10 Lessons to Steal From Con Men

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BOSTON (MainStreet) -- If you think you're too smart to fall for the tricks of a con artist, think again.

Hollywood loves to glamorize grifters, or at least make them charmingly sleazy. In real life, the scams are far less interesting. You don't have to be a wealthy heiress or a pool room hustler to lose your money and your pride -- just ask any of the folks who have been swindled out of their life savings in a Ponzi scheme over the years.

It can happen to anyone who lets their guard down.

In his book about con artists and their tricks, How to Cheat at Everything (Running Press, 2007), author and magician Simon Lovell described "the cheat" as "a common animal who infests life at every level."

"If money is involved, it is a sure bet that cheating not only could occur, but probably already has," he wrote.

Over the years, some of the tactics used by flimflammers have bled into the sales and marketing arena. Here are 10 ways to turn the tables by learning from the scams and scammers you may face:

1. A tax on greed
In 2000, the elite of New York's Hamptons were shocked and scandalized by a grifter in their midst -- Christopher Rocancourt, who conned his way into hundreds of thousands of dollars while circulating among summertime jet-setters.

How did he do it? "They smell the money like the shark smell the blood," he told NBC's news program Dateline in a later interview.

To start with, Rocancourt gave all he met the fake name "Rockefeller." Despite his thick accent, people assumed on their own he was one of those Rockefellers.

To get the scam rolling, he would make the rounds of restaurants and parties, dropping thousands of dollars on drinks, meals and other extravagances. It was seed money -- an expense that lured hangers-on. Having built confidence among those looking to take advantage of his seeming hospitality, the pitch would come: unlikely claims of turning a $50,000 investment quickly into $500,000 or more. It was an impossible claim, but one he had no problem finding takers for.

The lesson: Don't believe the hype, and don't let greed override common sense. The Rocancourts and Bernie Madoffs of the world succeeded because far too many people were willing to be blinded by images of wealth into overlooking red flags of impropriety.

2. Don't believe everything you see (or hear)
Con artists have a more reputable relative in magicians. They share techniques for messing with your head.

In Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions (Henry Holt and Co., 2010) authors Stephen Macknik, Susana Martinez-Conde and Sandra Blakeslee put a scientific twist on how we are manipulated.

"Magic tricks work because humans have a hard-wired process of attention and awareness that is hackable," they wrote.

Con artists, like magicians, are skilled at warping our powers of perception. Misdirection is a key. We see what we think we see and what they want us to.

Scientifically speaking, con artists and magicians employ what is called neuro-linguistic programming -- in essence tricking the brain through the power of persuasion.

British illusionist Derren Brown illustrated how powerful NLP can be in a series of videos called Paying with Paper. In the videos, he visits retailers and pays with his purchases with blank pieces of paper that he announces, authoritatively, as being of a certain denomination. In one instance, he even convinces a racetrack cashier that a blank slip is a winning bet. In follow-up interviews, the confused victims can't explain why they "saw" the paper as something different.

The lesson: People are creatures of habit and can easily fall for such techniques if they just "go with the flow." Don't be a zombie and get lulled into a sales pitch or upsell, as all that chatter can steer you into blindly accepting a claim as truth.

3. Respect my authority
Psychologists have proven time and again that people tend to be easily manipulated by perceived authority figures.

Con men exploit this by presenting themselves as more powerful (perhaps even menacing) or more expert in their opinions and suggestions.

Not only should you avoid the temptation to shrink in the presence of an "alpha dog"; you might do well to emulate that swagger.

The lesson: In any workplace or business, presenting an air of self-confidence and authority can open doors, gain respect and close deals.

4. Appearance counts
San Francisco police have been on a manhunt in recent weeks for the so-called "Bluetooth Bandit," a thief who has been snatching purses and wallets for months, backed by accomplices who help him rob people blind.

The gimmick, hence the nickname, is that the thief appears to be a well-dressed businessman (headset at the ready for all those important deals to be made) and comes off as polite and charming.

The lesson: Looking the part is important. If you want to gain trust, instill confidence and walk away with the upper hand in a business dealing, a good appearance helps pull it off.

5. Herd mentality
People seek advice constantly for what they should be doing and validation for the moves they make.

A big reason big money financial fraudsters such as Madoff have been able to bilk so much money is that their victims are many. A one-on-one con is a quick hit; the real money comes from pulling the same scam repeatedly. In Madoff's case, as it is with classic Ponzi schemes, a key was paying high returns to a smaller subset of clients, letting them spread the good news and sell this "wonderful" investment opportunity by word of mouth.

