By Marcia Allen, Collection Development
Have you ever heard of Ferdinand Waldo Demara? How about William Franklin Miller? Chances are, you are unfamiliar with those names, as was I. It turns out that they rank among the most gifted of con artists. Demara, for example, was posing as Dr. Joseph Cyr, a surgeon on board the HMCS Cayuga during the Korean War, at which time he routinely treated those injured in the conflict and even performed surgeries. The problem was that he not only assumed the identity of a respected medical doctor, but also failed to graduate from high school. Miller, in similar fashion, fabricated his investment strategy expertise in the late 19th century by luring friends to deposit small amounts of cash for a guaranteed 10% return and no risk. In this manner, he built a personal fortune worth over $1 million dollars.
Both men are mentioned briefly in a wonderful new book by Maria Konnikova entitled The Confidence Game. This fascinating look at the con offers both unbelievable stories of those who successfully conned others and a close look at the psychology involved.
Konnikova explains the success of the con artist through what she calls “soft skills.” Con artists are not hardened criminals that take and harm through violence; they are those who appeal to our sense of trust or sympathy. Konnikova points out that the con artist doesn’t force victims to do anything. Instead he allows the victims to work with him, offering up whatever he is willing to take from them. The author faults the human condition of need for story. She says that we all crave narratives and that we want to believe what others tell us, regardless of actual truth.
What makes a good con artist? The author describes the most talented of a cons as those who can read emotions and backgrounds in a heartbeat. They are intelligent and highly perceptive and can sense the desires of victims even when those desires seem to be well hidden. How did Konnikova discover so much about cons? She did the research and even consulted a mind reader who (without knowing her name or occupation) played on her job insecurities and raised issues of self-doubt.
All of this leads to Konnikova’s chapter entitled “The Play.” Here we learn what it is that hooks the heedless mark into the trap. She cites an example of a young woman who fell in love with a brilliant young scientist. The two young people moved in together, but the woman began noticing inconsistencies in her beloved’s stories. He had, for example, very few personal effects and offered her no clues to his past or family. When the young woman finally investigated his esteemed research position, she found he had no such position and no educational background. Because she wanted to be in a relationship, she had long ignored oddities that she would normally have spotted.
Where does the ideal con end? The author suggests that it successfully ends just when the mark is at his most convinced. Perhaps the victim has had some financial success or actually bought an object of genuine worth from the con. The con has extended some success to his victim, and the victim has invested complete trust. If there has been some disappointment in transactions, the victim believes it has been an honest mistake. Konnikova suggests that we have a solid belief that everything is going to turn out well for us, even when we should be discovering serious doubts.
Why are human being so vulnerable to the con? Konnikova says that they promise us a reality that we so want to believe. We want to attain the wealth, the contentment, the togetherness with others that the con offers us. That, she says, is what makes the scam the true “world’s oldest profession.”
This book is riveting. The intricacies of the conning process and the individual accounts of theft are simply eye-opening. Chances are very good that interested readers will recall episodes from their own lives during which they were completely baffled by well-constructed lies. Allow this gifted writer to help you avoid future scams.