(Last Updated On: December 9, 2023)

The Forever Con Artist – A World History Of Deception

Author:
•  Tim McGuinness, Ph.D. – Anthropologist, Scientist, Director of the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc.

The Forever Con Artist – A Journey Through Time

Unveiling the History of Con Men and Women – Understanding That Scams Have Always Been With Us!

The Forever Con Artist has always been something that interested me as an Anthropologist, Archaeologist, and Historian. While working on archeological projects in Mesoamerica and South America, I have always been fascinated by each culture’s tricksters and how ubiquitous they always were. I have often wondered to what extend scammers or fraudsters or tricksters were in the ancient world, because they are not a new phenomenon. Scams, fraud, and cons have always been with us – even animals are capable of pulling them off.

So much of the media is gushing about how these crimes are new and how scammers have only recently learned how to deceive their victims, when in reality the ability to deceive and be deceived is wired into our brains and DNA. It is nothing new. In fact, animals are also very good at deception and be deceived too, and interestingly they react in similar ways to humans.

To make this point, here is a brief history of scams, fraud, cons, and deceptions through time – what I call “the Forever Con.”

Author’s Note

This editorial is not about glorifying these criminals, nor is it to treat lightly the impact they have on their victims. Con men/women are murderers, they are rapists, they perpetrate some of the most unspeakable crimes for personal gain. But it is important to understand that this is not new, and in order to address the problem we cannot lose sight of the history of our civilization, both in what gives rise to them, and what controls and limits them. After all, without common honesty, integrity, and working for the common good we would have no civilization at all. Scammers are a virus, that we develop a civilization immunity against and then lose it from time to time. Right now, we have lost our immunity to this plague.

This article is not going to be all-inclusive, there is just to much to cover at one time, but this will give the reader an broad understanding to counter the media hype that this is all some new phenomenon.

The Psychology of Deception: Understanding the Art of the Con

Con artists are masters of human psychology, adept at manipulating emotions and exploiting vulnerabilities. They carefully study their targets, identifying their desires, fears, and weaknesses (vulnerabilities.) By playing on these emotions, con artists can gain the trust and cooperation of their victims, making them more susceptible to deception.

Con artists are not mere tricksters; they are masters of human psychology, adept at exploiting the inherent vulnerabilities that make us human. Their success hinges on their ability to understand and manipulate the cognitive, emotional, and social aspects of our being.

Cognitive Biases: The Achilles’ Heel of Human Judgment

Humans are susceptible to a range of cognitive biases, mental shortcuts that can lead to flawed decision-making. Con artists exploit these biases to their advantage, creating illusions and manipulating perceptions to deceive their victims.

  • Confirmation bias: We tend to seek and favor information that confirms our existing beliefs, making us more susceptible to con artists who tailor their messages to align with our existing views.
  • Scarcity bias: We place greater value on limited or scarce resources, making us more likely to fall for con artists who create a sense of urgency or exclusivity.
  • Authority bias: We tend to trust and obey figures of authority, making us more susceptible to con artists who pose as experts or professionals.

Emotional Appeals: Tapping into the Human Condition (the Amygdala Strikes Again!)

Con artists understand the power of emotions and use them to manipulate their victims. They create emotional narratives that evoke feelings of fear, sympathy/empathy, or greed, clouding judgment and making individuals more susceptible to deception. [See our numerous articles on the Psychology of Scams to learn more how this works.]

  • Fear appeals: Con artists play on our fears of loss, financial ruin, or personal harm to compel us to act without rational thought.
  • Sympathy appeals: Con artists evoke feelings of pity or compassion to gain our trust and extract money or favors.
  • Greed appeals: Con artists exploit our desire for wealth, power, or status by offering promises of quick and easy gains.

Social Dynamics: The Power of Influence

Con artists are skilled social engineers, adept at manipulating social dynamics to their advantage. They create illusions of group consensus, exploit social hierarchies, and establish rapport to gain the trust and cooperation of their victims.

  • Group consensus: Con artists create a false sense of agreement or approval, making individuals more likely to conform and accept their claims.
  • Social hierarchies: Con artists exploit power dynamics, posing as insiders or experts to gain credibility and influence.
  • Rapport building: Con artists establish a sense of connection and trust, making individuals more receptive to their suggestions.

The Art of Deception – A Short History of the Con!

The art of deception, as old as humanity itself, has existed in various forms throughout history. From the cunning tricksters of ancient civilizations to the sophisticated scammers of the modern era, con men and women have consistently exploited human vulnerabilities for personal gain.

