R. Paul Wilson On: The Psychology Of Being Conned

R. Paul Wilson On: The Psychology Of Being Conned

I’ve often said that the difference between being mugged at knifepoint and handing over your savings to a scammer is essentially the same crime but for the victim of a scam, the wounds (though invisible) may be much deeper over time.

In a dark alley, faced with the threat of violence we might suffer a trauma or even physical injury but while wounds might heal, the mind can take much longer to recover.

In a con game, violence is rarely a factor but the long-term effects of being deceived can prey on the victim, creating mental scars that may never fade.

When talking to people who’ve been conned, they’re surprised that I’ve fallen for a few scams myself.

The Deepest Cut

I’ve spent decades meeting, interviewing and helping the victims of con games in an attempt to better understand how and why we are fooled by seemingly obvious (in the aftermath) scams and con games.

With Professor Frank Stajano of Cambridge University, I co-authored a paper dedicated to understanding scam victims that listed several factors that contribute to successful crimes of deception.

A key lesson that we tried to convey was that society should stop blaming the victims for being fooled by scams and scammers, which is one of the key reasons that victims refuse to come forward and report these crimes.

A better understanding of why con games work can lead to greater empathy for people who have fallen for something and encourage more victims to speak up after they’ve been conned.

When talking to law enforcement, I try to point out that all of us have been fooled by someone at some time so it should be possible to relate to anyone who has been ripped off by hustlers.

Sadly, this is rarely an easy sell, and it always comes down to the scam itself and how obvious it seems in hindsight.

Of course, con games do seem obvious in the aftermath but when caught in a web of lies spun by an expert deceiver there are many factors that help the con artist to convince their mark.

Situation, attraction, timing, personality, conviction and experience are all on the hustler’s side and as I often have to point out, con artists have far more practice playing a con than their victims.

I Confess…

I’m not immune to being conned myself and as I’ve reported in past articles, I’ve fallen foul of public internet access, had my bank details stolen and my credit card swiped.

Years ago, I also found myself in the middle of a simple little con game where I was the target and had the scenario not been quickly improvised, I might have — MIGHT HAVE — fallen for it.

I was at the end of a speaking tour and had taken a few days to travel alone and hook up with some friends on the road, some of whom were fellow magicians and sleight of hand enthusiasts, a few cheaters and one con artist who I had befriended several years before.

We had met thanks to a mutual friend and he was constantly amused by my fascination with crooked carnival games, bar bets and short cons. 

For the sake of this story, let’s call him DICK.

I’d meet Dick when traveling up or down the east coast and was usually with another friend who was an older magician with one foot on the wrong side of the tracks.

This time, however, I met him alone and after a long night trading moves and stories in a roadside diner, we parted ways agreeing to meet the next day in a small bar and pool hall nearby.

The next day, I called a cab to my motel and joined Dick for lunch but while we talked, a heavy-set guy was taking notice of us from across the bar and I was beginning to feel a little heat on our conversation.

Sure enough, the big guy wandered over, sat at our table and held his hand under the table as if welding something sharp or loaded.

The “Unpaid Debt”

Suddenly, I was snapped into a completely different mindset; my senses sharply focused on what might happen while trying desperately to work out who this was and what he wanted with us.

In fact, his beef was with Dick and I quickly learned that Dick owed him money either for a loan or a bet or a scam – I really don’t remember – and that if Dick didn’t make things good, something horrible might happen.

Things were said, words were spoken but in the mélange of information, I was trying to unpick something important that I couldn’t quite grasp as this scene played out in front of me.

The fact that my subconscious mind was trying to point out to me was that this was all-too convenient since I just happened to have the solution to Dick’s situation folded into thick wads inside my money belt.

Dick knew that when touring, speaking and lecturing, a lot of cash can be made selling notes or merchandise.

And as this was the end of a successful tour, he could easily have guessed that I had more than a typical amount of cash on me in that little bar.

Sadly, my subconscious couldn’t get the message through since I was wired on adrenaline while being expertly manipulated to come up with the perfect solution to Dick’s dilemma.

Dick was telling the guy he could get the money from his car but the stranger said he’d fallen for that bullshit before and Dick wasn’t going anywhere until he paid up.

Naturally, all I had to do was loan Dick the cash until he could pay me back immediately after.

And God help me, I was about to propose exactly that when the waitress arrived to take our order and revealed (unwittingly, perhaps) that Dick and the big guy were friends and regulars!

When she greeted them both, the air seemed to be sucked out of the room: the jig was up.

Caught Out

It was like the punchline to a bad joke when Dick claimed he was “just testing me” and the situation quickly turned into a typical afternoon of card tricks and anecdotes with Dick and my new friend.

But for the next two hours I was uncomfortable, wary and keen to get out of that bar without looking like I was making a run for it.

That was the last time I saw Dick once I realised that.

While there’s a certain honour amongst thieves that applies to cheaters, con artists are the lowest of the low and can never be trusted or befriended.

The next day, as I checked out to continue my journey, the motel clerk told me someone had been arrested trying to break into the rooms overnight.

Perhaps it was another of Dick’s friends or (hopefully) Dick himself.

It still burns that I was about to fall for such a crude set-up, but it worked all-too-well despite the protestations of my own inner voice, which was drowned out by the noise of the moment.

It perfectly proved to me that we can all be conned, and the damage caused to our egos can be difficult or impossible to repair.

So if anyone you know falls victim to a scam, try to be kind and understand it could just as easily have happened to you.

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