Tricks of Persuasion -- 7 Best Con Artists of All Time
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Tricks of Persuasion --- 7 Best Con Artists of All Time

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May 22, 2015, last updated April 10, 2016
By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist



So, you think you can never be conned? Think again. Con artists have never been more abundant, and the manner in which they penetrate your life has never been easier. From identity theft, to romance schemes, investment scams to impersonation, you have to arm yourself with knowledge to avoid being taken. The con artist could be anyone, from your husband to your dry cleaner.


Here's the key. You have to study them as much as they study you. Don't be a victim - read about these audacious con tricks through history --- and the underlying mental games that make them work --- and be on your guard at all times.


The Mental Games Con Artists Use to Trick You

















You can be sure every victim in this list probably said "I would never be so stupid to fall for a confidence trick." You can be certain these people were not "stupid," lacking in education, or any different from the average person on the street. Con artists play sophisticated psychological tricks on their victims meaning anyone is vulnerable if they do not know what to watch for.

According to experts, con artists play on people's deepest needs and vulnerabilities in order to relieve them of their money, or their affection.

And scammers and con artists are not all that different from each other. The techniques used are similar whether the con artist is duping people on a dating site or getting money on the street.

According to research from the University of Cambridge, UK, in 2009 there are seven persuasion principles. Learn these 7 principles until you know them by heart in order to arm yourself against cons of all types:

The Time Principle. The time principle makes you act quickly before you can exercise effective self-control. Be wary of anyone who tries to make you hurry up. Often they "shorten" y0ur time by creating a false sense of urgency--" I have an emergency, I need your help NOW!" Or they may say, the offer won't be here tomorrow, so you have to act today. Or they say, we need your credit card to get started now!

The Deference Principle. The deference to authority principle makes you think the scam is legitimate as it is coming from a figure of authority.

The Herd Principle. The herd principle convinces you the scam is real by making you act like your friends and less like yourself. Bernard Madoff, who stole over $65 billion from investors,  used this principle by carefully cultivating an aura of exclusivity--only those "in the know" could invest with  him. As a result, the "lucky" few who were invited to invest spread the word among their friends. People started to aspire to be just like all the other "lucky" Madoff investors who were in the in-crowd.

The Distraction Principle. Distraction is another trick (using an attractive accomplice, for example), as is playing to your deepest desires so your reasoning is compromised.

The Dishonesty Principle. Con artists use anything you do that is illegal against you.  This is the essence of blackmail. Con artists also hook you by manipulating your innate dishonesty and desire to get rich quick.

The Deception Principle. Things are often not what they seem and con artists know this. That ATM machine that you use every day looks like the same machine but it has been outfitted with a cover called a "skimmer". The skimmer steals your PIN and card number.  That website looks like your bank's website but it's a lookalike and the thieves steal your log in info to access your account. We all live busy lives and thieves take advantage of this by creating imposter situations which most of us are just too inattentive to detect.

The Needs Principle. Someone who knows what you need can manipulate you easily by promising to fulfill that need.

Con artists play on on your compassion by begging for help or asking for money after a natural disaster.
What Makes a Victim?

In short, anyone can be a victim. But 2013 research from the University of Essex, UK has outlined some key characteristics that victims of cons have in common. One trait like lack of self-control would appear to be inherently dangerous, but the other traits like a trust in authority, a trust in the group or the community, and a tendency to act in a consistent way would actually be seen as positive.

Con artists are only successful when they are undetected, which is why most people don't see them for their true selves before it is too late. Many victims never report con tricks as they are too embarrassed or ashamed. The victims of these famous con tricks certainly didn't see it coming.


1. The Eiffel Tower Sale

Think it would be difficult to sell an iconic landmark like the Eiffel Tower? Think again. In 1925 Victor Lustig successfully sold Paris's Eiffel Tower to the highest bidder as scrap metal. The winner of the "auction" was so embarrassed by his mistake that he told no one, and the con man escaped with his cash.

2. The French Rockefeller

Identity fraud is a common means of scamming people out of large amounts of money. In 2002 Christopher Rocancourt was convicted of theft, smuggling, fraud, bribery, perjury and grand larceny after convincing Americans he was a French member of the Rockefeller family. He faked deeds to a property that was not his, sold it for $1.4m, and then posed as a movie producer and venture capitalist in the US.


3. The All-American Con Man

You'll know about Frank Abagnale. His life story inspired the 2002 movie Catch Me if You Can starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo di Caprio. The con man lived off $2.5m of bad checks in over 25 countries where he also posed as a lawyer, airline pilot, doctor, and professor. He was caught in France after being recognized on a plane. He was later released from jail to help the federal authorities fight con artists and fraudulent crime.

4. The Infamous Ponzi Scheme

The now infamous Ponzi scheme was first perpetrated by con artist Charles Ponzi in the 1920s. He made millions by promising investors a 40 percent return on a scheme that dealt in selling international mail coupons for a profit, taking advantage of the difference in exchange rates around the world. He took millions from "investors" but the whole scheme was revealed as a house of cards - he had nothing to base his investments on.

5. The Ghost Whisperers

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to con a person is to prey on their vulnerabilities - and there is no greater vulnerability than the need to communicate with a relative or friend who passed away. In the 19th century the three Fox sisters persuaded the world at large that they could commutate with ghosts through a series of knocks and raps. They conned hundreds of people out of money by holding fake sťances. It is difficult to see, however, how this con could work today - the sisters apparently used their toes to fake the sounds from the underworld.

6. The James Bond Spy

Robert Handy-Freegard posed as an MI5 spy in the UK, aka James Bond, to relieve men and women of their money. He told tales of the world of killers and espionage to seduce these victims out of almost two million dollars. Handy-Freegard was actually an ex-car salesman from a small town in northern England.

7. The Fairy Fakers

Two young girls aged 10 and 16 conned the world in 1917 with a set of five cleverly staged pictures of what appeared to be fairies at the bottom of their garden. Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright won over the world from their garden in Cottingley, near Leeds in the UK with their "discovery" but later revealed that they had faked all but one of the photos. They still claim to have seen fairies.


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Handsome Frank Abignale is one of the most successful con artists of all time.

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