Local Voice - How to spot a con man: Picking marks


Samuel C. Damren

(Editor’s Note: This is Part II in a 3-part series on “How to spot a con man.” Part I appeared in the Sept. 19, 2018, edition of the Detroit Legal?News.)
What makes a good mark? The garden variety con artist looks for “low hanging fruit.” They know that all gambits have a shelf-life before the fraud comes to light. And so, they take the low hanging fruit and run. But in the selection of a mark, an accomplished con artist is not simply looking for someone who can be deceived and not realize it for a bit. They want more.
If a master con artist were running a clinic, he or she would tell apprentices that what they want in a mark is a person who will give up their money as part of an experience of personal fulfillment which transcends the gambit. That’s a mouthful. To jolt the audience to attention, the master con artist would explain: “What you are looking for in the selection of a mark is the same thing that today’s terrorists look for in recruiting followers.”

After 9/11, Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer,” published in 1951, should have been required reading for every American. The book is an analysis of mass movements; not the good kind. With original perspectives, Hoffer describes the spawning grounds for these movements, the psychological  underpinning of members and recruitment methodologies.

Although Hoffer never applied his insights to a con artist’s selection of marks, it turns out that what leaders of virulent mass movements look for in recruits on a “macro” level includes the same qualities that master con artists look for in their selection of marks on a “micro” level.

As a result of the publication of “The True Believer,” Hoffer became known as the “Longshoreman Philosopher.” He was not an academic, nor a clinician. His path to that backhanded moniker was hardscrabble all the way. Born in 1898 to immigrant parents in New York City, Hoffer started writing late in life and went on to publish 12 books before his death in 1983.

Hoffer recognized that successful mass movements derive their “strength” from followers’ total rejection of the present and the substitution in its stead of a vision of the future that restores the followers’ faith in themselves and place. With its focus on the future, Hoffer noted that the mass movement “can proceed recklessly with the present – with the health, welfare and the lives of its followers.” Even the martyr, in this doctrinaire, will never be the forgotten individual that he or she was in the now rejected present.

A true believer’s embrace of the future and distain for the present are without qualification.

This “unequalled fortitude” is best exemplified, in Hoffer’s view, by the true believer’s “ability to shut his eyes and stop his ears to facts” – no matter how convincing they might be – that in any way contradict accepted doctrinaire, the leader of the movement or the envisioned future. This quality is precisely what a master con artist’s desires in a mark.

Since this article is not a clinic for con artists, I am not going to provide “micro” criteria on how to select potential marks. But I will tell you how terrorists select true believers on a “macro” level. There are no real secrets here.

Terrorists look for the disaffected and angry. People who, in Hoffer’s words, “see their lives as irredeemably spoiled.” Today’s terrorists use the Internet to lure these individuals into contact with the movement. Once an individual “self-selects” in response to these lures, terrorists connect them with other “like thinking” individuals in informal groups. There are “plants” in these groups to evaluate the candidates for further advancement.

Recruits who make the next “cut” in the selection process are then encouraged to join more structured groups where access to outside influences are restricted and where outside sources of information are discredited. Through staged events of affirmation to the cause and pledges of unquestioned loyalty to the leader, recruits are shaped and reshaped and shaped again. Under the right conditions and applied methodologies, what emerges, according to Hoffer, is a follower who is “emboldened to attempt the unprecedented and impossible” based on an “unqualified confidence in the future.”

Master con artists do the same thing with potential marks. They just do it on a “micro” level with different tools. They take the personal lives of potential marks and manipulate individual resentments: anger at their “unfair” exclusion and the receipt of “unjust” benefits by others. They look for an individual’s blind spot to shape and re-shape the mark until a potent disequilibrium occurs. When the time is right, the master con artist presents a gambit to the mark that affords the “opportunity” — albeit with some risk — for them to become a person whose life is no longer “irredeemably spoiled.”

If the mark embraces this vision and embarks on the gambit, it is highly unlikely that the mark will ever turn on the con artist. For a true believer, turning on the leader is no different from the mark turning on themself. Getting fleeced when the gambit does not turn out as expected is not the end of the world.

The mark’s world, in fact, begins with the future, and sacrificing part of the present is incidental, and perhaps even necessary, to its pursuit.

Master con artists know this model and hew it to perfection. It has no shelf life in the present because it totally resides in the future.


Samuel C. Damren is a retired Detroit lawyer and a periodic contributor to The Legal News. This introduction is the first of several pieces on “How to Spot a Con.”