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The psychology of cons
November 15, 2008 10:48 PM   Subscribe


 
Interesting story, and an interesting site. Thanks for the link.
posted by voltairemodern at 11:08 PM on November 15, 2008


What's the neuroeconomic reason for my raging urge to punch Paul J. Zak right in the face?
posted by afu at 11:17 PM on November 15, 2008


It is so great to see neuroeconomic concepts starting to hit the public view. Great post!
posted by thatbrunette at 11:22 PM on November 15, 2008


The infantilizing tone of his writing?
posted by voltairemodern at 11:22 PM on November 15, 2008


I think his conclusion is completely wrong. That con didn't work because the conman showed he trusted the kid. It worked because the kid was greedy. If he hadn't wanted the money, and just said, "How about you come back for the money later?" the con wouldn't have worked.

You can't con an honest John.
posted by emyd at 11:52 PM on November 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


homunculus, You are always posting something interesting. I just read the article about how to run a con about an hour ago and had started to do some research on the whole THOMAS (The Human Oxytocin Mediated Attachment System) concept.

Related, neurobiology of trust.

Paul J. Zak, who wrote the How To Run a Con article, is, apparently, an expert on the topic of oxytocin. More of his articles with some more THOMAS details. And here, discussing oxytocin and shyness on his blog, The Moral Molecule. He has a Center For Neuroeconomic Studies.

It was fascinating to read about inducing trust in others by offering one's trust. I know this as a street vendor by saying "Feel free to pick up anything you like." which I thought let people feel invited but I now understand in offering my trust to them, induces their trust in me.

Also interesting to note that touch-->induces oxytocin -->induces trust. I've heard when a waitress touches the hand of her customer in returning the change, she is likely to get a better tip than if she puts the change on the counter. Oxytocin counters sweet craving.

Another interesting effect of oxytocin is that it decreases mental processes and impairs memory. This is why hugging and touching can help us recover from an argument. The oxytocin helps us to stop thinking about it, and even forget some of the pain we felt.

Glad to see this author's work being put to practical use almost immediately in understanding cons.

Fascinating video and good warning.
posted by nickyskye at 12:11 AM on November 16, 2008 [5 favorites]


PS, one of the best movies I've seen about con people is The House of Games.
posted by nickyskye at 12:14 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


I like one of the comments at the pigeon drop video
-------
"Hey did one of you guys drop a wallet?"

"Oh my god, my wallet!!! Where did you get that?" *swipe* "I have so much money in there, wow thank you! Here's a hundred for your troubles." *run away*
posted by jfrancis at 12:22 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Heh, this reminds me of another con, which I was subject to as a retail employee.

It goes like this, someone buys something really small, usually a soda, but pays for it with a one hundred dollar bill. While I'm counting the change, they ask me to break a twenty while I have the drawer open. The idea is to get me confused, and they get extra cash in the process.

It would have worked, had they not looked like the sketchiest characters ever. Soulless corporate "no change" policy is great in situations like this.
posted by hellojed at 12:43 AM on November 16, 2008


Hellojed, that's called change raising, and I thought all retail clerks were taught that one.
posted by rokusan at 12:59 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Not the same as the dove drop.
posted by pracowity at 1:53 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sadly, not really a How-To. I was hoping less for a discourse on how one's oxytocin system makes us vulnerable to being conned, than for more concrete info on modern strategies for to Roping the Sucker, Making the Switch, Cooling the Mark, etc. etc.

Also: what fool would be taken in by a two dollar pearl necklace? Examine the quality of the fittings, people. Expensive jewelry has expensive fittings. A two dollar piece of crap would have a shitty clasp that wouldn't last five minutes.

But presumably, this Oxytocin stuff renders you blind and stupid as well as friendly and empathetic.

