What is The Con about?

The Con is a revealing look at scams told through the compelling stories of ordinary people. A mother receives a phone call saying her soldier son has been injured in Iraq. A reunion of high school classmates ends in a hospital room in Thailand. A college student finds the perfect part-time job. A prospective tenant responds to a couple’s online classified ad. A man exchanges instant messages with an old friend in trouble. A company in Texas creates a miracle weight loss powder. An office worker returning from his lunch break finds a lost wallet. 

The circumstances vary greatly, but in each case, the intended consequence was the same—to swindle someone. The book goes behind the scenes of real-world cons to examine the logistics and psychology that enable scams to succeed.

What motivated you to write a book on scams?

James Munton: I have an interest in deception dating back to my childhood in London, England. While other children played soccer in the park, I watched local hustlers in the West End performing classic street cons such as the three-card monte and rocks in a box. Both magicians and con artists employ skills such as sleight of hand, misdirection, and storytelling, although for very different purposes. Scam victims suffer terrible financial, emotional, and psychological distress, and yet people think it could never happen to them. 

Jelita McLeod: I have firsthand experience of identity theft, and I know what it’s like to have that sick feeling in your stomach when you realize what’s happened. As we talked to more and more people, we discovered that nearly everyone has a scam story to tell, something that happened to them or someone they know. We wanted to help people develop an internal early warning system that would alert them to the signs of a con immediately and instinctively. As a magician, James is already well versed in the elements of deception and the psychology that goes into perpetrating an illusion.

What is the goal of The Con?

The goal is to help people understand and recognize deception, and in the same way that they avoid other potentially dangerous situations, take a detour. Scams differ from other crimes in that they usually require a degree of consent on the part of the victim in order to succeed. The con relies on a victim agreeing to hand over money, share personal information, or otherwise contribute to his or her own fleecing. Consequently, many people feel they are partially to blame for their own misfortune. This is the bad news. The good news is that it also means, if spotted in time, the vast majority of scams are avoidable. 

How widespread is the problem of fraud?

  • The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that more than 30 million Americans a year fall victim to fraud, with nearly 50 million reported incidents of consumer fraud. 
  • Americans are 40 times more likely to be defrauded than to have their cars stolen or their homes burgled. 
  • A 2010 identity theft survey conducted by Javelin Strategy and Research revealed that 11 million Americans were victims of identity theft, to the tune of $54 billion. 
  • The American Bankers Association reports increases in nearly every area of fraud covered in its annual survey, including more than 760,000 cases of check fraud and debit card fraud totaling $788 million.
  • The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National White Collar Crime Center, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, solicits complaints in the area of cybercrime. In its most recent annual Internet Crime Report, IC3 noted that complaint submissions had increased by more than 22 percent, with losses reported at nearly $560 million.

Why don’t people take it more seriously?

Scams are still often viewed as peripheral crimes. Becoming a victim of fraud doesn’t seem as scary as being mugged. There’s usually no sense of immediate danger or a threat to physical safety. Con artists target their victims in a myriad of ways. Unlike the mugger, whose strategy will generally involve approaching a victim, demanding money, perhaps brandishing a weapon, the scammer will employ stealth tactics, duplicity, disguise, whatever it takes to lower your defenses. 

In most cases, a scam is not immediately identifiable as a crime. The con can take the form of a business proposal, a romantic relationship, or an urgent appeal. It may come camouflaged as good news or the very worst news. And unlike a physical attack, victims may not even realize a crime has been committed until long after the swindle has taken place. Similarly, scammers themselves do not fit any single demographic profile. 

Many are under the mistaken assumption that scams are somehow “victimless” crimes if the individuals targeted are not held liable for the monetary losses or if they receive restitution from the criminals.

What are the telltale signs of a scam?

Scams come in all shapes and sizes, but there are central elements that are common to most cons. Warning signs include:

  • High-pressure sales tactics.
  • A push to act quickly.
  • Secrecy.
  • Request to wire money.
  • Request for personal information.
  • Promise of large rewards.
  • Absence of sound documentation and verification.

What can people do to protect themselves?
There is a lot we can do to reduce our chances of being conned. Consistency is essential because scammers can infiltrate from a number of different directions. Having an expensive alarm system in your home is not going to help you if the back door is left wide open. 

Fortify: Protect your personal information and assets fiercely. Con artists will take the path of least resistance, so you can help to ensure that you are not an easy target by installing several layers of security between you and the potential perpetrator. This means keeping valuables (information and possessions) under lock and key or on your person. It means practicing safe computing, being guarded about what information you make available publicly, 

Identify: Make sure you know who you’re dealing with. Con artists are master impersonators. They are brazen and bold and convincing. They may look and sound the part. They may have identification and papers and say all the right things. That doesn’t mean they are legitimate. Although it may be uncomfortable to question someone’s credibility, you should always delay action until you confirm his or her identity through independent means. 

Verify: Scams are loosely constructed and will collapse under scrutiny. Sometimes it will take nothing more than a quick web search to determine whether something is phony. Other times, verification will require more work. Never accept on blind faith anything you are told, even if it sounds good. The key to sound verification is to go directly to the source. For example, if you get an e-mail from your bank saying that your account has been compromised, call your bank – using a number from your statement or ATM card. Skepticism can be a powerful form of self-defense. Exercise it often.


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