As much as we’d like to believe that we are able to spot a liar or cheat and are immune to manipulation, scams happen regularly, especially as technology advances. We tend to think of con artists as villains in thrilling movies or other forms of entertainment, but they’re certainly not absent from real life. Con artists are not only real, their success can be pretty astounding.
In The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It…Every Time, a new book by Maria Konnikova, we see how basic human nature makes us susceptible to deception. The book examines the psychology of both con artists and their victims, delving into why cons work using both anecdotes and studies. The stories, while somewhat horrifying, are completely fascinating.
Fortunately, you won’t lose your faith in humanity; as Konnikova reminds readers, most people aren’t actually out to get us. The book, while not by any means a how-to, also aims to make readers better able to avoid these master manipulators.
Here are eight bizarre cons that people have actually managed to accomplish — at least for a while — discussed in The Confidence Game.
1. The Medical Operation
Why anyone without medical training would want to pose as a doctor is beyond me, but it didn’t stop one of the most infamous con artists of all time. Using an acquaintance's identity, Ferdinand Waldo Demara managed to become a surgeon lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy in the 1950s. In one harrowing incident, his ship came across a boat of wounded men, and he performed multiple surgeries using a textbook as a guide. Strangely, he managed to perform what Konnikova refers to as “medical miracles.” Even crazier? A woman later wanted him to perform lung surgery on her daughter — after his deception had come to light.
2. The Helpless Runaway
Appealing to people’s emotions worked surprisingly well for Samantha Azzopardi. By posing as a teenage victim of abuse on three continents, the 20-something woman was able to swindle people into providing her shelter, claim social benefits, and even inspire a couple to try to adopt her. One of her aliases was Dakota Johnson, inspired by the Fifty Shades of Grey movie.
3. The Miracle Drug
Husband and wife Richard Harley and Jacqueline Kube preyed on those seeking a cure for AIDS starting in the late '80s. Over the course of six years, they peddled an expensive treatment, bringing in $1.4 million. The reason so many victims were swindled, Konnikova argues, is that “the will to believe [is] so strong.”
4. The Backfire
After falling victim to a con and accidentally purchasing a fake Goya painting, two Spanish brothers decided to make someone else pay for their mistake — literally. They decided to pass the work off as an authentic piece and teamed up with a middleman to broker the sale. When he found a buyer willing to pay 1.7 million Swiss francs, they gave him a 300,000-euro deposit. After they paid the money, they discovered that the payment they received was as fake as the painting itself. What’s that they say about “fool me twice”?
5. The Next Beethoven
The parallels between Mamoru Samuragochi and Ludwig van Beethoven once had the music world abuzz. Not only were they both acclaimed and popular, each suffered from severe hearing loss. Or at least, that was what Samuragochi led everyone to believe for over a decade. It came out in 2014 that his deafness wasn't real, and to top it all off, he’d been employing a ghostwriter for nearly 20 years.
6. The Exclusive Wine Collection
“Pose something as unique or rare, and takers will line up where there used to be none,” writes Konnikova. This proved to be the case for Rudy Kurniawan. The wine collector made a name for himself by purchasing costly wines at auctions, showing off his amazing tasting skills, and serving in-demand bottles at dinner parties. He’d play it cool when people tried to buy from him, never agreeing to sales right off the bat. It took years for it to be revealed that Kurniawan’s clients were paying for fakes.
7. The Minor Distraction
It’s so simple it shouldn’t work, but former psychologist Tyler Alterman claims it does: In order to get into bars when he was a minor, he’d distract bouncers with chatter as he let them check his real ID. With the overload of information, they wouldn’t process the fact that he wasn't legal. No wonder states started making vertical driver’s licenses for the under-21 crowd.
8. The Arranged Meet-Cute
When the heir to an Oregon tree farm fortune met his future wife at an airport, he thought it was fate. Little did he know, the meeting was orchestrated by the fortune-teller he’d been going to for years. She’d “predicted” the encounter and schemed with her daughter to make it happen in real life so that they could have access to his money. Sounds a lot like the plot of Heartbreakers.
Con artists may be out there, but succumbing to them isn't inevitable. "A large part of resistance, of making sure you don't start getting pulled in, is to know yourself well enough to recognize and control your emotional reactions," writes Konnikova. Resistance isn't futile.
Images: Paramount Pictures; Giphy (8)