We explore the intriguing history of these masters of manipulation.

Ancient Egypt: The Cradle of Deception

In the cradle of civilization, ancient Egypt, con artists thrived amidst the bustling marketplaces and opulent temples. They employed a repertoire of tricks, from sleight of hand to elaborate schemes, to deceive unsuspecting individuals. One notorious scam involved selling fake amulets, promising protection from evil spirits but delivering nothing but empty hope.

Ancient Egypt, a land of towering pyramids, enigmatic hieroglyphs, and a rich cultural heritage, also harbored a thriving underbelly of deception. From the bustling marketplaces of Memphis to the opulent temples of Thebes, con artists thrived, exploiting the vulnerabilities of the populace for personal gain.

The Art of Misdirection

Egyptian con artists were masters of misdirection, employing sleight of hand, elaborate schemes, and a deep understanding of human psychology to deceive their unsuspecting victims. One common scam involved using mirrors to create false reflections of gold coins or precious stones, luring unsuspecting buyers into parting with their hard-earned money.

The Lure of Fake Relics

Religious fervor and the belief in the supernatural provided fertile ground for con artists in ancient Egypt. They capitalized on the deep-seated reverence for gods and goddesses, selling fake amulets, charms, and even mummified animals, promising protection, prosperity, or even immortality.

Fraudulent Oracles and Sham Healers

Oracles, believed to possess divine knowledge, were often targeted by con artists. Posing as oracles, they would deliver false prophecies or offer dubious remedies, exploiting the hopes and fears of those seeking guidance or healing.

The Papyrus Trap

Papyrus, the versatile writing material of ancient Egypt, was also a tool for deception. Con artists would create forged documents, such as legal contracts or love letters, to trick their victims into handing over money or property.

Rome: The Masterminds of Deception

As the Roman Empire rose to prominence, so did the sophistication of con artists. They skillfully navigated the complex social hierarchies and exploited the greed and ambition of the wealthy elite. One infamous scam involved selling fake land titles, leaving unsuspecting buyers with worthless plots.

As the Roman Empire grew into a vast and powerful civilization, so did the sophistication of its con artists. They thrived amidst the bustling cities, imperial courts, and far-flung provinces, exploiting the greed, ambition, and superstitions of the populace.

Masters of Manipulation

Roman con artists were masters of manipulation, adept at understanding and exploiting human psychology. They carefully studied their targets, identifying their desires, fears, and weaknesses. By playing on these emotions, con artists could gain the trust and cooperation of their victims, making them more susceptible to deception.

Elaborate Schemes and Calculated Risks

Roman con artists were not mere tricksters; they were orchestrators of elaborate schemes that required planning, cunning, and a calculated understanding of risk. They would carefully construct their narratives, using props, costumes, and false identities to create a convincing illusion of legitimacy.

Exploiting the Greed and Ambition of the Elite

The Roman Empire’s vast wealth and social hierarchies provided ample opportunities for con artists to exploit the greed and ambition of the wealthy elite. They would pose as wealthy merchants, offer lucrative investment opportunities, or sell forged land titles, enticing their targets with promises of quick riches and social advancement.

Capitalizing on Religious Superstitions

Religious beliefs and superstitions were deeply ingrained in Roman society, providing fertile ground for con artists. They would pose as priests, sell fake relics, or offer bogus prophecies, exploiting the hopes, fears, and desire for divine favor among the populace.

The Rise of Counterfeiting

As the Roman economy flourished, so did the art of counterfeiting. Con artists would create fake coins, jewelry, and even works of art, passing them off as genuine to unsuspecting buyers. These forgeries were often so skillfully crafted that they were difficult to detect, making them a lucrative source of illicit income.

Ancient Greece: A Crucible of Deception

Amidst the splendor of ancient Greece, where philosophy, art, and democracy flourished, a parallel world of deception thrived. Con artists, exploiting the vulnerabilities of human nature, found fertile ground in the bustling marketplaces, vibrant ports, and sacred temples. From elaborate schemes to subtle trickery, these masters of manipulation left an indelible mark on Greek history.

Masters in Understanding

As the Ancient Greek master philosophers were exploring our understanding of the universe their darker side of this enlightenment was also expanding the fraudsters understanding of the human mind.

The Art of Misdirection

Greek con artists were masters of misdirection, employing sleight of hand, elaborate narratives, and a deep understanding of human psychology to deceive their unsuspecting victims. One common scam involved luring unsuspecting pilgrims on trips to see the gods, but along the way forcing them into parting with their hard-earned money.

