How to spot a con: When opportunity comes knocking


Samuel Damren

Editor’s Note: This the fifth and concluding piece in the series “How to Spot a Con.”

Psychics are a staple role for con-artists. The lure of communicating with the departed, of foreseeing the future and the favor of good fortune are compelling attractions for many potential marks. The ruse is also impenetrable to detection. For that reason, it is particularly attractive to con-artists as well.

Outsiders to the mark’s experience in psychic exploration are unlikely to assert that the departed told them something different from what the con-artist told the mark they said. Nor are outsiders likely to foresee the mark’s personal future as different from that already foretold by the con-artist seer.

You might think that these cons are period pieces painted with Gypsies peering into crystal balls, seances with robed participants holding hands or other similar dated but amusing stage productions. Not so. The ruse, like all ruses, is updated to meet changing times. Nowadays, it is referred to as “investigations into the paranormal.”

The late acclaimed author, movie director and Harvard educated physician Michael Crichton fell for one of these. Crichton got so caught up in it that after the swindle occurred and that aspect of the con became clear, he never abandoned faith in the existence of the paranormal and continued “astral explorations” with others. In a memoir, Crichton did offer guidelines to avoid the con-artists swimming in these waters. So, he learned a lesson. But he definitely had a blind-spot.

Crichton was not, in any event, an ideal mark. He was smart, which is both a good and bad attribute for a mark. He was imaginative, again both good and bad attributes. But as he disclosed in his memoir, Crichton had difficulties with close personal relationships and a pronounced streak of independence.

Those attributes rate “bad” and “really bad” on the con-artist’s scale for assessing potential marks.

Con-artists prefer either marks that remain trusting after suffering a setback from which recovery is uncertain or are stampeders who will drive across lawns to be the first at the door of  opportunity and kick Lassie if she is sleeping on the steps and in the way. A con-artist can work with these folks.

There are additional attributes that also endure potential marks to con-artists. On the precipice of a swindle, marks – particularly American marks – will rationalize their abandonment of common sense as a matter of acceptable choice in the face of opportunity. What comes into play here is the much-admired attribute of individual “self-reliance” that is supposedly integral to the American character.

Self-reliance in the modern world is completely at odds with reality. To the extent that it existed in the pioneering past, it existed as a matter of necessity not virtue. You were self-reliant on the frontier because you were alone and there was no one else to rely on.

When the attribute of perceived self-reliance can be combined with a blind-spot, the universal need to be “liked” and that other quintessential American trait of taking people “on face value” when we first meet them, all the ingredients are present for the con-artist to get to work.

Before approaching marks, con-artists carefully select and construct the role they will play. The role must provide them with an indicia-of-trust that taken “on face value” will permit genuine interaction between the mark and the con-artist when they are introduced. From that foundation, the con-artist can achieve a foothold to later create a “personal” relationship with the mark. This, in turn, leads to the “friendship” that “causes” the con-artist to present the “special” opportunity (read gambit) to the mark as prelude to closing the swindle.

The con-artist who poses as a psychic accomplishes this task by doing extensive homework on the mark’s personal life, background, and current difficulties. It is not as hard as you might think, especially if you are devious with third parties and unscrupulous in the manner of collection. And it is more in the how, when, and manner that these personal facts are presented by the con-artist to the mark than anything else.

Accomplished con-artists also often pose as professionals. They work off the foundation of trust and prestige that the particular profession cultivates and assiduously tries to maintain. From this foundation, con-artists will ultimately offer to the mark a gambit (masquerading as a solution) for a distressful situation that “no one else thought of or could offer.” The mark will experience genuine relief. Short lived perhaps, but genuine in the moment.

In closing this series, I offer three tips.

1) When an opportunity is presented that you have never experienced the likes of before, pause.

2) Restart the episode of how you first met the presenter and view it as a skeptic would from the beginning.

3) Do not be self-reliant. Run the opportunity by established friends instead of just relying on your new “special” friend.

If you are a mark then you have a blind-spot and could be your own worst enemy.


Samuel C. Damren is a retired Detroit lawyer and a periodic contributor to The Legal News.