Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Scoundrels! The Lot of Them!

Like most people, I find con men reprehensible.  Taking the hard earned money of people in financial desperation is pretty low.  However, also like most people, I have a fascination with the brilliance of some of their ideas and the cunning required to pull them off.  Such is the case with Victor Lustig's brazen idea to sell the Eiffel Tower.  And he did. Twice.  Then there was Gaston Means, a man so sly that he fooled every branch of the United States government into believing he had "secrets" worth paying for.  Before he was finally imprisoned for grand larceny, he wriggled his way out of a murder conviction and probably charges of treason.

The ability to outfox others is a long-standing worldwide fascination.  It has been a popular subject for books and movies for decades. The Sting, a story of two top-notch con men won the Academy Award for best picture in 1973.  The international best-selling Tom Ripley series by Patricia Highsmith focuses on a ruthless and murderous con man who has inspired five movies. Steven Spielberg's 2002 hit Catch Me if You Can is based on the short but no less brilliant criminal career of Frank Abignale, Jr, a check forger and impersonator who stole millions before he turned 21.  Hustle, a series beginning in 2004, is still running strong on BBC.  There's the obscenely popular Ocean's 11, 12, and 13.  Leverage, a TV series about con men with hearts of gold is in its third season. American Greed highlights the biggest, most incredible scams in the country.  It breaks cons down step-by-step, so we may be appropriately impressed by the warped intelligence of con men.  

If you're like me, you're curious about the minds behind these crimes.  I want to know why they think they can do what they please and throw it in our faces.  Most books and movies give con men engaging character arcs or make their victims into the real bad guys, people even more horrible than the con men. It makes the protagonists likable. Of course, that is not usually how it works.

BBBs are now among the first targets of con men.  To lend themselves an air of legitimacy, they desperately attempt heighten their ratings with the BBB and even try to become Accredited.  Because of this, I speak with them from time to time and I can tell you what real con artists are like.

First of all, there is a hierarchy.  The guys in movies and books like Gaston Means and Victor Lustig are perched on the uppermost tier.  I'll start with the lowest wrung of con-artistry, who are obviously the most common.  These are the guys who knock on doors and tell elderly people that they need their trees trimmed.  Once they collect money, they disappear. I speak with these people rarely.  They don't try to be legitimate very often.  They change their names and move around.  Their personalities differ greatly and sometimes people from this tier move on to greener pastures of deception.  The rest seem destined to live out their lives pulling low-rent con jobs or in prison.  They are comprised primarily of two different types of personalities: the placater and the bully.  A placater is someone who tells their victims exactly what they want to hear all the time.  It's an impossible facade to maintain forever.  Placaters eventually disappear once their lies become too difficult to keep track of.  The bully screams and yells about being wronged, threatens to sue, pulls dirty tricks to get what he wants and refuses to admit his crimes once he's caught in the act.  These people sometimes result to violence.

 The next tier up is full of small-time guys who were smart enough to move past door-to-door scams and present themselves as "consultants" or "entrepreneurs." These guys are usually very nice. Too nice.  It is apparent that they are trying to convince me of just how nice they are. I immediately get the impression that they are trying to sell me something.  They are affronted by criticism and act wounded by doubts about their intentions.  They play up the sympathy card and present themselves as friends.  They act like they are normal guys just trying to make a good living in a hard world.  Paper trails are usually what bring them down.  They can only act friendly and pathetic so long before someone puts the pieces together.

The next level is where the real con artistry begins.  In fact, the top two tiers (this and next) overlap.  In this group, the con men are successful not because they are super-geniuses (most aren't), but because they don't believe what they are doing is wrong.  These guys have managed to convince themselves that some stealing is ok, that  victims of investment fraud have entered into it at their own risk so they deserved to have their money stolen, that tricking people into buying worthless products and services is just good business.  They can justify anything.  They also have a pathological need to defend themselves, similar to the previous group, but more pronounced because they actually believe what they are saying.  They cannot allow anyone to see through their polished and carefully constructed "nice guy" and "honest business" images.  They will demand the last word and endlessly argue about their virtues.  In my experience, once they realize they have not fooled me, they throw tantrums. It's pathetic, really. (Even though Bernie Madoff stole more money than anyone in the history of fraud, I consider him to be in this category.  He convinced himself long ago, in the 80s, that stealing is not really wrong.)

The final and uppermost tier of con men is made up of sociopaths.  Men who may or may not recognize right and wrong, but don't care one way or the other.  This is the group where Charles Ponzi and Gaston Means reside.  They are cruel and cunning, brilliant and charming.  They possess surprising patience and instinctively know when they do and do not need to lie.  When they lie it is imperceptible.  They are hard to catch in lies, and if I manage that, it's even more difficult to keep them cornered.  The easiest way to identify people from this group is their inability to be outraged.  I have spoken to three people from this category (that I know of) and they never raised their voices.  When I told one of them that he was misrepresenting his service and that his business was not on the level, he did not hang up the phone or yell at me. He did not defend his honor or the company, he simply kept talking in a conversational tone, essentially attempting to fool me with sophistry.  Most business owners get a bit testy when their reputation is challenged. Not these guys.  Their chilled indifference to morality is alarming.

There is some good.  Career con men get caught.  They always get caught.  They can keep up their facades for a while, but they break down.  In this country, we have the wonderful consumer protection agencies such as the FTC and state Attorneys General.  We have privately owned consumer watchdog groups and non-profits like the BBB, and also an overwhelming majority of people who want a fair marketplace.  Normal people are the ones who get investigations going, who spot something inconsistent in a business deal and report it.  Internet communities exchange stories about shady tactics, shoddy workmanship, and questionable behavior from businesses.  Twenty people exchanging identical stories of misrepresentation is a pretty good indicator that the business has ethical issues.  Con Men can't get away forever.

It's extremely important for people who have been scammed to report what happened.  That's how bad guys are caught.  We, nor the consumer protection agencies, will never know about it unless con men are reported.  Victor Lustig, the guy who sold the Eiffel Tower, managed to do it again because the original person he scammed was too embarrassed about being deceived.  If you've been conned, don't let them get away with it. Report it.

No comments:

Post a Comment