Security

Why the digital era and its transparency still allows con artists to survive and thrive

Psychologist and writer Maria Konnikova explores the con artist's game, and why, despite operating in an increasingly tech-savvy world, it continues to be successful.

Image: MariaKonnikova.com

When Maria Konnikova's Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes was released three years ago, it melded the worlds of psychology and literature, tapping into a deeply human need for self-knowledge. The book—now translated into 16 languages—quickly became a bestseller, as readers wanted learn how to apply the teachings of a brilliant (if fictional) detective to their own lives.

Today, Konnikova, who is both a psychologist and a writer for The New Yorker, as well as a frequent contributor to The New York Times, continues her interest in dissecting human behavior with the release of The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It ... Every Time.

The book shows how the confidence game is the oldest game in the book, and how the digital era is only providing new opportunities for its artists to succeed. It's an important lesson. Since 2008, online scams have more than doubled. Back in 2007, they were one fifth of all fraud cases. In 2011, they were 40%. In 2012, there were almost 300,000 complaints of online fraud with over $525 million lost. And these numbers don't tell the whole story, because a good con is never discovered. And, those who do get conned are often too embarrassed to fess up.

In The Confidence Game, Konnikova offers suggestions—not solutions—for how to avoid being duped.

TechRepublic spoke with Konnikova about the misconceptions around confidence artists, how the con has changed with the landscape of the internet, and why anyone can fall victim to a scheme.

Why does the confidence game have such a long history?

We have a con in the Bible—there's the story of Rachel and Leah, where you're expecting to marry one daughter but get tricked into a marriage you didn't want. There's a reason that the Bible is told through stories rather than through logic because that's the way you engage people and get them to believe things. When you're in storytelling narrative, you drop your guard and stop questioning.

The con is really the oldest story that there is—it's a story about belief and about meaning. That's what con artists do.

How does the con game operate in our digital world?

Technology and technological advances are really the beautiful playground of the confidence game and of con artists. Any advance that we think makes us more sophisticated, more savvy, better protected, is also something that con artists are using and figuring out how to take advantage of. As we put more and more of our lives online, we become better and better targets and become easier and easier to target because we leave so much of our identity out in the open. That's something that makes cons much more ubiquitous and much easier to pull off than they have been in the past. Google is wonderful for us when we're researching, but it's also the con artist's best friend. They can look up anything very, very quickly.

Why don't many people admit when they've been conned?

People really don't want to report it because that means admitting that they were victims. We still have, as a society, this image of people who fall for scams. Especially online scams, for some reason. Just like we still kind of look down upon online dating. People will still snicker at you if you say you met your significant other online, which is kind of crazy but it still happens. I think people really, really look down at victims of online fraud. Nobody wants to be seen as a sap.

Who are the most-common victims? The elderly, less-computer savvy type?

Depending on the type of fraud, the victim profiles can change completely. Sometimes it's people who are younger, sometimes it's people who are really wealthy. Sometimes it's men, sometimes it's women. Basically, the takeaway is, there is no takeaway. Everyone is a potential victim. In fact, when it comes to online fraud, the elderly are actually a pretty small percentage, because if you think about how many elderly people actually use the internet, it's not a very big number. Among the ones that do, they're often the more technologically sophisticated people.

How do con artists go after young people online?

Social media is one of the absolute easiest ways to target young people. It can be Twitter, it can be SnapChat, it can be Instagram. Instagram is actually huge for con artists because we put so much information on there. A lot of times people don't remove geotags. I mean, here's this photographic treasure trove that shows you, where you are, what you like, and your precise time and location. Which is manna to a con artist.

How are cons affected during times of transition?

Every single time that we get a huge shift in technology, every time we are in areas of transition, we see cons flourishing and changing. It happened with western expansion. That's when the con really established itself in America where you had the Wild West and the gold rush and all of these things where anything was possible and all of this stuff was happening. No one really knew what to expect.

All of a sudden you have all of these opportunities, and that's where things like The Big Store, the first really good con established themselves in New York, which was basically a gambling storefront where people made bets—it was all fraudulent, and they couldn't actually win, but they did this anyway because, "Hey, why not?"

That's exactly what's happening with the internet. People don't really know what to expect. Every new technology, by the way, comes with another weird con artist who wants to install that technology and fix it for you. They have con artists fooling people with television installations, with radio installations, with telephone installations. Everything that we don't really understand well, everything that's new, is an opportunity for a con artist to strike.

And we're in a pretty uncertain time right now, with advances in AI/robotics and potential changes in the workforce.

These times of transition create a lot of upheaval and uncertainty. We don't really know what the world is going to look like in a few years. What happens if what I do is obsolete? What happens if my job is obsolete? I just bought this awesome new television, but what if it ends up being some awful waste? We don't really know what's going to happen and we feed that feeling of uncertainty and of not knowing.

When that happens, we crave something that's really stable and certain. That's what con artists are really able to offer us at the end of the day. They can really create an illusion that everything's okay.

The other thing that happens is we don't want people to think that we're just old farts who can't run with the times. Nobody wants to be accused of being behind the curb, so we become more liable, more open to new information and to new stories than we would be otherwise because we don't want to come off as people who are old and close-minded.

Can anybody be conned?

No matter who you are, it's a basic human need to have meaning and to believe in something. You cannot live life otherwise. It's deeply ingrained in us. We could be the most prominent scientist in the world, the biggest skeptic in the world, even somebody who studies con artists for a living. We could be a con artist ourselves. Yet, that need is so strong and so deep that there's really no way to circumvent it. It occurs with absolutely everyone.

There's even a subset of cons designed to con con artists. That, to me, is kind of the perfect proof of concept.

Why are we so bad at detecting lies?

It's more evolutionarily adaptive to be trusting. You end up being happier, healthier, making more money. It often goes along with intelligence. It's a very good thing actually most of the time to trust people. We haven't evolved to spot deception because it's better for us not to, it actually makes society function much more smoothly.

Think about how much we deceive each other on a daily basis. Not conning people with malicious intentions, but saying things like, "Oh, it's so nice to see you. How are you?" When really it's really not nice to see you. If we were able to tell all those small lies as long as they happened, that would really be devastating. We'd be like, "Oh, I look terrible. This person doesn't care about me. No one cares about me. The world's a shitty place." That is a really awful way to live, and so we haven't developed those mechanisms.

The other part of it is that when we trust each other, we can get stuff done. We can cooperate, we can create new institutions, it's something that we can't do at all if we don't trust each other. It's better for society to trust. I think the bottom line is that we just haven't evolved to this ability. It's not good for us to spot deception most of the time and it's not worth it to spot it the few times that it is good for us.

What are the biggest cons in the business world? What lessons we could draw?

The two biggest are Ponzi schemes and insider trading. Whenever something seems too good to be true, it is. The red flag for both of those types of schemes is often better returns for longer. It's not just one good year or a few good years, it's consistently wonderful. But the markets are unpredictable, they're the markets, and no one is that good. We still believe they're true when they're happening to us because we want those wonderful returns. We look the other way. We don't question when things are going well, we only question when things aren't going well.

How can we guard ourselves against becoming duped?

We can really learn to understand ourselves a bit better. Con artists really draw close psychological profiles of their victims. They try to understand what makes them work, what they want, the things that excite them, what they really desire in life. What story am I going to pitch this person? What makes them tick? We don't really do that about ourselves, but if we did we'd know what our weak points are. Our weak points are our desires. They're the things that we want to believe.

Whenever things are going really, really well, we should have a really red flag and ask, "Okay. Why is everything going so well? What's going on here?"

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About

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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