How to spot a con: An 'introduction'


Samuel C. Damren

Con artists and their victims are a constant repetition in the American landscape.  In 1943, writing in “Trouble Shooter, The Story of a Northwoods Prosecutor” under his pen name, Robert Traver, later Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Voelker, observed that “victims of confidence men often continue to preserve a child-like faith in their deceiver, even after conviction.”

The venues that con artists frequent are also a source of repetition. Frederick Russell Burnham — who became known in the late 1800s as “America’s Scout” — was a first-hand witness to many of those venues. In a biography, Steve Kemper described Burnham as “quintessentially American. His optimism, like the man himself, was unkillable.” He saw plenty of cons in his travels and plenty of victims. Burnham was not a con artist himself. In a life filled with high risk, he pursued the “big strike” in prospecting across three continents.

As a prospector, Burnham visited more “boomtowns” and saw more con artists than any person of his era. Remote Skagway Alaska is emblematic. The village was a dropping off point for the 1887 Klondike Gold Rush. In less than a year, its population rose from a few hundred to 20,000.

Stampeders to the Gold Rush were greeted by corrupt Sheriff Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. As recounted by Kemper, “Soapy’s welcoming crew impersonated sweet clergy, kindly old sourdoughs and flattering newspaper reporters who feigned interests in newcomers to learn the size of their poke. The plumpest pigeons become the target of bunco artists who skinned them at poker and three-card monte. Others were directed to bogus packing companies that stole their equipment.”

Today’s Internet hosts a virtual boomtown of its own. Every time you visit the Web, you are only a few clicks away from con artists and worse. In person, experienced con artists can spot the blind spot or blind spots of a “mark” with uncanny accuracy. But on the Web, the con artist does not have to overcome threshold resistance to make a pitch. The Web is already in your home. With a few clicks, marks self-select.

A con artist can achieve modest results using the Web alone. To make the “big con,” however, requires a personal touch. There is a slice of Americans who are impulsively drawn to “get rich quick” schemes.

They are particularly vulnerable to deceivers.

One technique in the con artist’s playbook is founded on the universal enchantment of adults with infants. Before they can speak, infants quickly master a powerful persuasive technique.  It’s in the eyes. The gaze of an infant is hypnotic and mesmerizes adults. There are objective factors involved in this technique, not simply instinct on the part of the infant and an adult’s pleasure when an infant stares into your eyes.

Infants eyes constitute a much greater portion of the human face than adult eyes. That is because as we mature our eyes do not increase in size in the same proportion as our other facial features.  As a result, a baby’s eyes seem “bigger” and fill up more of the canvas. More importantly, infants don’t blink at nearly the rate that adults do. And this makes a difference, a “big” difference, in how we react to an infant’s gaze.

Con artists know this as well. Their victims consistently refer to falling under the “spell” of confidence men and to their mesmerizing eyes. One part of the con artist’s “personal touch” is that they consciously slow their rate of blinking when engaging in eye-to-eye contact with marks. Actors practice this technique as well. And knowing this will cause you to watch movies and some movie stars very differently.

Other techniques to create intimacy and trust play on physical touch and social principles of reciprocity.

The con artist touches marks on the top of the hand if a woman and on the shoulder or back if a man.

The con artist always does so at just the right moment.  They rarely shake your hand. The con artist’s relationship with a mark is not to strike a bargain; it is friendship.

Psychological studies show that if a waiter gives a candy to each of their diners, it increases the amount of the tip.  Not by much, but by a bit. This is the principle of social reciprocity in action. If the waiter gives two candies, the tip amount increases a bit more. But if the waiter doles out one candy, walks away, stops and returns with a second candy and a smile, the amount of the tip skyrockets. Why?  The waiter by so doing confirms that the diners are “special” people, not just anyone, and is accordingly recognized for that insight and acknowledgement. This technique, in a wide assortment of variants, is a con artist staple.

Frederick Russell Burnham did not get rich quick. In his first four decades of mining exploration, he came up empty.  Prospecting for ore and oil, like today’s start-ups backed by hedge funds, were the economic “disrupters” of their time. Burnham was persuasive. His explorations were often funded by the Trusts of The Gilded Age.

Burnham seemed as immune to “cons” as he was “unkillable” in the many violent encounters he experienced. He knew what a “big strike” looked like. Burnham was driven and relentless but never so much that he fell for “cons” outside or inside boomtowns. In his sixties, Burnham’s enduring optimism and tenacity were rewarded.  He hit “pay dirt” in the Dominguez oil field in California and became rich.


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.”