Confidence trick

From Academic Kids

A confidence trick, confidence game, or con for short (also known as a scam) is an attempt to intentionally mislead a person or persons (known as the mark) usually with the goal of financial or other gain. The confidence trickster, con man, scam artist or con artist often works with an accomplice called the shill, who tries to encourage the mark by pretending to believe the trickster. In a traditional con, the mark is encouraged to believe that they will obtain money dishonestly by cheating a third party, and is stunned to find that due to what appears to be an error in pulling off the scam they are the one who loses money; in more general use, the term con is used for any fraud in which the victim is tricked into losing money by false promises of gain.

Some confidence tricks exploit the inherent greed and dishonesty of their victims; it has been said by confidence tricksters that it is impossible to con a completely honest man. Often, the mark tries to out-cheat the conmen, only to discover that they have been manipulated into this.

Sometimes conmen rely on naÔve individuals who put their confidence in get-rich-quick schemes such as 'too good to be true' investments. It may take years for the wider community to discover that such 'investment' schemes are bogus, and usually it is too late as many people have lost their life savings in something they have been confident of investing in.

The boundary between scamming and the legal praising of a sold product is fluid. The German television channel 9Live, for example, is perceived to be a scamming operation by many, but not by the state.


Well-known confidence tricks

  • Three Card Monte, The Three-Card Trick, Follow The Lady or Find the Lady, which is (except for the props) essentially the same as the probably centuries-older shell game or thimblerig. The trickster shows three playing cards to the audience, one of which is a queen (the lady), then places the cards face-down, shuffles them around and invites the audience to bet on which one is the queen. At first the audience are skeptical, so the shill places a bet and the scammer allows them to win. This is sometimes enough to entice the audience to place bets, but the trickster uses sleight of hand to ensure that they always lose, unless the con man decides to let them win to lure them into betting even more. The 'mark' loses whenever the dealer chooses to make them lose.
  • The Fiddle Game preys upon the greed inherent in most people. A pair of con men work together, one going in to an expensive restaurant in slightly shabby clothes, eating, and claiming to have left his wallet at home, which is nearby. As collateral, the con man leaves his only worldly posession, a violin he uses to make enough money for himself to live and eat. He leaves, and the second con man swoops in, offers an outrageously large amount (e.g., $50,000) for such a rare instrument, and then looks at his watch and runs off to an appointment, leaving behind his card for the mark to call him when the owner returns. The mark's greed comes into play when the "poor man" comes back, having gotten the money to pay his meal and ensure the return of his violin. The mark, "knowing" he has an offer on the table, then buys the violin from the fiddle player (who "relucantly" sells it eventually, for say $5,000), and we are left with two con men $2,500 richer, and a maitre'd with a cheap wooden instrument.
  • The Spanish Prisoner scam, which is essentially the same as the Nigerian money transfer fraud. The basic come-on involves entreating the mark to aid in retrieving some stolen money from its hiding place. The victim sometimes goes in figuring they can cheat the con artists out of their money: anyone trying this has already fallen for the essential con, by believing that the money is there to steal.
  • The early-20th-century favorite The Big Store, around which scam the plot of the film The Sting revolves. Big store scams are described in detail in David W. Maurer's The Big Con (see references), on which the film was loosely based. They often involved teams of dozens of con artists working together with elaborate sets and costumes.
  • The Pigeon drop, also featured early in the film The Sting, wherein the 'mark' or 'pigeon' "assists" an elderly, weak or infirm stranger to keep their money safe for them. In the process, the stranger (actually a confidence trickster) "puts his money with" the pigeon's money, i.e., in an envelope, briefcase, or sack, which the pigeon is then entrusted with. The money is actually not put into the sack or envelope, but is switched for a bag full of newspaper etc... the pigeon is enticed to "make off with" the con man's money through the greed element and various theatrics, in actuality, they are fleeing from their own money, which the con man still has, or has handed off to an accomplice.
  • The pyramid scheme (also known as a Ponzi scheme).
  • Insurance fraud - the con artist tricks the mark into damaging the con artist's car, or injuring the con artist (in a manner that the con artist can exaggerate). The con artist fraudulently collects a large sum of money from the mark's insurance policy, even though they intentionally caused the accident.
  • Pig-in-a-poke originating in the late middle ages, when meat was scarce, but apparently rats and cats were not: The con entails a sale of a "suckling pig", in a "poke" (bag). The bag ostensibly containing a live healthy little pig, but actually contains a cat (not particularly prized as a source of meat, and at any rate, quite unlikely to grow to be a large hog). If one "buys a pig in a poke" (a common colloquial expression in the English language, meaning "to be a sucker"), they get what they paid for. This is also the origin of the expressions: "Let the cat out of the bag" (meaning to reveal that which is secret), and "left holding the bag" (meaning to find oneself with nothing for their efforts, as the cat is quite likely to flee when the bag is opened).
  • Some religious cults have been described by their critics as confidence tricks. It is alleged that their aim is to obtain money from their followers by deception.
  • Pseudoscience and Snake oil. Some popular psychology confidence tricksters make money by falsely claiming to improve reading speed and comprehension using speed reading courses by fooling the consumer with inappropriate skimming and general knowledge tests. These popular psychology tricksters often employ popular assumptions about the brain and the cerebral hemispheres that are scientifically wrong, but attractive and easy to believe. Similar scams involve the use of brain machines to alter brain waves, and intelligence amplification through balancing the mind and body.
  • Psychic surgery is allegedly a con game in which the trickster uses sleight of hand to pretend to remove bits of malignant growths from the mark's body. A common form of medical fraud in underdeveloped countries, it imperils the victims, who may fail to seek competent medical attention.

Extra Finesse

Many con men employ extra tricks to keep the victim from going to the police:

  • Illegal money. A common ploy of investment scammers is to encourage the victim to use money that has been concealed from the tax authorities. The victim cannot go to the authorities without revealing that they have committed tax fraud.
  • Illegal enterprise. Many swindles involve a minor element of crime or some other misdeed. The victim is made to think that they will gain money by helping fraudsters get huge sums out of a country (the classic Nigerian scam). The victim cannot go to the police without revealing that they planned to commit a crime themselves. Similar tricks can be played on people shopping for pirated software, illegal pornographic images, bootleg music, drugs, firearms or other forbidden or controlled goods.
  • Embarrassing enterprise. If the victim loses a small sum only, they may be unwilling to contact the authorities if the circumstances are embarrassing, e.g. if they would look like an idiot or if their spouse would find out that they paid lots of money to access a website of (worthless) pornographic material.

Famous con artists

Confidence tricks in the movies and television

Confidence tricks in paper literature

(very incomplete)

  • Many of the crime novels of Jim Thompson involve confidence artists.
  • Joyce Carol Oates's My Heart Laid Bare features a family of confidence artists.
  • Neil Gaiman's American Gods uses a two-man con as a major plot element.
  • O. Henry's collection The Gentle Grafter describes a variety of confidence tricks.

See also


  • Blundell, Nigel. 1982. The World's Greatest Crooks and Conmen and other mischievous malefactors. Octopus Books, London. Reprint: 1984. ISBN 0-7064-2144-2
  • Maurer, David W. 1940. The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man and the Confidence Game. New York: The Bobbs Merrill company. ISBN 0-3854-9538-2
  • Maurer, David W. 1974. The American Confidence Man. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, Publisher. ISBN 0-3980-2974-1

External links



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