Do the Hustle: How Con Artists Ply Their Trade

How to avoid being swindled by the most callous of calculations

Getting scammed sucks. I should know: It happened to me, once. I was at an H&M, about to make a purchase with my debit card, when the transaction didn’t go through. I was certain I had enough money in my account, but for some reason the POS machine refused to cooperate. I left the store very much confused and dialled up my bank’s hotline, only to be told that my account had been blocked and asked that I come in to a local branch. Turns out some jerk tried to defraud my account by withdrawing money from it. An investigation was conducted, the perp was caught, and I got all my money back. I was lucky; it could have been a lot worse. And while the experience was pretty rattling, it pales in comparison to what happens when an innocent person falls victim to a con artist who meets them face to face.

The art of the street scam is a potent mix of psychological manipulation, social engineering and ruthless calculation, and it happens regularly. Con artists rely on the greed and gullibility of their victims, enticing them with promises of rich rewards and bypassing their critical mental filters. With each passing day, their maneuvers turn increasingly imaginative and intricate.

Take the Pigeon Drop, for instance—a conman’s classic. This scam entails a “shill”—a scammer’s accomplice—who approaches the victim in a public place and strikes up a conversation. The scammer then waylays the two with a bag or envelope and inquires about its ownership—“Does this bag belong to either of you?” On opening the bag, the three find it full of cash, along with clues indicating that these are ill-gotten gains, either from gambling activities, drug deals or other illicit deeds. Further examination reveals that there is no ID in the bag, which leads to the realization that the money may not be claimed, and even if it could be, the hypothetical owner is clearly corrupt and does not deserve it.

The two con artists engage their victim in conversation, counting the money and talking about all the things they could buy with it. One of the scammers suggests calling someone she claims to work for, like a lawyer, to find out what steps to take next in this situation. The scammer calls up the “lawyer” right then and there, who supposedly counsels them to provide proof of their ability to support themselves while he searches for the actual owner of the loot; only after dealing with convoluted red tape can they entertain the possibility of sharing the money. To that end, they must deposit a certain sum “in good faith,” along with their found money, into the lawyer’s trust account.

The victim is manipulated into withdrawing a large sum from their bank account—usually several thousand dollars—and adding it to the pool of funds in the bag. The victim is then asked to deliver the money to the lawyer, and given an address and phone number. Then it’s time for the old switcheroo: While the victim—a “pigeon”—is distracted, the bag of money is switched with one containing scraps of paper. The victim is then “dropped,” with the con artists stealthily extricating themselves from the situation, never to be seen again. Savvy readers will be familiar with this nasty trick; it is also the basis of the so-called Nigerian scam. Both are kinds of advance-fee fraud, though the means they use differ.

Another kind of scam has been reported as occurring in certain New York taxi cabs. The taxi interior is cramped, unlighted, and malodorous. The cabbie drives erratically, with frequent and abrupt stops. A feeling of nausea overwhelms the victim. When the taxi reaches the destination, the passenger pulls out his wallet to pay the fare, keeping it out to insert the change due. The driver takes the money, counts out the change in single dollar bills, turns completely around in his seat, and fans out the money in a broad semi-circle—this leads to the victim having to use both hands to reach for the money and setting down his wallet. During the exchange, the scammer bombards the victim with questions. The passenger puts away the change in his pocket, but in the victim’s distracted state, the driver surreptitiously steals the wallet. By the time the victim realizes what has happened, the taxi is long gone. This sleight of hand relies on the conspiration of environmental stressors that put the victim in a confused state of mind; and it is so underhanded that, should the conman be caught, he can innocently claim that the victim must have accidentally dropped his wallet.

As the recession trudges on, scams and cons continue to flourish. Con artists target the hard-up and the downtrodden, the vulnerable and the avaricious. Scammers expect their “scammees” to suffer alone from wounded pride, as embarrassment gives way to silence. But keeping quiet ensures that justice will never be served. If you or someone you know has been the victim of a scam, report it as soon as possible. Tell the police, tell your financial institution, tell others. There are online message boards where you can post your unfortunate experience—and learn from others who have been in similar situations. Protect yourself and your close ones. There is help, and there is hope.

Fraud Prevention Resources:

Word Count: 922; Arbitrage Magazine

March 25, 2012:

editor writer


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