That Cambodian link was interesting though, NickySkye. It looks like large numbers of Cambodian NGO's see western volunteers as marks, just waiting to be fleeced.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:56 AM on November 16, 2008


Where does Paulson and the Fed fit into this?
posted by From Bklyn at 2:06 AM on November 16, 2008


You can't con an honest John.

It depends on the con and the John, I suppose. In my younger days, I was talked into giving a guy a little money -- I think it was five or ten bucks, but I can't remember the amount now -- based only on his sad tale of needing gas money to get home. He was a black guy in a white neighborhood and I didn't want him walking home that late. He said he'd mail it back to me. I remember I wasn't sure, but I thought I might be doing something good for a nice guy who needed a little help, so I went for it. Only after I got home and thought about it, and then later when the money of course never came back, and then much later when I read about similar cons being a standard trick, did I come to believe that he probably had been lying to me.

Still, maybe he needed the money more than I did. If we aren't going to abandon trust, con men will make suckers of us now and then. I'm still open to an honest-looking face and a believable story. He, or someone like him, might still be able to pull one like that on me. Some people gamble in Las Vegas. I occasionally take a flutter on a stranger with a sad tale and I never know whether I win or lose, because the goal is not getting the money back but helping someone who needed help.
posted by pracowity at 2:20 AM on November 16, 2008 [6 favorites]


Every con man always says "you can't cheat an honest man" because that fits their own self image as a fair person. Just like every bully says "he brought it on himself" as he wallops his victim. Paulson and the Fed fit in because the financial instruments they allowed were dishonest, but investors brought it on themselves because they should have read the fine print and because they were greedy.
posted by Bitter soylent at 4:23 AM on November 16, 2008 [7 favorites]


I should have said the taxpayers are the mark and Paulson and the Fed keep running the con that they have something of value worth buying.
posted by Bitter soylent at 4:30 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Another interesting effect of oxytocin is that it decreases mental processes and impairs memory. This is why hugging and touching can help us recover from an argument. The oxytocin helps us to stop thinking about it, and even forget some of the pain we felt.

This also explains makeup sex, as well as that whole 'best way to get over someone is to get under someone' thing.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 4:57 AM on November 16, 2008


From some research I did a while ago about the origin of the term "con," short for "confidence man":

The term itself originates in a story published in The New York Herald on July 8, 1849, called “Arrest of the Confidence man,” which describes the arrest of one William Thompson: “For the last few months a man has been traveling about the city, known as the 'Confidence Man,' that is, he would go up to a perfect stranger in the street, and being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview. Upon this interview he would say after some little conversation, 'have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow;' the stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing 'confidence' in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do. In this way many have been duped.” The story goes on to mention that Mr. Thompson was a graduate of the college at Sing Sing, and he would no doubt shortly return to his studies there.

The neologism "confidence man" caught on, and by 1855, when Wilson was again released from prison, it was fully part of the lexicon. Wilson headed north to try his luck in Albany, where the
Albany Evening Journal reported on April 28, under the title “The Original Confidence Man in Town – A Short Chapter on Misplaced Confidence”, that he was up to his old tricks:

“He called into a jewelry store on Broadway and said to the proprietor, 'How do you do, Mr. Myers?' Receiving no reply, he added 'Don’t you know me?' to which Mr. Myers. replied that he did not. 'My name is Samuel Willis. You are mistaken, for I have met you three or four times.' . . . 'I guess you are a Mason,' – to which Myers replied that he was – when Willis asked him if he would not give a brother a shilling if he needed it. By some shrewd management, Myers was induced to give him six or seven dollars.”

The new story made the rounds, and the
Evening Journal followed up with “A brief history of the Original Confidence Man”, which included an identification by a New York detective: “Here is No. 1, the Original Confidence Man. I arrested him the first time in New York, and afterward in New Orleans.” This line was enough to inspire Herman Melville to pen the last novel he published during his lifetime, "The Confidence Man," which came out in 1857. The real No. 1, original Confidence Man, was of course Satan tempting Eve in the Garden of Evil – Melville drew heavily on Milton’s Satan. And the reference to New Orleans suggested to Melville his setting – a Mississippi riverboat as a ship of fools.

