Return of the ‘Con Artist’ — Tips to Protect Yourself

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In order to avoid falling prey to con artists, learn to recognize their ways, and to be more aware of your own vulnerabilities.

In a sluggish economy, it can get pretty hard to make an honest buck. That’s possibly why ‘con artists’ appear to be making a sort of comeback these days. Of course, these swindlers have always been around, but when times get tough, reports of people being victimized by these nefarious characters increase.

Recently, a large evangelical congregation in Canada fell victim to a scheme that ended up costing them their worship hall, school, and daycare center. And in another province, a con artist got over 30 people to put down a $1,000.00 deposit on a condominium he didn’t even own. By some reports, ‘con games’ are on the rise within the corporate world as well. All told, Ponzi schemes, mortgage and land frauds, identity thefts, and various other swindles have cost the developed economies billions over the past decade. There are some indications that, overall, petty frauds of various types are actually on the decline, but the number of more sophisticated (and lucrative) ‘superfrauds’ has definitely increased in recent years. And, while the very nature of the typical schemes and the ‘artists’ who conduct them make them difficult to detect, there are some things you can watch out for that can help keep you from being taken in.

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What is a ‘con artist,’ exactly? The term ‘con’ is short for ‘confidence.’ Some manipulators are particularly skilled in the art of impression-management — they know all the ‘tricks’ that can get you to surrender any innate hesitancy you might have, and thereby secure your confidence. As soon as they’ve gotten your trust, you’re ‘set up’ to take the inevitable fall that lies ahead. Sometimes, ‘running the con’ takes only a few short minutes and, like getting whiplash, you only know what’s happened long after the damage has already been done and the con artist is fast out of sight. Other cons take a longer time to perpetrate successfully. Generally speaking, the more money that’s at stake in the scheme, the longer it takes to set it up.

How do these predators gain your trust in the first place? By preying on your greatest vulnerabilities. Sometimes those vulnerabilities are your virtues, like your conscientiousness, your trusting nature, your compassionate heart, etc. Other times, it’s your fears and insecurities that they exploit. But they can also take advantage of your character flaws and vices, such as greed, envy, vanity, etc. Skilled con artists start sizing you up from the very first moment they lay eyes on you, taking note of your most prominent personality characteristics, your likes and dislikes, and most especially, any deficiencies in your capacity to soundly judge the character of others.

Is there anything you can do to protect yourself? Some con artists are so skilled, charming, and engaging, that it’s almost impossible to avoid being taken in by them. But there are some things you can do to improve the chances that you won’t be a hustler’s next victim. First and foremost, you need to accept the fact that we live in an era when character disturbance is fairly prevalent (I stress this point in my book, Character Disturbance), so you always need to be on your guard. Never take anyone or anything at face value. And do your homework. Check things out. Verify. Information is power. The more you know, the less likely you’ll be taken for a ride. Additionally, observe the following caveats:

  • Beware of glibness, shallowness, and smooth-talking charm. Con artists are great at making favorable first impressions. But their charm is generally surface-level. Their history of relationships is likely to be checkered and it’s often hard to find anyone who can vouch for their character. The more you find out about them, the less appealing they’re likely to appear. And don’t be bowled over by endearing and seductive words. Look for objective evidence that your interests are being respected. Talk, as they say, is cheap.
  • Pay heed to any uncomfortable feelings you might have, or the little voice in your head that says something just doesn’t add up or sound quite right. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially follow-up questions, even if the other person tries to make you feel inordinately suspicious for doing so. Many con artists lie so liberally and with such ease that they’ll sometimes trip themselves up and expose their hand inadvertently. Listen very carefully for instead of merely to the kinds of things they say (for more information on this see “Great-Sounding Words and the Power of Seduction”). Sometimes you’ll get a hint of what the real underlying agenda might be.
  • Know yourself. Know the kinds of things that would make you susceptible to someone on the make. Be aware of your fears and insecurities, your deepest desires, and, especially, your vices. Keep in mind the old adage: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t. Often, the things that sound the sweetest to our ears are the things that either allay our fears or appeal to our baser instincts.

Just recently a man with a troubled past and a heroin addiction ‘conned’ another man out of a total of $133,000 over the period of a year by claiming he needed the money to cover medical expenses for a severely ill child. The con man knew that his story was full of holes, and was surprised by how easy the con was to run. But his target: a Catholic priest with a big and trusting heart, who was just too vulnerable. And although 133,000 dollars is a lot of money in anyone’s book (the loss wiped out the priest’s personal savings, retirement, and a significant portion of the his parish’s funds) it’s hard to say what the greater crime is: the loss of all that money, or one decent man’s loss of faith in the basic goodness of humankind.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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