The lesson: Just because a lot of people -- whether they are strangers, family or friends -- are doing something is no reason to follow suit. As countless mothers have said, "If everyone else was jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you too?"

6. Talk it out
A good con artist, when you get down to it, is a seller. The primary goal is to get you to part with your money.

The "con" in con artist stands for "confidence," and reeling in a mug requires a degree of charm and panache. "Con" might as well stand for conversation, as that's where the ice is broken.

Typical con artists, possibly seizing upon a victim in a bar, do so by being smooth talkers. With heads full of trivia, they can rattle off insightful questions and discussions on anything with anyone from an iron worker to a ballet dancer.

They can spot impeccable (albeit fake) credentials and tell wonderful tales.

The lesson: Being well-rounded and a great conversationalist can be great for your career or any business deal. If people like you, they trust you.

7. Deadline pressure
Movies may find it entertaining to develop a slow, detailed build-up to a job, but real con men want everything quick and dirty. The longer they dwell on a mark, the greater the odds a ruse will be questioned or discovered.

A scammer will often impose a deadline to move a mark into action. This is evidenced in that great scam of modern times, those emails from Nigeria announcing the passing of a wealthy relative and a plea for your help so the money can be collected. Those who respond find requests for personal information and a demand to wire money. With each email the need for this transfer to be made immediately, lest the deal sour, grows more and more urgent: Do it now or you lose out.

Almost every day consumers face similar pressure. Stores have one-day sales and manufacturers tout limited-time offers. "If you buy today, we can knock another 20% off," a salesman might say. Online shopping sites have countdown clocks to show just how little time you have to pull the trigger. Go car shopping and expect to hear that cliche: "What can I do to sell you this car today?"

The lesson: A good deal may be hard to pass up, but take a step back and make sure you are not acting impulsively or contrary to your own best interest.

8. Inside jobs
A growing area of fraud involves con artists working from the inside.

According to the SEC, many cases of financial fraud involve churches with one of the seemingly faithful merely building up the credibility need to execute a scheme. Over time, that familiar face might drop subtle hints about a great investment opportunity they are taking part in, spurring the trustworthy to risk their savings on a scam.

Religious organizations are not alone. SEC actions are also being taken against rip-off artists who have targeted military personnel, teachers and police officers from within their own ranks.

Political affiliations can also give grifters the needed hook.

Earlier this month, the SEC filed charges in response to a $21 million Ponzi scheme related to Forex trading. The SEC alleges that Jeffery A. Lowrance of Texas, who fled to Peru and was arrested there earlier this year, bilked investors in at least 26 states by promising huge profits from a specialized foreign currency trading program. His gimmick was to target investors "by purporting to share their Christian values and limited-government political views," often using a newspaper he distributed at political rallies, according to the commission.

The lesson: As President Ronald Reagan once (actually, frequently) said on an unrelated topic, "Trust, but verify." Mixing your social life with your finances seldom turns out to be a good deal for either.

9. Email is a liar
Earlier, we mentioned those bizarre letters from Nigeria offering a share in a great fortune, but they are far from the only online scam making the rounds. It doesn't take a skilled hacker in some underground lair to steal your identity and your money, and in many cases the information is volunteered freely.

Does anyone actually fall for that Nigeria scam? At least enough people do to keep it going after all these years, and the same with impassioned pleas from supposed Facebook friends mugged and broke overseas. And "cheap Viagra" spam must be fooling at least some of the people all the time.

The lesson: Direct and viral marketing works. Especially when a message is personalized and targeted, emails and HTML newsletters can be a valuable tool for bridging the gap between business and consumer. Just be sure you've opted in only to reputable companies and never, ever click on any link buried below a blathering barrage of broken English.

10. Pick your friends wisely
Con artists go where the money is. Low-end cheats will hang out by the pool table of a sleazy bar; the white-shoe, silk-tie variety sets a shingle on Wall Street. For the grifters, it is all about knowing who their demographic is and figuring out how to earn their trust.

Even nonthieves find ways to get you on their side. Finding a common enemy is one way. When that sales rep goes into the manager's office to plead your case regarding the offer you made on a car, very rarely do they have your best interests at heart; it is merely a supposed middleman gaining your trust, going through the motions and gearing up to convince you that, because of their mean old boss, "this is the best price I can do."

The lesson: Separate emotion from business. That sales rep may seem nice. They may have pictures of their lovely family on the wall. They may laugh at your jokes. Who cares? At the end of the day, you are looking to make a deal, not a friend. Don't let a nice smile or friendly banter cheat you out of money

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.

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