A confidence man can be defined as one who swindles another by persuading his victim first to place confidence in him, and then induces the victim to part with goods or money while still trusting the swindler. It is the manipulation of a sucker by non-violent methods. The thief, must be an excellent actor skilled in improvisation. In Melville’s novel, the protagonist is engaged in a continual masquerade, deceiving a series of fellow passengers during the course of a single day, April 1st – shifting shape all the while like Milton’s Satan. The book's cons are an encyclopaedia of the cons being perpetrated on trusting citizens around the country: a deaf-mute who pleads for donations by means of a slate quoting St. Paul on charity; a black man without legs begging for coins; a merchant with a story of hard times; a representative of the Seminole Widow and Orphan Society operating a bogus charity scam; a man selling stock in a non-existent firm, the Black Rapids Mining Company; a purveyor of a patent medicine called "Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator"; a procurer of young boys into indentured labor; and a cosmopolitan named Frank Goodman, who simply wishes his fellow passengers to place their trust and confidence in all of humanity. The real mark of Melville’s confidence game, however, is the reader, who is constantly pulled in one direction and another, never sure where Melville is taking him, and discovering, each time a truth seems to be presented, that it is in fact another mask in the masquerade. The novel, itself – perhaps every novel – is a con of the reader who places his trust in the author hoping to be rewarded.

While Melville’s novel received little notice on publication, sold poorly and received virtually no critical attention until a century later, the confidence man motif became a standard in American literature, and later in films – and the confidence scheme would return again and again to lighten the wallets of Americans in real life – not surprisingly, because in some ways, the qualities that made a good 19th Century American confidence man – gumption, originality, smoothness, entrepreneurship – were the qualities that won the West and built America. Moreover, antebellum American society provided a rich substrate for the con game – teeming, growing cities, easy anonymity, confusion, portable wealth in the form of paper money. New York police in the 1860s estimated that one out of every 10 criminals was a con man.

posted by beagle at 5:33 AM on November 16, 2008 [6 favorites]


But presumably, this Oxytocin stuff renders you blind and stupid

Explains Rush Limbaugh

as well as friendly and empathetic.

Not explained by Rush.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:42 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think the whole thing is being over analyzed to death. People get conned because of their greed, plain and simple. If the author would have simply said to himself "I will give the necklace back because I like to be honest and do a good deed and not because of reward money" he would not have been conned.
posted by scarello at 6:42 AM on November 16, 2008


It is so great to see neuroeconomic concepts starting to hit the public view.

Kind of like the way that labels on women's shampoos are in public view.
posted by srboisvert at 6:48 AM on November 16, 2008


"Explains Rush Limbaugh"

Oxycontin != Oxytocin
posted by GPF at 6:52 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


For those con junkies out there, I recommend Hustle. I hear they're making a new season (which by UK standards are much shorter than ones in the US). The last (currently available) season is subpar, but the ones before that are really good.
posted by e40 at 7:58 AM on November 16, 2008


Pigeon droppings! Oxycontin is perfectly respectable and has been abused not only by Rush but also by perfectly respectable members of some of our finest political families.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:59 AM on November 16, 2008


Yep, there will be a fifth series of Hustle says this. Danny and Stacie will not be back, though. I hope it's better than series four, which without Adrian Lester, sucked.
posted by e40 at 8:02 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also, see The Real Hustle.
posted by djgh at 8:35 AM on November 16, 2008


Explains Rush Limbaugh

I think you're confusing oxytocin with oxycontin.

Previous posts on oxytocin.
posted by homunculus at 9:07 AM on November 16, 2008


I think the whole thing is being over analyzed to death. People get conned because of their greed, plain and simple.

