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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 21.1 > Cons

Cons

WHENEVER PEOPLE ASK ME IF I’VE EVER BEEN CONNED, I tell them the truth: I have no idea. I’ve never given money to a Ponzi scheme or gotten tripped up on an unwinnable game of three-card monte—that much I know. And there have been some smaller deceptions I’ve certainly fallen for—though whether they qualify as full-fledged cons is a matter of dispute. But here’s the thing about cons: the best of them are never discovered. We don’t ever realize we’ve fallen; we simply write our loss off as a matter of bad luck.

Magicians often resist showing the same trick twice. Once the element of surprise is gone, the audience becomes free to pay attention to everything else—and is thus much more likely to spot the ruse. But the best tricks can be repeated ad infinitum. They are so well-honed that there is practically no deception to spot. Harry Houdini, the magician and famed exposer of frauds, boasted that he could figure out any trick once he’d thrice seen it. One evening at Chicago’s Great Northern Hotel, the story goes, a fellow conjurer, Dai Vernon, approached him with a card trick. Vernon removed a card from the top of the deck and asked Houdini to initial it—an “H.H.” in the corner. The card was then placed in the middle of the deck. Vernon snapped his fingers. It was a miracle. The top card in the deck was now Houdini’s. It was, as the name of the routine suggests, an “ambitious card.” No matter where you put it, it rose to the top. Seven times Vernon demonstrated, and seven times Houdini was stumped. The truly clever trick needs no hiding. (In this case, it was a sleight-of-hand effect that is often performed by skilled magicians today but was, back then, a novelty.)

When it comes to cons, the exact same principle holds. The best confidence games remain below the radar. They are never prosecuted because they are never detected. It’s not uncommon, in fact, for the same person to fall for the exact same con multiple times. James Franklin Norfleet, a Texas rancher, lost first $20,000, and then, in short order, $25,000, to the exact same racket and the exact same gang. He’d never realized the first go-around was a scam.

David Maurer describes one victim who, several years after falling for a well-known wire con—the grifter pretends to have a way of getting race results seconds before they are announced, allowing the mark to place a sure-win bet—spotted his deceivers on the street. He ran toward them. Their hearts sank. Surely, he was going to turn them in. Not at all. He was wondering if he could once more play that game he’d lost at way back when. He was certain that, this time, his luck had turned. The men were only too happy to comply.

Even someone like Bernie Madoff went undetected for at least twenty years. He was seventy when his scheme crumbled. What if he’d died before it blew up? One can imagine a future where his victims would be none the wiser—as long as new investments kept coming in.

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CONFIDENCE SCAMS EXCERPT: The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for it Every Time; ARTICLES: America’s Stonehenge: Did Highly Developed Europeans Build a Sophisticated Astronomical and Religious Monument on the American East Coast More than 3000 Years Ago?; Is It ET?: Is Star KIC 8462852 a Sign of an Extraterrestrial Civilization?; Hurricane Strikes as Divine Retribution—An Empirical Test; Ruins of Empires: Thomas Jefferson, Constantin-Francois Volney, and the Separation of Church and State; Winning the Vaccination War in California; Prophet Without Honor: Francis Galton and the Birth of Behavioral Genetics; When Cops Kill: An Insider’s Perspective; Guns and Games: The Relationship Between Violent Video Games and Gun Crimes in America; More on Morals: On Science and Morality (1) Deontologists are Covert Consequentialists, (2) Expanding Science to Include Morals, (3) Clarifying Confusions; Alligators in the Sewers! COLUMNS: Who’s Crazy Now?: DSM-5 and the Classification of Mental Disorders; The Delicate Dilemma of Defining Rape; REVIEW: Red Team: How To Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy by Micah Zenko reviewed by David Priess; JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Haunted Houses; Earliest Ghost Stories; Ghostly Evolution
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