Exploiting Human Vulnerabilities

Con artists in ancient Greece were adept at exploiting the range of human emotions and motivations. They preyed on fear, greed, ambition, and superstition, crafting schemes that appealed to the deepest desires and anxieties of their victims.

  • Fear: False oracles, promising divine guidance, would exploit people’s fear of the unknown, offering prophecies and remedies that often led to misfortune.
  • Greed: Cunning merchants would pose as traders selling exotic goods or promising lucrative investments, enticing individuals with the prospect of quick riches.
  • Ambition: Politicians and generals would employ elaborate schemes to gain influence and power, manipulating the masses through propaganda and deception.
  • Superstition: Con artists would capitalize on the widespread belief in supernatural powers, selling fake relics, charms, and amulets, promising protection, prosperity, or even immortality.

Notable Examples of Greek Deception

Ancient Greek history is replete with tales of infamous con artists who left a lasting impact. Here are a few notable examples:

  • Hegestratos: A sea merchant who attempted to defraud his insurance company by sinking his own ship and claiming the cargo as lost at sea. His plan was foiled by his crew, who alerted the authorities.
  • Phormio: A ship captain who repeatedly claimed his vessel had been damaged or sunk during voyages, only to have his claims exposed as fraudulent.
  • Zenothemis: Another ship captain who attempted to defraud his insurance company by orchestrating a mock shipwreck, but his plan was thwarted when the supposedly sunken vessel was discovered intact.

China: The Masters of Misdirection

In the vast and diverse land of China, con artists developed a unique blend of trickery and psychological manipulation. They employed subtle cues and persuasive tactics to gain the trust of their victims before executing their schemes. One common scam involved posing as government officials, extorting money from unsuspecting merchants (the birth of the protection racket.)

China, a land steeped in rich traditions and intricate customs, has also harbored a long and enduring history of deception. From the bustling marketplaces of ancient dynasties to the modern metropolises of today, con artists have thrived, exploiting the vulnerabilities of the populace for personal profit.

Masters of Subterfuge and Subtlety

Chinese con artists are renowned for their mastery of subterfuge and subtlety. After all, what we think of today as stage magic originated in China. They employ a blend of misdirection, psychological manipulation, and sophisticated techniques to deceive their unsuspecting victims. Their schemes often rely on cultural nuances, social hierarchies, and deep-seated beliefs to create an illusion of legitimacy and trust.

Capitalizing on Cultural Norms and Superstitions

Chinese culture, with its emphasis on filial piety, respect for authority, and belief in the supernatural, has provided fertile ground for con artists to exploit. They pose as elders or officials, capitalize on reverence for ancestral traditions, or sell fake relics or charms, taking advantage of the populace’s desire for harmony, prosperity, and spiritual protection.

The Art of Counterfeiting and Forgery

Counterfeiting and forgery have long been a hallmark of Chinese con artistry. Skilled artisans have produced replicas of everything from precious metals and gemstones to artwork and ancient artifacts, deceiving collectors, merchants, and even emperors. The sophistication of these forgeries has often made them indistinguishable from the originals, highlighting the cunning and skill of Chinese con artists. At one time there was a thriving market for dragon’s teeth – of course, they were fake, but belief was more powerful than caution.

The Rise of Modern Scams and Frauds

In the modern era, Chinese con artists have adapted their methods to keep pace with technological advancements and the complexities of modern society. They utilize sophisticated phishing scams, elaborate investment schemes, and online identity theft, exploiting the vulnerabilities of individuals who rely on digital technology for communication, transactions, and personal information management. In short, not much has changed, just the ways con artists reach their victims.

The Middle Ages: The Rise of Religious Scams

During the Middle Ages, religious fervor provided fertile ground for con artists. They exploited the deep-seated beliefs of the populace, posing as holy men or selling false relics to extract money from the faithful. Con artists, exploiting the deep-seated beliefs and anxieties of the populace, devised elaborate schemes and manipulated religious sentiments for personal advantage. One particularly notorious scam involved selling indulgences, promising remission of sins in exchange for hefty payments.

Fake Relics and Indulgences

The veneration of saints and relics played a significant role in medieval society. Con artists capitalized on this devotion by selling fake relics, claiming they possessed miraculous powers or offered protection from harm. They would forge documents authenticating the relics, creating elaborate narratives to enhance their authenticity. There was, and still is, a thriving business in the bones of saints and even wood splinters from Christ’s cross.

Indulgences, pardons for sins, were another avenue for deception. Con artists would falsely sell indulgences, promising remission of sins in exchange for payment. They would exploit the fear of purgatory and the desire for spiritual absolution to extract money from the faithful.

