R. Paul Wilson On: The Scams That Were Forbidden On “The Real Hustle”
When filming The Real Hustle, we aimed to expose as many scams as we could but there were several challenges that we needed to overcome for each con game we tried to expose.
There was a particular type of scam that we could never replicate without causing real damage to people in the process and to this day, I wish we’d found a solution to protect our audience.
The Big Problem
As I’ve stated before, our goal on The Real Hustle was to show real cons with real people to educate and entertain the general public about how and why con games work.
The biggest problem we faced was lack of time, plus: For every hustle we had the added workload of capturing it on camera without being seen.
Over time, we learned to boil each deception down to its core elements and re-stage those under controlled conditions that ensured a higher degree of success while protecting all of our potential marks from physical or mental harm.
Indeed, a great deal of our time as producers was spent working out exactly how to get the con to work before revealing that it was just for TV and no money had actually been lost; this happened as soon as possible to prevent the target from being unduly upset.
Shock and surprise were predictable but the last thing we wanted was for people to suddenly become distraught, so our window of opportunity between people realising they were conned and our producer assuring them they hadn’t lost anything was an essential part of every plan.
Seasoned Real Hustle producers became extremely good at gauging each piece and bringing people back to reality with kindness. Thanks to this approach, almost everyone we scammed over 11 seasons signed a release and agreed to be on the show after they had been conned.
Think about it: You just lost your car after handing the keys and the paperwork to a complete stranger in return for a bar of gold that turned out to be made of chocolate, but as soon as you felt that sting (and we captured your reaction on tape) you immediately learned that your friend or family member had set you up for a TV show and that you hadn’t lost anything.
It’s over within seconds of realising you were conned and whether you participated or not would be up to you and at no point would you be in physical or financial danger.
Property is easy to return to someone, but genuine emotions cannot be switched off or returned as easily as property.
Emotional commitment is a powerful, dangerous tool used by countless con artists but this was a category of scams we could never replicate without risking real mental harm to our contributors.
Deeply Damaging Romance Scams
The simplest romance scam would be meeting a girl or a guy in a bar, retiring to their motel room and feeling a sudden crack on the back of your head only to wake up on the floor without your wallet or your dignity or (according to urban legend) the occasional missing kidney.
The offer of sex is a remarkably effective lure and if the scammers (muggers) pick the right target, they can all but guarantee a married man on a business trip is unlikely to report being duct taped naked to a motel bed for fear of being exposed in more ways than one.
Romance on the other hand, while no doubt promising sex at some point in the future, cuts far deeper into the psyche of potential victims as, over time, they expose themselves from within and come to believe a deeply damaging lie while being manipulated toward a costly outcome.
This emotional commitment has proven far more damaging to scam victims than any loss of money even though that loss may prove ruinous.
Naturally, the internet has made the process of grooming people much easier and so a scammer might have many victims on the line at any one time and whole teams of con artists might have hundreds or thousands of potential marks.
The stories might vary but the basic principle to internet romance scams is often based on scams that used the mail system before the internet existed.
A bogus long-distance relationship would be started using a variety of story beats to convince someone they have made a real connection and to lead them gradually towards a situation where they are either asked for money or manipulated into offering money for some reason.
A simple example would be a man trapped overseas after losing his wife and having no means to escape his situation until he can save enough money for an exit visa, a new passport or to repay some debt.
This story is fed to the mark slowly over time, as the con artist follows familiar paths to fake an intimate connection and slowly offer details of his or her predicament.
Finally, the victim will propose a solution to this problem in an effort to bring them both together and that solution is always of a financial nature.
A lonely woman offers to pay the non-existent debt for the man who’s been courting her from afar; an unmarried man pays phantom legal fees for his future fiancée so she can book a flight and meet him at the airport.
These scams rarely end until the victim has been bled dry.
Each payment is never quite enough as more fees, debts or charges will suddenly appear with another reason or story to keep the mark on the hook.
And people do keep paying, often until there’s nothing left except a dead email address and a hundred unanswered messages.
Don’t Blame The Victim
The few who do report being conned are rarely treated with empathy or understanding.
As they described each step of how they were robbed, law enforcement officers, friends and colleagues are quick to judge and slow to understand how anyone might fall for so obvious a deception.
Over time, tiny steps can pull people deeper into a scam but when these steps are described together, without an emotional commitment or the skill of a con artist to sell these lies, people assume that the victim must have lost their mind.
Victims know this (often because con artists make sure that they do) and are reluctant to prolong the pain of a phantom relationship by exposing themselves to potential ridicule.
I’ve spoken to many people who have fallen for this kind of con game and while the details of each scam and their stories often change, the methods used to secure a deeply emotional connection are all too similar.
Discover more on this topic by reading:
R. Paul Wilson On: The Psychology Of Being Conned
A Game We Could Not Play
I spent countless hours reading and researching for new material for the show and each year I saw hundreds of stories about romance scams that for reasons already given, could only be the tip of the iceberg.
Even now, I regret not finding a way to expose this particularly nasty type of con.
Each season, we tried to find a way to include this type of scam in the show but always we realised there could be no way to do so quickly and should we be too successful, the emotional damage might be impossible to avoid.