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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Do You Think You Con Trust Me?

This weekend, my roommate went to Vegas, and accidentally made out with a prostitute. Well, that was his initial impression at least. Frankly, no matter how the particular woman in question made her living, the fact of the matter is that my roommate had been conned by her, and she almost got away with it too. At the end of the day, he was flat-out lucky to get away with his life.

The word “conned” is an interesting case study in the nature of linguistic evolution, especially since it is a fairly recent contrivance. In the same way that the word “Cops” comes from the old synecdoche moniker of calling policemen “coppers” in reference to the copper badges they wore, the word “con” has become an entirely new word of its own, despite its etymological foundation in the word “confidence.” The history of the word’s derivation goes back to 1849, when an American by the name of William Thompson went up to strangers on the street, asked them if they had the confidence to lend him their watches—then promptly walked off with them, never to return. When Thompson was finally caught, the newspaper stories called him “the confidence man,” and suddenly a new category of idioms were born into the English language lexicon.

Of course, confidence tricks (also known as known as a bunko, con, flim flam, gaffle, grift, hustle, scam, scheme, swindle or bamboozle) have been around for as long as people gave organized themselves in social systems based on trust, because it is this very trust that the con artist exploits. The range of schemes that con artists throughout history have come up with is as varied as the individuals who performed them—you’ve got everything from the basic rigged card game that was so popular amongst the cowboys of the Wild West, to extraordinary tall tales that seem to have been based on the idea that the more unbelievable a story, the more likely it is that someone will actually believe it.

There was a man in Czech Republic who managed to “sell” the Eiffel Tower two different times before being arrested, a Scotsman who sold real-estate deeds for would-be settlers of the non-existent country of “Poyais,” and very recently there was the wide-spread “Nigerian Prince” e-mail scam, in which a supposed Prince of an African nation needed only your bank account information in order to “deposit” a large sum of undisclosed money for “safe-keeping.” Most recently in the news was Bernie Madoff, a former chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange who pleaded guilty to running a world-record $65 billion Ponzi scheme.

One of the most famous con men of the early 20th century, Joseph Weil, explained that confidence tricks are designed to exploit typical human qualities such as greed, dishonesty, vanity, honesty, compassion, credulity and naïveté. The common factor is that the mark relies on the good faith of the con artist.

“Each of my victims had larceny in his heart," said Weil. "The desire to get something for nothing has been very costly to many people who have dealt with me and with other con men. But I have found that this is the way it works. The average person, in my estimation, is ninety-nine per cent animal and one per cent human. The ninety-nine per cent that is animal causes very little trouble. But the one per cent that is human causes all our woes. When people learn–as I doubt they will–that they can't get something for nothing, crime will diminish and we shall live in greater harmony."

As for my roommate, he said that another factor aiding the con that was almost pulled on him was inebriation. After meeting a very pretty and shy girl in a club, he realized something was wrong when her personality took a 180 degree turn as they got to his room, and this conservative-seeming girl suddenly wanted nothing more than to do everything that a conservative-seeming girl isn’t supposed to do. Realizing that everything about the situation was just a little too-good-to-be-true, he suddenly pulled away from the girl and stared at her, asking, “none of this is real, is it?”

When her expression suddenly soured and turned vehemently bitter, he suddenly recalled that the girl had initially been insisting that they go to “her place” which was way out on the outskirts of Vegas in a very shady part of town. As she began gathering her clothes and cussing him out, he also noticed that, while entering the room, she had discretely latched the door of his room to leave it open. Perhaps her plan was to call a friend later and to have my roommate robbed blind in his sleep?

We’ll never know for sure, but the whole incident left him very dazed and confused for quite a few days after the incident, not really quite sure how something like this had happened to him. But that’s exactly the sign of a good con—build up a strong sense that a false reality is true in order to use it as a distraction to rip someone off. By the way, none of this story actually happened to my roommate, who has never even been to Vegas before, and while you were distracted by reading this, I snuck up behind you and stole your wallet.

--Paul Beckwith

2 Comments:

Anonymous Ian Johnson said...

I've been conned!

Great posting, Paul.

March 10, 2010 at 1:48 AM  
Anonymous Ian Johnson said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

March 10, 2010 at 1:48 AM  

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