Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2018 October 03 • Wednesday

Deception, manipulation, distraction, misdirection and outright lying have been around longer than humans have and are never going away. Now that so many people in so many places are virtually connected via ubiquitous electronic devices, the number of opportunities for being fooled, swindled or just plain robbed has increased exponentially.

And there are still plenty of real world pitfalls to avoid, whether they manifest themselves to you as a shell game, a pigeon drop, a jam auction, change raising or some other such scheme.

If those phrases are new to you, I recommend R. Paul Wilson's book The Art of the Con, which is where I learend about them. It's an entertaining and educational guide to various grifts and confidence rackets, most still around today, some offered up for their historical interest and with some special attention paid to how they can flourish in the digital age.

One point that Wilson makes over and over is that he hopes to provide protection to the reader in the form of information. By reading about all these various cons and scams, many of which Wilson pulled off himself for his various series on BBC television—he always gave the money back to the "mark" and explained what happened and why—readers can get an idea of how easy it is to be fooled, how entire phony environments (the "con bubble") can be created to steal money from strangers.

Which is another point. Most con games are like being mugged, just without the violence. But Wilson mentions that if you recognize the con being pulled on you, it's a mistake to try to outsmart the grifters. If you think they're going to be chastened once you reveal that you're smarter than them and you were onto their trick from the start, they might just pull a gun or a knife or beat you up to take your money.

A common criticism Wilson says he faced is that his book is basically an instruction manual for how to cheat people. Certainly he does show how these things work, but he does it for the victims, not the predators. He asserts, and it seems like reasonable enough to me, that con artists already know how to do all this stuff. He learned it from them! Your only defense is knowledge, having a sense of the structure and psychology of these things, so when something doesn't feel right, you'll play it safe. You'll remember that when something seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

And it is fascinating and entertaining reading. One con had a few people set up their own counter and cash register in a large department store and take any customers who would pay cash for whatever they wanted to buy. A few hours in a busy holiday season would make them thousands of dollars and they can just walk away.

Another simple and easy one: pretend to be a parking valet when you're not.

As enjoyable as this book was, I'd recommend it even if it weren't so fun and compelling. No defense is perfect, no security is impregnable, but you can adjust the odds to be more in your favor just by having a sense of what to look out for. You don't have to be paranoid, but just assume that the easy money isn't easy and remember that there are people who will lie to you so they can cheat you and those people have absolutely no problem with that.