Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen will be presenting information regarding scams that are being perpetrated on local citizens, especially senior citizens, in a talk at the Cook County Senior Center in Grand Marais on Wednesday, April 13th starting at 12:30 pm. He’ll share information on what the most popular scams are, how to recognize them and how to avoid being taken in. There will be time for questions after the presentation.
I just finished reading a fascinating book called, “The Confidence Game” by Maria Konnikova. Ms Konnikova delves deeply into the psychology of scams, why they’re so common and why they are so successful.
Although the term “confidence game” only dates back to the mid-1800s, the technique of swindling people by gaining their confidence goes back to earliest recorded human history and most likely quite a bit farther back than that.
“Confidence game” was coined by a scammer in New York City who would approach strangers on the street, strike up a friendly conversation and then ask them if they had the “confidence” to loan him their watch until the next day. By appearing reasonable, friendly and trustworthy, he had a nearly perfect record of talking people into loaning him their watches, which they never saw again.
The stages of a successful swindle are pretty standard. It starts with careful observation and gathering information about the victim or mark. The victim is approached in an innocent and friendly way, to establish a small kernel of trust. Then the victim is invited to participate in an activity that will benefit them in a small, but certain way. The scheme quickly and easily earns the mark a little money, further cementing the trust between the new friends. This step is often repeated, with the payouts getting slightly bigger each time. The next step is a manufactured crisis, seeming to put both the scammer and mark in serious danger of losing everything. The biggest step comes when the scammer miraculously finds a way out of trouble for everyone. All the mark has to do is temporarily put up a large sum of money, which the scammer often will match, promising a way out of the dilemma, with a huge payout as a bonus. Of course, the money and the scammer disappear forever, leaving the mark much poorer and very embarrassed. Many scammers add an additional step, called “the fix” where they manipulate the mark into the decision not to report the crime. By some estimates, more than half of criminal scams are never reported.
It turns out that confidence swindlers are actually taking advantage of some nearly universal quirks of the human brain. Although effective scamming was no doubt developed by trial and error, it has long become so sophisticated that it is nearly impossible to resist.
Think about magic shows that you have seen. Magicians, or illusionists as they are sometimes called, can make you believe that they are doing impossible things before your very eyes. They are exploiting the same brain quirks and bits of human behavior that the scammers do. The difference is that illusionists do it for entertainment and acknowledge that they are fooling you. Scammers take your money and ruin your life.
I am personally amazed that someone can be so cold as to make their living by taking advantage of others, especially the most vulnerable members of our society. As it turns out, one of the major traits that define a psychopath is a complete lack of empathy for others. While not all psychopaths are scammers, all scammers are, at least to some degree, psychopaths.
Of course, Konnikova’s book goes into much more detail, especially in looking at how modern brain science is revealing how the hard wired parts of our nature allow the con artists to take advantage of us.
All of this leads me back to Sheriff Eliasen’s important upcoming presentation. The only effective way to avoid being scammed is to educate yourself about common scams and the methods behind them. Armed with that knowledge, you are not only less likely to fall for a scam, but the con artists will recognize your knowledge in the early stages of their game, which makes you a risky mark for them. They will likely move on to another, more naïve victim, before you even know that you’ve been targeted.
I hope Sheriff Eliasen will repeat his talk in the West End soon. If you want more information about the April 13th session, call the Sheriff’s Department or WTIP.
On a more pleasant subject, the word is out that conditions are quite good on local snowmobile and ski trails. Inland lakes are also in good condition for recreation travel right now and will probably stay that way for a couple of weeks. Downhill skiers are reporting nearly perfect conditions at Lutsen Mountains. With the longer, warmer days ahead, it is the perfect time to get outside and enjoy the fabulous West End.
For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.