False Prophecies and Miracle Performances

Self-proclaimed prophets and miracle workers thrived in the Middle Ages. They would stage elaborate performances, claiming to have divine visions or perform miraculous healings. Their acts would attract large crowds, eager to witness divine intervention. The prophets would then collect offerings or sell amulets, exploiting the credulity of their followers. This is still being down to large audiences around the world today.

Exploitation of Pilgrimages

Pilgrimages to holy sites were a common practice in the Middle Ages. Con artists would target pilgrims, offering them fake guidance, accommodations, or relics. They would often inflate prices, charging exorbitant fees for services or goods, preying on the vulnerability and desperation of pilgrims.

The Cure for the Black Death

Con artists also leveraged the Black Death – Bubonic Plague by offering every manner of fake cures and remedies. Unfortunately, did they not work but their victims tended to die quickly so it was a very profitable business.

The Renaissance: A Golden Age for Con Artists

The Renaissance, an era of intellectual and artistic flourishing, also saw a rise in con artistry. As trade and communication flourished, so did the opportunities for deception. Con artists capitalized on the growing interest in exotic goods, rare artifacts, and the pursuit of knowledge, exploiting the vulnerabilities of individuals seeking wealth, prestige, or intellectual fulfillment.

Fake Treasures and Forged Masterpieces

The Renaissance’s fascination with ancient civilizations and the allure of exotic goods provided a fertile ground for con artists to thrive. They would sell fake artifacts, claiming they were relics from ancient Rome or Greece, deceiving collectors and enthusiasts eager to possess a piece of history.

Masterful forgers would create replicas of renowned paintings and sculptures, passing them off as originals to wealthy patrons and art connoisseurs. Their skill and attention to detail often made it difficult to distinguish between the forgery and the genuine masterpiece, resulting in significant financial losses for unsuspecting buyers.

Elixir of Youth and False Alchemical Promises

The pursuit of immortality and the belief in miraculous transformations fueled the rise of con artists promising elixirs of youth and other alchemical wonders. They would exploit the desire for eternal youth and the allure of wealth to sell concoctions or perform rituals, deceiving individuals desperate for a shortcut to longevity or riches.

Fake Scholars and Charlatans

The Renaissance’s emphasis on learning and intellectual pursuits also attracted con artists posing as scholars or experts. They would offer bogus knowledge, sell forged documents, or claim to possess secret knowledge, exploiting the admiration for learning and the desire for intellectual advancement. This certainly has never stopped!

Notable Examples of Renaissance Con Artists

The Renaissance era produced several infamous con artists who left a lasting mark on history. Here are a few notable examples:

  • Girolamo Cardano: An Italian polymath who claimed to have discovered the secret of immortality, selling elixirs and performing rituals that deceived many.
  • Wolfgang Otto Beyer: A German alchemist who falsely claimed to have transmuted silver into gold, convincing wealthy investors to fund his fraudulent experiments.
  • William Chaloner: A prolific English con artist who forged documents, sold fake paintings, and even posed as a member of the English aristocracy, deceiving numerous individuals.
  • Christopher Columbus: you might even says that the ‘discoverer’ of the Americas was a con artist, since he had no idea what he was doing or where he was going when he sold the whole thing to the King and Queen of Spain. Fortunately for him, he was lucky!
  • Leonardo da Vinci: Some hint that he was also a master forger, and many of his commissions for inventions never were realized. Was this a failure of research and development or a con game? We may never know.

The Modern Era: The Evolution of Con Games

In the modern era, con artistry has evolved to adapt to the complexities of our ever-changing world. Scammers have embraced technology, utilizing sophisticated methods such as phishing scams and online investment frauds to target unsuspecting individuals. The rise of social media has also provided new avenues for deception, with scammers creating fake profiles to gain the trust of their victims.

The modern era has witnessed a remarkable evolution of con games, driven by technological advancements, globalization, and the complexities of contemporary society. Con artists have adapted their methods to exploit the same human vulnerabilities of individuals as did the ancients but now who rely on digital technology, global connectivity, and the intricacies of financial markets.

The Rise of Technology-Driven Scams

The advent of the internet and widespread adoption of digital technologies have opened up new avenues for con artists. They utilize sophisticated phishing scams, online investment frauds, and identity theft schemes, exploiting the digital footprints and online interactions of unsuspecting individuals.

