makes it much easier for con artists to beef up their credibility – create a few links, a few profiles, a few pages, and suddenly you seem totally legit. One con artist I write about, Matthew Brown, loves to create Wikipedia entries and social media profiles, all linking to one another. It's easier than ever to build up a paper trail that's difficult to distinguish from the original.
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