Unlike most kinds of petty crime, a confidence game, or con, takes an enormous amount of skill and forethought to pull off. When done right, in many cases the grifters who perpetrate them have not actually done anything overtly illegal–they’ve simply used lies and manipulation to get their victim, or “mark,” to willingly hand over their own money. Whether blackmail, fraud, or illegal gambling, the following are ten of the most famous ways that these swindlers try to take advantage of the confidence of their unsuspecting victims. Obviously, there are a number of takes on any kind of con, but these are the most popular variations of the most well known tricks.
10. The Embarrassing Check
The embarrassing check con is a well-known means of legally getting money from victims by playing off of their innate feelings of shame. The con men open a fake business with an overtly explicit title that supposedly sells sex toys or other pornographic material, but buyers are told that any purchases they make will be routed through a separate company with a much more innocuous name.
After taking orders and collecting payments, the company then sends out letters explaining that a shipping error or some other issue has made it impossible for them to deliver on their product. They enclose a legitimate check refund, only this time the highly graphic name of the company is clearly emblazoned on the check, the idea of course being that a certain percentage of the customers will be too ashamed or embarrassed to ever cash it.
9. The Fiddle Game
Many of the best cons work because of the inherent greed of the person being tricked, and the fiddle game is one of the best examples. It requires two con men to work, and is designed to take place in a restaurant. One of the con men poses as an old man eating dinner. When he gets his bill, the man approaches the owner and explains that he forgot his wallet back at his hotel. He promises to go get it, and as collateral leaves behind an old fiddle or violin, explaining that he is a traveling musician and that it is his sole source of income.
After the old man leaves, a second con man who has been sitting nearby approaches the owner and asks to see the fiddle, saying that he is a dealer in rare instruments. After inspecting the fiddle, the man pronounces it a highly rare and valuable piece of work, worth thousands of dollars. He then pretends to be in a hurry and leaves, but not before giving the mark his card and telling him to call if the man is interested in selling. The old man will return shortly thereafter with the money for his meal. If the con men have sold the trick well enough, the victim, believing that he will be able to sell it to the fake instrument dealer for a huge profit, will attempt to buy the fiddle off of the old man for a few hundred dollars. Of course, the number on the card will prove to be a fake, and the victim will inevitably be left with a worthless violin.
8. The Pig in a Poke
One of the oldest cons in the book is the so-called “pig in a poke,” which dates back to the Middle Ages. At the time, quality meat was scarce, and pigs and cows were often worth large sums of money. In this particular con, the trickster would offer to sell another person a baby pig, and after receiving the money they would hand over a “poke,” or burlap sack, that clearly had a squirming live animal in it.
If the victim neglected to check inside, they would be surprised when they arrived home to find that the sack contained a cat instead of a pig. The term “buying a pig in a poke” has since become a common expression meaning to make a risky purchase, and some say that the phrase “let the cat out of the bag” also dates back to this well known con.
7. The Thai Gem Scam
A wildly elaborate con, the Thai Gem Scam has become infamous in Bangkok, where it is often performed on unsuspecting tourists. It starts with a lookout, who strikes up friendly conversations with tourists about their vacations. The lookout will say that there is a service that gives tourists free rides to local temples for sightseeing tours, and will direct them to a nearby taxi.
The taxi then takes the person to a tourist attraction, where yet another con man will chat with them and eventually tell them about a government program that allows jewelry to be bought duty free, which would allow for a huge profit if the mark resold it back in their home country. The taxi driver then drives the mark to another location or two, and at each stop another stranger will mention the gem scheme, but always in passing so as to give the impression that the whole set up is random and unconnected.
If done right, all this insider advice will eventually convince the tourist to ask to be taken to a jewelry store, where they will be pressured to buy “rare” gems and have them shipped back to their home country. Naturally, the gems are worth significantly less than the price advertised, and when the victim gets home they will find they are unable to sell them for any kind of profit.
6. The Wire Game
Made famous by the movie The Sting, the wire game was a complex fraud that required a large group of con men to work in concert in order to pull it off. The group of grifters would open up a fake “wire store,’ which is a kind of bookie where bets could be placed on horse races. A victim, usually a man of considerable wealth, would then be brought in and given some fake insider information that a particular horse was a sure thing to win the race.
If the con men sold the mark well enough, the hope was that they would place a huge bet with the fake bookie at the wire store. From here, the con can go any number of ways, but in the most popular version some sort of mistake occurs, or confusion over the outcome of the race (which, of course, never actually took place) leads to the bet being declared a loss for the hapless victim.
5. The Badger Game
The badger game dates back to the 19th century, and is arguably one of the most reproduced cons of all time. A form of blackmail, in its most famous form the trick would see a con woman seek out a lonely married man at a bar and lure him back to her hotel room. After getting the man into some kind of compromising position, the grifters would produce photo or video evidence of the man clearly cheating on his wife, which could then be used to extort money from him.
