COMMENTARY: How to spot a con - Distracting the brain


By Samuel C. Damren

Pick-pockets utilize distraction. The garden variety pick-pocket bumps into you when he lifts your wallet. The more skillful have a partner who bumps into you. Polished culprits work as a trio: one bumps into you, one lifts your wallet and hands it to the third.

The trio knows that their performance has two audiences. First, the victim. Second, bystanders.

Passing the wallet to the third member enhances the "deniability" of the actual pick-pocket in case a by-stander sees the theft. It seems counter-intuitive to commit a crime in a crowd where there potential witnesses. However, that is only one factor in the risk assessment.

When you drive on a highway and engage in a spirited conversation with a passenger, your brain switches to auto-pilot. Even though it does not seem so to you, the auto-pilot which psychologists refer to as "mind set" takes up significant cognitive resources. Operating on auto-pilot, the brain assumes things will occur and act as they usually do. Whether on the highway or in a crowd, auto-pilot works well enough so long as the brain is not overloaded with unexpected tasks.

If overloaded, say by someone bumping into you in a crowd, the brain on auto-pilot does not switch to critical analysis as quickly as it would under other circumstances. Instead of revving up to meet the unexpected, the brain simply assumes that things are taking their normal course. At least until you realize that your wallet is missing.

Con-artists also use distraction to overload the brain. Two stories illustrate the point. Sadly, current events link these stories in an unsavory fashion.

The first story Is from author Kevin Dutton in "Split-second Persuasion." Three college roommates go to buy a used microwave at a second-hand store. They find one with a sticker price of $25. The clerk, Monty, compliments them on their selection. They each give him $10 bills and Monty goes to the back of the shop to get change. When he returns, Monty is chagrinned. It turns out that the owner raised the price to $27 that morning and Monty was tardy in changing the sticker. He apologizes but the roommates are happy with the deal at $27. Monty hands them back each a dollar and they go on their way. The shop owner is happy because he made an extra $2 off the trio.

But there is something else going on here. Remember, the roommates came in with $30. They each got back $1. So, how much did they pay for the used microwave? Correct -- $9 each. After all, 3 x $9 = $27. But $27 + $2 only equals $29. So where is the missing $1? Answer: Monty has it in his pocket so he is also happy. Now, the second story.

In the 1960s, Clark Moustakas was a highly regarded researcher at Merrill-Palmer Institute in Detroit. He authored "Loneliness." As a way into the subject, Moustakas relates a personal story involving his 4-year-old daughter's hospitalization for a serious operation. Moustakas was initially forbidden by hospital protocols from spending much time with her both pre- and post-operation. But since Moustakas was known at the hospital, he was later granted permission to stay with her for the entire night after the operation.

While they were in her room, his daughter looked across the hall to another room and asked her Dad, "Why is that little boy crying?" Moustakas then observed for himself. "The boy's eyes were transfixed, glued to the window, looking below expectant, watchful, waiting. Waiting for someone to come to protect and comfort him. Waiting for someone to come and rescue him from abandonment. Waiting. There was no one. He was alone - totally, utterly alone his small body rigid his heart breaking."

Unlike Moustakas's daughter, this child's parents had been forbidden from staying with him past visiting hours. The distraught boy could not understand why his parents deserted him. Moustakas spent much of his professional energies over the next decade convincing hospitals to change these protocols.

These two stories relate in the present day. It was recently reported that rogue Immigration & Naturalization Enforcement agents in collusion with the owners of private clinics in the Southwest were running an updated version of the microwave scam. Here is how it worked. Agents legally separated undocumented immigrant children from their parent at the border. The children were then sent to the clinics for evaluation. But when it came time to re-unite parent and child, the clinic charged the parent exorbitant fees and split the profits with the ICE agents.


Incensed? Another black mark on America? Okay, relax. The ICE/clinic incident did not happen. I lied to you. That is what con-artist's do. They meld truth and emotion with lies to create a toxic potion of distraction. Then they take your money.

Were you distracted? Maybe, maybe not. But did you catch the fact that Monty did not palm the supposed extra $1 in the first story? He was not cheating his cheating boss as asserted. Review the numbers. They don't add up to that conclusion. It was a "sleight of numbers" in how the facts were presented.

If you didn't catch this con within the con, it might be because your critical analysis skills were temporarily sidelined by an emotional distraction. And if you think that what was just demonstrated by this con is fiction compared to the real world, think again. Connecting these two stories with lies is exactly what Russian hackers do on social media to rile up Americans. The Russian hackers are also con-artists. They just steal something different than the contents of your wallet.


Samuel C. Damren is a Detroit lawyer. He was an assistant Wayne County prosecutor from 1975-78, and an assistant United States attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan from 1978-81.

Published: Fri, Sep 21, 2018