I don't understand what you mean by this. Do you mean...?

a. The author is lying when he claimed to have had altruistic feelings (in addition to greed). He did not in face have those feelings.

b. He may have had altruistic feelings, but they had ABSOLUTELY NO EFFECT on him being conned?

c. He may have had altruistic feelings, and they may have helped him get conned, but if he'd had just greed alone -- and no altruistic feelings -- he would have been just as easily conned?

d. He may have had altruistic feelings, and those feelings may have helped him get conned, but he also had feelings of greed, and that's all you care about. You don't like it when people bring up their complex feelings in cases like this, because even if those feelings are partially responsible for them getting conned, they are also justifications, and it pisses you off when people justify their greed.

I can definitely be greedy, but I also feel guilty about being greedy. So that con wouldn't work on me by playing on my greed alone.

If the con was "lets pretend we didn't find the necklace, sell it and split the proceeds..." I wouldn't go for it. Not because I am 100% a good, honest person. I would WANT to go for it (I could use the cash), I would consider going for it, but in the end I wouldn't, because my guilt would outweigh my greed.

But if I was allowed to have my cake and eat it too -- do something altruistic like return the necklace to its owner AND make a profit -- I would be much more likely to go for it. So trust and altruism would be (for me at least) essential components of the con.
posted by grumblebee at 9:16 AM on November 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


This guy is interpreting the data to fit into his trademarked hypothesis, not arriving at his hypothesis from the data. Something tells me that every situation you've ever encountered can be explained by him using THOMAS and oxy-whatevers. The con game described in his article would work on a totally non-altruistic bastard just as well as it worked on him.


c. He may have had altruistic feelings, and they may have helped him get conned, but if he'd had just greed alone -- and no altruistic feelings -- he would have been just as easily conned?


Well, in this case that is true. At what point would a greedy, non-altruistic bastard fail to fall for it (assuming he is no more thoughtful or observant than his friendly counterpart)? See the Pigeon Drop in House of Games for a version with no trust in it whatsoever.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:47 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


A main point of the original post that is this one:
The key to a con is not that you trust the conman, but that he shows he trusts you.

That is where the oxytocin comes in, it is part of the neurochemistry of trust. Trusting feels good, it's part of the core human need to bond, it's part of the human survival strategy, to trust others. The sociopath manipulates this capacity to trust, not asking for trust but offering trust as a kind of bait. A bait and switch. It initially appears that trust offered will be reciprocated in a long term process of mutuality. But trust offered by the con is a lure, a seduction.

Once the trust is achieved, the liar/sociopath/criminal manipulator brings in the greed. The greed was not part of the deal in the beginning. Trust is then mixed with the idea of being rewarded for being good, which is not inherently wrong or immoral. The criminal plays on the sense of urgency and the possibility that the mark might earn EASY money, which is a classic human fantasy, finding buried treasure, finding something valuable, happening on money, a real pearl necklace.

I think there are a bunch of neurochemicals at play in this. Oxytocin is the lead in. but then there are adrenalin and maybe dopamine too with the high felt with the thought of the reward or easy money.

What is awful about this is that it corrupts something meaningful in human beings, the need and beauty of trust, so that people walk away feeling like they can trust nobody.

what fool would be taken in by a two dollar pearl necklace?

There are amazing jewelry fakes out there. I found a beautiful ring in a public bathroom and was sure it was gold with a honking diamond. It had 18k HGE on the inside. Googled HGE, the ring's value is $12. max. There are imitation pearl necklaces of glass, made by in China and Japan that look and feel amazingly like real pearls.

The pigeon drop con seems similar to the subprime mortgage fiasco. When there is a cascade of no trust, this can literally impact the globe.
posted by nickyskye at 10:40 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm living proof that honest people can be conned. A dude in a wheelchair rolled up to my home one day asking for donations to some charity, saying that he'd write me a tax receipt right there. My first impulse is usually to help people, so I gave him a twenty and he gave me an official looking receipt with a charity number on it and everything. A while after he left I figured I'd check the veracity of the receipt, and sure enough, "No Such Charity." I did more digging, finally called the cops, and they told me the guy had been operating in the area and that I wasn't the only person to have been swindled.

