July 17, 2002 10:32 AM   Subscribe

Scam: From 1920 to 1933, Oscar Merrill Hartzell bilked thousands and thousands of people out of millions and millions of dollars in the midst of a Great Depression. But when he was forcably returned to the US to face trial, the "common man" hailed him as a hero and savior. As the author of (the highly recommended) Drake's Fortune notes, confidence artists are a perverse echo of the classic Horatio Alger story, as swindlers build wealth by dint of ingenuity, perseverence, and breath-taking chutzpah. Perhaps that is why we love to read books and see films of their exploits. But it doesn't explain why we keep falling for the same ruses over and over again.
posted by Shadowkeeper (6 comments total)
didn't read "Drake's Fortune", but I loved Maurer's The Big Con.
posted by zoopraxiscope at 10:49 AM on July 17, 2002

Perhaps for the same reason men keep falling for cruel but beautiful women?
posted by clevershark at 10:54 AM on July 17, 2002

more good con stuff (here and here) at
posted by judith at 10:54 AM on July 17, 2002

I recently saw a con man on one of the newsmagazines. (I can't find it now.) Experienced in the long con, he managed to snag even Microsoft millionaires into investing in his company, moving from one to the next. On another occasion he went to a second-hand store, bought everything he needed to dress as a Navy officer -- he'd been a cook -- and talked his way onto a San Diego base, where he proceeded to find housing and pretended to be finding investors for a company to get contracts to clean Navy ships. Ah, there's a story here (scroll down); his name is James Rubin Rowe. His interview -- in jail -- was surprisingly candid about his techniques, though one couldn't escape the feeling that his continued exhortations that he'd met the love of his life -- the woman from whose wedding he was snatched by US marshals -- and was going straight this time were all just habit. He described how he acquired a pawned Superbowl ring, then allowed people to believe that by wearing it he was a former NFL pro. In the Seattle scam, he claimed to be a ski inventor and professional ski bum; IIRC he said he actually couldn't ski at all (and he used the name of a dead school friend, claiming in the interview that his parents shouldn't be offended, because he'd be laughing about it all). It really wasn't difficult for this master human behaviorist; he said you figure out who's a good mark by telling them a whopper of a lie at the beginning, and if they swallow it, they're yours.
posted by dhartung at 11:14 AM on July 17, 2002

People love being lied to. <Ï
posted by interrobang at 11:34 AM on July 17, 2002

I like this line from the site you linked to, interrobang: "The rapture is going to be one of the most astonishing events to ever occur." It may not be the most astonishing event, mind you, but it's gonna be right up there with Richard Hatch winning Survivor and the release of Vanilla Coke. Underpromise and overdeliver -- now that's how you run a religion!

There have been at least two occasion in which an orchestrated and refined scam was pulled on me. (By "refined" I mean "More elaborate than than the guy who doesn't really need bus fare hitting me up for a dollar"):
Short Change: I got nailed by a quick-change artist when I was 17 and working as the cashier of a restaurant. A guy comes in and asks me to make change a $20 bill. As soon as I took the bill he began talking a mile a minute about nothing in particular, and after he received his change (a ten, a five and five ones) he suddenly pulled a wad of money out of his coat pocket and said "Shit, I didn't need change after all, I have all these ones in my coat." So he shows me "ten" ones and says, "Here, just give me a $10 bill for these." I give him a $10 bill, he hands me the ones, I count them and find only nine. "I only gave you nine? Well, here," the guy says and hands me another $1 bill. Then he says "Fuck, this is a nightmare. Take back this $10 bill too and just give me my original $20 bill.". I do so, and he leaves while I stand there thinking "waaaaaaaait a minute ...." I had to write all the transactions onto a piece of paper to figure out that I had lost $10.

Wallet Drop: While in Bolivia, I was walking down the street when I see the guy about 20 meters in pull his wallet out of his front pocket. He does something with it (walking all the time), and then goes to shove it back into his pocket -- except it doesn't go it right and falls to the sidewalk. Although I know that a million South American scams start with the classic "dropped wallet maneuver,' instinct forces me to take a few stapes forward with the intent of picking it up. But then I notice some Other Guy standing nearby and looking shifty. "Hey," Other Guy says lamely, "You, uh, oughtta return that." I immediately knew something was up, so I said "you return it," and hightailed it out of there. I suspect the plan was for Other Guy to pick my pocket while I stooped, but I'll (thankfully) never know.

posted by Shadowkeeper at 3:23 PM on July 17, 2002

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