A con artist, also known as a crook, swindler, or scammer, is a person who tricks someone out of money or goods. He establishes trust with the victim and uses the ability to read people and a good sense of timing to carry the schemes through. Many have specific modes of operation, although they operate across a wide array of scam types and tend to be hard to pick out of a crowd. These criminals often come into their work because of financial hardship, seeing others model the behavior, or because of various psychological needs.
Media and members of the public often portray a scammer as shady, but the reality is, his main trait is often that he has the incredible ability to blend into the crowd. In fact, a complaint that often echoes from victims is that the con man was the last person they expected to be a criminal. Crooks of this variety usually put on a friendly persona no matter what their appearance is or with whom they might associate.
People who carry out scams usually have a good sense of timing because they have to judge when to approach victims and when to retreat. They are excellent at reading people and have no trouble locking into emotional triggers. Patience is one of their virtues, as well, because following through with a plan can take time. Despite the capacity to tap into psychology, they typically lie pathologically and often believe that those who fall for their plots are “suckers” who are very gullible or unintelligent. The “smart people know better” mentality may allow them to keep a clear conscience as they carry out crimes.
Con Types and Categories
Swindlers generally choose from two major types of cons: indirect and direct. In the first type, the con artist contacts and interacts with victims from a distance. Scams in the direct group are much rarer, as they require the criminal to give away his anonymity and make face-to-face contact with the person he’s targeting, which is riskier to do.
Once a scammer decides which type of con he is more comfortable with, he gets more specific and selects a category. In indirect crimes, common categories include Internet and telephone scams, although some individuals work via regular mail. Texting scams are increasingly popular and often target teens. Examples of direct categories include selling poor quality items at auctions or other events and posing as a representative for a charity.
Pattern of Behavior
Even though scammers have many different categories of schemes from which to choose, many of them do things the same way time and time again. Police refer to this pattern of behavior as the crook's modus operendi (method of operation) or M.O. These patterns often let law enforcement officers detect the swindler's activity. In some instances, M.O.s also allow police to evaluate cases after they arrest a con man to determine which or how many crimes he committed.
The use of a specific modus operendi gives individuals a better chance to protect themselves because it alerts them to what they might need to be on the lookout for. New con artists are coming up with new schemes every day, however, so it is not always possible to use behavioral patterns to detect a potential problem.
Across all categories of schemes, the key element that makes cons successful is trust. A con artist uses this emotion to make his target victims believe he is looking out for their best interests. This makes it less likely that the victim will look closely at the scammer’s behavior and suspect wrongdoing. The fact that trust is so fundamental to the crime means that a con artist takes great pains to develop relationships, sometimes over many years.
After victims discover that they have been cheated in some way, they may have difficulty accepting what the swindler did. They often do not want to believe that someone they trusted took advantage of them. In some cases where trust was very deep and sincere, the experience of the crime may be so devastating that they later have trouble opening up to other people they meet. Targets of these crimes also may be so colored by the event that they assume that all crooks operate the same way as the one they knew.
Although cons always start out with the serious intention of scamming, as trust grows, some con artists become extremely emotionally invested with their target victims. If the criminal follows through with his plans, he may mourn the loss of his relationships as deeply as the people he tricked. Trust occasionally — if rarely — becomes so strong that the swindler cannot follow through with his plans, and in extreme cases, he might even admit his original intent and try to make amends for the dishonesty.
Motivations and Background
A common reason for people to become con artists is because they are in difficult financial circumstances. They may turn to swindling if they cannot find legitimate employment. Others have family members, such as parents, who engage in the activity, so they come to feel as though scamming is natural and morally acceptable by watching other people do it.
Some individuals also engage in this type of criminal activity because of its psychological benefits. Certain people enjoy the rush of pulling of a scheme, while others look for a sense of superiority over those they target. Crooks also may be using their crimes as a way of lashing out or gaining attention.
With so many criminals engaging in scam activity, experts recommend that individuals never give out personal information to a company or person they do not know. They also suggest alerting the police the moment fraudulent behavior is apparent. Educational websites, such as the one for the National Fraud Information Center, can also provide useful information about specific cons.