So now I don't even give people in wheelchairs the benefit of the doubt, and if I ever see that guy again, wheelchair or not, I'm going to punch him really hard in the mouth.
posted by illiad at 11:58 AM on November 16, 2008


So now I don't even give people in wheelchairs the benefit of the doubt

See, this is how one criminal sets up a cascade of distrust. I think the lesson is not that people in wheelchairs are untrustworthy but that one person in a wheelchair was untrustworthy once. Be cautious but don't close your heart.

I'm going to punch him really hard in the mouth.

Over 20 bucks?! yikes. What will you do to the government that has just taken our country for 700 billion?

It is a risk giving to strangers, not knowing if they are really in the need that one hopes the money will fulfill that purpose. Will the dollar go towards food or heroin? It's a risk. It's a risk paying taxes, not knowing what will be done with the money. As one gets older and has made risks that have failed, imo, one learns to assess the risk better. But it's still a calculated risk.

Trust is something I think of as earned over time. In a con it's something that is asked for too early, too fast.
posted by nickyskye at 12:29 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Be cautious but don't close your heart.

I didn't mean to imply I would suddenly turn into a cynical, curmudgeonly asshole. That's not in my nature. I'll just be a lot more cautious all around, and when someone approaches me in a wheelchair asking for something, I'm not going to assume they're any more trustworthy than someone who can walk. Which is the rational approach anyway, and I was foolish (but human) for not doing that in the first place.

Over 20 bucks?! yikes.

No, over abusing my trust. It could've been fifty cents or five hundred dollars and I'd still be similarly pissed. I guess I don't much like people who have no problem with betraying the good nature of others for their own gain.
posted by illiad at 12:40 PM on November 16, 2008


abusing my trust. It could've been fifty cents or five hundred dollars and I'd still be similarly pissed.

Proportion?
posted by nickyskye at 2:03 PM on November 16, 2008


I was conned once while working at the big retail store that everyone hates because it has destroyed small town America. I was working in electronics and the store was taken for around $400 in merchandise that day.

I have this problem. I'm not an overly friendly person. In fact, I hate to socialize. I'm shy and I don't really like people. When I was working in retail, I had to work very hard to be friendly. It would take an extraordinary amount of thought and control to make myself smile and chat with the customers.

So here I am, ringing up this lady's merchandise. I'm being polite and talking with her. Small talk. Talk about her grandchildren, her children. She seemed nice I guess. I'm concentrating hard on making myself sociable and doing the task at hand. Hard.

She pulls out a check. Signs it. I run it through the machine that reads the account and routing number. Approved. Yay! I'm about to run it through the printer. "Uh, excuse me young man, I made a mistake on that check. Do you mind if I sign another?" Sure. I take the other check and run it through the printer. "Have a nice day, ma'am!"

A few days later, "Robert, do you remember this transaction for $400 on so and so day?" Ding! A light bulb goes off in my head. It was so obvious what had happened. I sang like a canary and offered to pay soulless corporation back.

Luckily, soulless corporation wasn't completely soulless. That would have taken at least a year to pay back at the wages they paid.

So what did I learn? 1) Don't accept a separate check after reading another one without canceling and reading the new check. That seems obvious now, but to a 17 year old me it wasn't. 2) Don't be so nice and trusting towards people. She might have been a nice lady, but she was a thief. 3) Always wear clean underwear and matching socks. On the surface this has nothing to do with scams, but what if the con had gone bad and the lady pulled a knife and stabbed me and I had to go to the hospital?

So yeah, I was scammed once. Embarrassingly. It was so obvious and yet it still happened. I don't think I was being greedy. I was trying to do my job. "You can't con an honest man" is bullshit.
posted by robtf3 at 2:04 PM on November 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


Don't be so nice and trusting towards people. She might have been a nice lady, but she was a thief.