  • Phishing scams: Con artists send deceptive emails or messages, masquerading as legitimate organizations, to trick individuals into revealing personal information, such as passwords or financial details.
  • Online investment frauds: Con artists create elaborate websites and investment opportunities, promising high returns with little or no risk, luring individuals to invest their hard-earned money.
  • Identity theft scams: Con artists steal personal information, such as Social Security numbers and credit card details, to open fraudulent accounts, commit financial crimes, or damage an individual’s creditworthiness.

Social Engineering and Manipulation Techniques

Con artists have refined their social engineering techniques, employing psychological manipulation and exploiting human vulnerabilities to achieve their objectives. They carefully study their targets, identifying their motivations, fears, and desires, and tailor their schemes to appeal to these emotions.

  • Fear appeals: Con artists play on the fear of loss, financial ruin, or personal harm to compel individuals to act without rational thought, often using urgency or threats to force compliance.
  • Sympathy appeals: Con artists evoke feelings of pity or compassion to gain trust and extract money or favors, exploiting the desire to help or the fear of appearing heartless.
  • Greed appeals: Con artists exploit the desire for wealth, power, or status by offering promises of quick and easy gains, preying on individuals’ hopes for financial success or social advancement.

Cross-Border Scams and Global Exploitation

Globalization has facilitated the proliferation of cross-border scams, making it easier for con artists to target individuals across different countries and jurisdictions. They utilize international networks, exploit language barriers, and take advantage of differences in legal frameworks to evade detection and prosecution.

  • Romance scams: Con artists create fake online personas and engage in romantic relationships with unsuspecting individuals, often from different countries, building trust and eventually requesting financial assistance or personal information.
  • Investment scams: Con artists target individuals seeking high-yield investment opportunities (such as pig butchering scams,) presenting fraudulent investment schemes that operate across borders, making it difficult for authorities to track and prosecute.
  • Cybercrime: Con artists engage in cybercrime activities, such as hacking, data breaches, and ransomware attacks, targeting individuals and organizations worldwide, exploiting vulnerabilities in digital systems and networks.

Defenses Against Deception: Armoring Yourself Against Con Artists

While con artists are skilled manipulators, there are steps individuals can take to protect themselves from deception. Ironically, these are the same defenses that someone would have used thousands of years ago!

  • Recognize and understand cognitive biases: Be aware of the biases that can influence your judgment and make conscious decisions.
  • Question emotional appeals: Don’t let fear, sympathy, or greed cloud your judgment. Evaluate claims rationally and critically.
  • Be critical of authority figures: Question the credentials and intentions of those who claim expertise. Verify information independently.
  • Seek trusted advice: Consult with friends, family, or professionals before making significant decisions.
  • Trust your instincts but not your emotions: If something feels too good to be true, it probably is. Pay attention to your intuition.

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PLEASE NOTE: Psychology Clarification

The following specific modalities within the practice of psychology are restricted to psychologists appropriately trained in the use of such modalities:

  • Diagnosis: The diagnosis of mental, emotional, or brain disorders and related behaviors.
  • Psychoanalysis: Psychoanalysis is a type of therapy that focuses on helping individuals to understand and resolve unconscious conflicts.
  • Hypnosis: Hypnosis is a state of trance in which individuals are more susceptible to suggestion. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety, depression, and pain.
  • Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a type of therapy that teaches individuals to control their bodily functions, such as heart rate and blood pressure. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including stress, anxiety, and pain.
  • Behavioral analysis: Behavioral analysis is a type of therapy that focuses on changing individuals’ behaviors. It is often used to treat conditions such as autism and ADHD.
    Neuropsychology: Neuropsychology is a type of psychology that focuses on the relationship between the brain and behavior. It is often used to assess and treat cognitive impairments caused by brain injuries or diseases.

SCARS and the members of the SCARS Team do not engage in any of the above modalities in relationship to scam victims. SCARS is not a mental healthcare provider and recognizes the importance of professionalism and separation between its work and that of the licensed practice of psychology.

SCARS is an educational provider of generalized self-help information that individuals can use for their own benefit to achieve their own goals related to emotional trauma. SCARS recommends that all scam victims see professional counselors or therapists to help them determine the suitability of any specific information or practices that may help them.

SCARS cannot diagnose or treat any individuals, nor can it state the effectiveness of any educational information that it may provide, regardless of its experience in interacting with traumatized scam victims over time. All information that SCARS provides is purely for general educational purposes to help scam victims become aware of and better understand the topics and to be able to dialog with their counselors or therapists.

It is important that all readers understand these distinctions and that they apply the information that SCARS may publish at their own risk, and should do so only after consulting a licensed psychologist or mental healthcare provider.

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