Other variations included false allegations of rape or sexual harassment. One famous version of it from the early 1930s involved a woman accusing her male doctor of improper conduct during a medical exam and then blackmailing him in order to keep her from pressing charges. Often the woman would be working in tandem with a second grifter who would show up in the middle of things and pretends to be her angry husband, which would help to scare the mark into going along with the blackmail. Like the embarrassing check scheme, the idea was always that the victim would be too ashamed of his own actions not to pay off the con men.
4. Three-Card Monte
One of the classic short cons, three-card monte is a card game that uses sleight of hand and trickery to swindle victims out of small amounts of cash. It’s one of the oldest cons around, and dates back to “the shell game,” a similar scheme that was popular during the Middle Ages. The game itself is deceivingly simple. Three cards are placed faced down on a flat surface, usually two black jacks and a red queen. The dealer shows the players the red queen, and then proceeds to thoroughly shuffle the cards to make it difficult to tell where it is.
Players then bet on whether they can pick the queen out of the three cards. It sounds easy enough, but the game is more or less impossible to beat, because a good dealer can use sleight of hand to switch the cards at will, and can easily decide who wins or loses. In more sophisticated set ups, the whole game is a fake, and the other supposed “players” are in on the con. One of these conspirators will approach the mark and pretend to give them inside information on how to beat the game, enticing them to make a larger bet. Since street gambling is quite clearly illegal, any time a victim begins to suspect the game might be a cheat, the con men simply pretend to see the police coming, pack up their game, and make a break for it.
3. The False Good Samaritan
There might not be any simpler or more ancient con than the so-called “false Good Samaritan”. It usually involves a team of two con men working in tandem, and the victim is usually a lone person walking a city street at night. The first con man approaches the person and mugs them, stealing their wallet or purse and taking off down the street. The second con man, posing as a passerby, will give chase to the mugger, tackle them, and get back the wallet. The mugger, of course, always manages to escape during the fray.
The false Good Samaritan will then return the wallet or purse to the mark, who will have been witness to the entire performance. The hope is that the grateful victim will repay the con man for his help with some kind of cash reward, which they can then split with the mugger later on. When sold correctly and performed on the right kind of person, this con is capable of earning the grifters even more money than they would have ever gotten from just keeping the stolen wallet.
2. The Spanish Prisoner
Ever gotten one of those junk e-mails from a person claiming to be a Nigerian Princess in need of quick cash? If so, then you’re familiar with the Spanish Prisoner, which is a classic form of “advance fee fraud” that attempts to trick unsuspecting marks by promising them a big payday down the road. The scam dates all the way back to the early 1900s, when it was often used against wealthy businessmen. This is how it would go down: after gaining his mark’s trust, a con man would intimate that he was in correspondence with the family of a fabulously wealthy person of high social class who was being imprisoned in Spain for a crime they didn’t commit.
Fearing scandal, the prisoner has not released his name or case to the public, and is relying on private means to generate the money to secure his release. With this in mind, the mark would be told that any money he contributed to help in the cause would be paid back with huge interest down the road. In some variations, it would even be implied that the person would get to marry the Spanish Prisoner’s beautiful daughter. Naturally, any money the victim gave would inevitably disappear, and when possible the con man would even try and get his victim to contribute more cash by telling them that a daring rescue attempt needed to be funded.
1. The Ponzi Scheme
If current events have proven anything, it’s that there is no more potentially profitable con game than the Ponzi scheme. The trick dates back hundreds of years, but it was popularized by Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant to the U.S. who swindled investors out of millions in the early 1900s before being arrested.
The modern Ponzi scheme is a form of investment fraud in which a fake or corrupt stockbroker uses the money of his new investors to pay the imaginary returns of his old ones. Initial investments with the fake broker might yield enormous returns for the people being conned, but in reality their money has not been invested in anything–the con man has simply been putting it all into a bank account. Any time someone wants to withdraw money, or if he has to pay the returns of his old investors, the con man simply uses the money he’s gotten from new investors to do it. Nothing is actually being invested, won, or lost in the market.
The con man is simply giving that impression so that people keep handing over more and more cash. Because it can only grow so far, any Ponzi scheme is destined to eventually collapse under its own weight, so the con man usually pulls a disappearing act after collecting enough money, leaving the investors with nothing but the fake returns they received to keep them involved in the swindle. Undoubtedly the most famous recent example involved Bernard Madoff, a New York financier who engineered a Ponzi scheme estimated to be in the neighborhood of $65 billion. Madoff was eventually caught and sentenced to 150 years in prison, but not before pulling of what is essentially the biggest con game of all time.