See, what I learn from this video is not to be less trusting but to be better informed. As the truism goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I 'd prefer not to become either violent, suffer from all-pervasive distrust and bitterness but learn to be able to pinpoint the strategy of those who are criminally minded and skillfully avoid them when possible.

That store should have educated you to the typical scams they know full well about.

As a street vendor I've had to handle thieves on occasion. I preferred to offer trust to my customers because that invited goodwill and business. Once in a while a kid, a junkie or klepto has stolen from me. I've always just said to myself, "I've just paid a little extra taxes."
posted by nickyskye at 2:26 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Neuroeconomics is the biggest con of all. Marketing has a bad name, so lets concoct a new pseudoscience relating to advertising, call it neuroeconomics, and tell consumers about it. This way, we can convince them that poor spending habits and consumption decisions are "neuroeconomically" valid.
posted by Pastabagel at 4:29 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Marketing has a bad name, so lets concoct a new pseudoscience relating to advertising, call it neuroeconomics, and tell consumers about it. This way, we can convince them that poor spending habits and consumption decisions are "neuroeconomically" valid.

Bass ackwards. On the one hand Zak is interested in Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy and on the other the strategists studying are observing how people buy and being more cunning in marketing. From one of the papers on Neuroeconomic Studies pdf]:

Underneath its mathematical sophistication, economics is fundamentally the study of human behavior.

"While most economists will not contribute to the neuroeconomics literature, we contend that most economists should be reading these studies."


Department stores will probably be offering free massages and foot rubs as one walks in the door to induce buying and maybe that will be the pre-economic summit oxytocin elevating trick. Get the people attending to go to a spa first.
posted by nickyskye at 5:27 PM on November 16, 2008


Well, in this case that is true. At what point would a greedy, non-altruistic bastard fail to fall for it (assuming he is no more thoughtful or observant than his friendly counterpart)? See the Pigeon Drop in House of Games for a version with no trust in it whatsoever.

Wouldn't a greedy, non-altruistic bastard have simply said: "Split the reward? No way! If I'm going to have to hang around waiting for this guy, I want the entire reward!"
posted by Ritchie at 6:11 PM on November 16, 2008


Yeah, I wouldn't have fallen for that.

but only because I would have taken the "money" out of the envelope to count them and make sure we got an exact three-way split
posted by ymgve at 7:41 PM on November 16, 2008


Another example of a popular scam that preys on altruism (i.e Honest Johns) rather than greed. The famous bank inspector ploy - elderly woman gets a call from a bank inspector, they're trying to track down fraud at her bank branch and they need the elderly person's help. They ask her for her name, account number and all the other necessary information or alternately, they get her to go to the bank and withdraw the cash for them. They tell her not to mention this to anyone because it's a hush-hush investigation....etc.
posted by storybored at 8:17 PM on November 16, 2008


In my younger days, I was talked into giving a guy a little money -- I think it was five or ten bucks, but I can't remember the amount now -- based only on his sad tale of needing gas money to get home.

I did this exact same thing too. It was a parking garage, he was well-dressed, he pretended he couldn't find his way to the bus station which was attached, I took him there in my car (he sort of hinted that maybe I could give him a quick ride). On the way he said something silly about how he had no cash to get home. Being young and naive I responded to the prompts -- is there any way I can help? Well sure, if you lend me some I'll mail it back to you. Gosh, thanks, you've really saved me. You're so generous.

I wasn't greedy, but I was feeling proud of myself for being so nice and generous, and he definitely played off of that. There's nothing wrong with helping someone in need, but if I hadn't been so keen to play good Samaritan I would have realized that someone dressed as well as him has a wallet with a credit with which he can buy his own damned bus ticket.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:35 PM on November 16, 2008


I wasn't greedy, but I was feeling proud of myself for being so nice and generous, and he definitely played off of that.

