What is a Swindler?

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  • Written By: Kari Wolfe
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 23 January 2020
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A swindler is a type of salesman who deliberately uses deception to gain money, fame or power. Also referred in slang terms as a con man, a swindler may use confidence tricks on his audience to convince them to do what he wants them to do. Synonyms for swindler include the words mountebank and charlatan.

In the 19th century, medicine shows traveled the midwestern and southern United States, offering "cures," at a price, for almost every ailment imaginable. These shows typically consisted of entertainment such as freak shows, flea circuses, musical acts and magic tricks before the sales pitch. People were duped into buying a range of goods, none worth what they paid or capable of doing what was promised.

A swindler commits the crime of fraud. The legal definition of fraud can vary in different legal jurisdictions, but a general definition of fraud requires the deception be intentional and deliberate. The deception must be performed with the intended result of undeserved benefit to the swindler. Penalties can vary along with the jurisdiction.

Confidence tricks work by gaining the trust of the mark, the person the swindler is attempting to defraud. By convincing the mark to trust him, the swindler can use that trust to his advantage. When selling a fraudulent product, pseudoscience is often used to convince the mark of the product’s value by quoting false statistics.


Another tool a swindler might use is called a Ponzi scheme. A Ponzi scheme is an operation that relies on the naivety of the marks, usually promising high returns on their investments. It pays the investors back with their own money or money from other investors rather than profits from the operations. Pyramid schemes and multi-level marketing (MLM) methods are similar money-making operations that can be used to fraudulently gain money from people, but pyramid schemes collapse under the need for an exponential growth in investors, while Ponzi schemes are usually ended by the government before it reaches that stage.

In 2008, Bernard Madoff, a former NASDAQ chairman, confessed to operating the largest investor fraud committed by an individual, a Ponzi scheme of grand proportions. Madoff worked with exclusive clients, offering consistent modest returns instead of high returns, and marketed his investment strategy as being too complicated for others to understand. The estimated amount of money taken from investors was $64.8 billion US dollars (USD). Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison and ordered to pay restitution of $170 billion USD.


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