Certainly. It feels good to do good, and it's easy to do good when it isn't costing you anything: helping an old lady across the street, say, or pushing a car out of a snow drift, or loaning an unlucky guy a few bucks that he's going to mail right back to you.
posted by pracowity at 12:48 AM on November 17, 2008


And then there was the Schwarzenegger chimney con in which Arnold and his buddy would go around and tell people that they would test people's chimneys and his partner would go up and push them over and then they would repair them. He laughed about it on the Tonight Show. I don't think the old ladies who were their victims should feel guilty for being trusting. No one is smart enough to anticipate every form of graft that exists in the world and being suspicious of everyone sucks.

You may be deceived if you trust too much, but you will live in torment if you don't trust enough. -Frank Crane
posted by Bitter soylent at 1:43 AM on November 17, 2008


I think his conclusion is completely wrong. That con didn't work because the conman showed he trusted the kid. It worked because the kid was greedy. If he hadn't wanted the money, and just said, "How about you come back for the money later?" the con wouldn't have worked.

You can't con an honest John.
posted by emyd at 12:52 AM on November 16 [+] [!]


I happened to disprove this thirty years ago.

I was studying acting at the Juilliard school, living at the Beacon Hotel at 75th and Broadway. It was a Friday evening and I had just withdrawn a fat $20 for my weekly expenses. Walking by a cafe I was stopped by a youngish black man with a thick accent asking for help to get to a hotel that was supposed to be around there. Apparently I wasn't swift enough because he quickly enlisted the aid of a middle aged man who pointed out to us that we were not going to find the "Dom Bel Hotel" anywhere.

The young man had apparently left his luggage with some helpful person at the Port Authority- the same person who had sent him to the smart person's hotel. He flashed this hugh wad of cash, perhaps four inches thick with some hugh bill showing. The elder quickly got him to get it back out of sight and suggested he needed to put it in a safe place while he and the younger went to see if they could retrieve his luggage. Since I lived nearby and the banks were closed it seemed that my place might do it.

I can still remember the look on the younger's face when the elevator started to move. "Ever been in an elevator before?" asked the elder. Head shake. After some discussion it was determined that under the mattress was probably the safe place. "Where do you keep your extra cash?" "Well, the bank." The younger was a little nervous about leaving his cash all alone under a mattress so we wrapped my twenty around the outside before the elder threw it under the mattress. They wanted me to come down to the street to see them off.

I spent a couple of hours waiting for them to come back before I pulled back the mattress and pulled out a big fat roll of newspaper. I comforted myself with the thought that they had worked as hard as they had for only $20. Better than minimum wage, but still. I thought the younger was a hell of an actor. But mostly I felt incredibly violated. And stupid. A while later I saw "The Sting" and thought I could have saved myself $20 if I had seen it when it first ran.
posted by pointilist at 10:55 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


The younger was a little nervous about leaving his cash all alone under a mattress so we wrapped my twenty around the outside before the elder threw it under the mattress.

Amazing what people can convince us to go along with, eh?
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:30 PM on November 17, 2008


That's one of the places feeling stupid attaches.
posted by pointilist at 1:42 PM on November 17, 2008


ouch.
posted by nickyskye at 5:49 PM on November 18, 2008


I don't think I was being greedy. I was trying to do my job. "You can't con an honest man" is bullshit.
posted by robtf3 at 4:04 PM on November 16


The "greed" in that situation was just laziness. I worked retail at 17 also, and calling the customer service manager to void a transaction always was an unpleasant experience. So, instead of doing it the "right" way, you just said "let it slide" and went about your day.

If you had followed procedure it would have been impossible to have scammed you.

Same goes for the making change scam. Even if the clerk sucks at math, if they follow procedure they can't get scammed.
posted by Ynoxas at 7:59 PM on December 4, 2008


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