We live in a perilous world. From city centres to small towns, it seems crime is everywhere in some form; be it victimless, non-violent or aggressive, there’s no getting away from crime in even the safest of regions. For some, it’s holding up a jewellery store or breaking a few windows. For others, crime takes a much more dubious form.
It can be easy to catch a criminal when they’re seen red-handed or captured on a security camera. But how do you catch a criminal when nobody knows a crime is being committed? This is partly what makes con artists so devious, and so hard to spot. “Con” is short for confidence. As the name implies, confidence tricks take advantage of people’s misplaced and unquestioning trust in the goodness and honesty of others. It’s an old school of criminality – con artists have been around since the Middle Ages and they continue to exist today, all over the world, with more options than ever before to trick unsuspecting victims in the digital age.
One of the most famous examples is Frank Abagnale Jr. who was made famous in the Steven Spielberg movie Catch Me If You Can. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Abagnale made his living through forgery as a fraud expert and con man extraordinaire. He forged millions of dollars in phony checks and posed as an airline pilot, lawyer, and even a doctor. He was so good at convincing people he was something that he wasn’t that, not long after he was caught and imprisoned, he was recruited by the FBI as a consultant on check forgery and fraud.
Abagnale is an extreme case. He was extremely intelligent, persistent, and highly illusive. Most con artists don’t use tricks as grand and complex as Abagnale, but sometimes it’s the little “smash-and-grab” cons that are the most worthwhile for the criminals, the small crimes which make the artists that much harder to catch. Gathered from various government scam watchdogs like the FBI and British Columbia’s Scam and Fraud centre, we give you the low down on 10 of the most popular cons.
10. The Wedding Con
Any con is devastating, especially for young couples who are about to tie the knot only to have their whole wedding exposed as a scam. A person or company posing as a wedding planner tricks the mark in two ways. First, the artist finds a couple in need of charity and uses the media to solicit donations from the public. After the donations that are supposed to the go to the couple are collected, the con artist embezzles them. In this case, both the couple and the general public are conned from their money. In the second method, the con artist convinces the couple to sign cheques without any dollar amounts. Supposedly, the cheques are for services such as catering or floral arrangements. When the artist collects the cheques, they cash them into their own account, and the scam becomes apparent on the day of the wedding. Ouch.
9. The Mystery Shopping Con
Mystery shopping is when an independent contractor poses as a customer so they can evaluate a business’ customer service. Mystery shopping often works by requiring the contractor to make a small purchase for which they will be reimbursed later. It’s a legitimate industry, and people do get paid for this work, which is why con artists all over the world use it as an easy fraud.
The most common scam in mystery shopping is sending a person a cheque or money order for more than what’s necessary. After completing the job, the shopper is required to ‘send back what’s left’. However, the cheque is fake and will bounce at the bank, and so the money the victim will send to the con artist is actually their own. Another common con in mystery shopping is simply charging for people to sign up for a website or for training and promising lucrative jobs. In reality, a real mystery shopping company will rarely send money to contractors before a job is completed and will never charge for training or access to job lists.
8. The Fake Invoice
Similar to the phishing scam, this con uses solicitation usually disguised as invoices to fool businesses or individuals into thinking they are obligated to make a payment. Most of these solicitations have disclaimers informing the recipient that they do not have to make a payment. But these can be easy to miss. For example, a business will receive what looks like an invoice for directory advertisements just like the Yellow Pages. They will claim that, if the service is purchased, the business’ advertisement may reach thousands of people. However, the directory may not reach anyone, if it’s printed or published at all. Either the businesses mistakenly pays the fake advertisers, or the fakes steal the accountant’s signature which they use for other cons.
7. Blackmail and Exportation
This scam is often seen in thriller movies and is one of the more overt. The victim is lured into a situation that could put their reputation or their entire lives at risk, such as an affair or illegal activity. When they perform the risky action, the victim is then blackmailed or forced to perform another action, or run the risk of being exposed. Men who are easily attracted by the promise of sex or money are often the victims of this con.
6. The Short Change
As the expression goes, some things are best hidden in plain sight. The short changing con works by offering an exchange of money with a stranger or business. This exchange is done in a confusing way so that the victim loses track of how much money is actually given back to them. For example, the artist will make a small purchase and use a medium bill to pay for it, such as a $10. When the artist is given back the change, he offers to exchange the short change for a larger bill. In doing so, the artist switches and justifies the transaction using convoluted math. If successful, the stranger or business will have given the artist back maybe double the change he or she asked for. To avoid this con, store clerks try to always keep transactions separate.
5. The Currency Exchange
There could be hundreds of ways to scam a victim exchanging money with two different currencies. Some currencies are worth more than others and, if exchanged properly, can lead to a tidy profit. In fact, many legitimate brokers make a lucrative living this way by buying and selling currencies based on rising or falling rates, similar to stocks. However, this con works best when both parties know the exchange is illegal to begin with. For example, an exchanger will approach a stranger with the offer to exchange currencies at a much higher rate than normal. The stranger will give the con artist a $100 bill in exchange for the currency in a much larger sum. The con artist insists that the stranger count it, but, when finished, the con artist suddenly gets angry and claims the stranger has cheated them. They take the money back from the stranger, by force if necessary, and give back the folded $100 bill. In reality, that $100 bill is actually a folded $1.00 bill. The stranger has been conned.
4. The Gullible Grandparent
Taking advantage of the elderly and their relatives, the grandparent con uses a vulnerable, unsuspecting person’s kindness against them. The usual method is emailing or calling a grandparent with the claim that a grandchild or close relative is in some kind of trouble. One common story is the “grandchild” has been arrested or is being held hostage and money is needed immediately to save their lives. If the story works, the grandparent sends the money, usually by wire transfer or money order, without anyone else knowing. Before the grandparent realizes that anything is wrong, the damage is done.
3. The Distressed Lover
This con predominantly uses dating websites to prey on the single or lonely. The artist forms a romantic relationship with the victim over a period of time with the promise of a committed relationship or even marriage. When the victim trusts the artist enough, the artist will pretend that they are in fact either stuck in a third-world country, a war veteran who desperately needs financial help, or anything that makes it seem like the artist is innocent and in imminent danger. If successful, the victim will send them money or anything of monetary value in order to help them. When they do, their lover is never heard of again, and their money is long gone.
2. The “Nigerian” Con
If you have an email address, you have probably been a potential mark for this popular con. Also known as “the Nigerian scam”, this con works by convincing a victim to help find lost or stolen money. In an email or letter, an alleged lawyer or government official claims that a very large amount of money is up for grabs, commonly due to a supposed death of a wealthy person. If the victim believes it, the scammer sends fraudulent cheques which the victim cashes and keeps, except for a portion that they send the con artist their commission. When the bank catches wind of the fraudulent checks, they reclaim the money from the victim’s account, forcing them to repay all of the funds except, of course, the percentage they have already sent to the con artist.
1. The Phishing Scam
The phishing scam is one of the most popular cons in the modern digital age. It is used widely in email correspondence. It’s designed to extract personal information by posing as a legitimate website such as Apple or Paypal. The artist will send an an email posing as a real website and, if successful in fooling the mark, will use the personal information — such as name, address and even banking numbers — to steal money or identities. Not only do artists create fake websites that look almost identical to a real one, they will also design their email templates to look like the ones sent by the real company. An easy way to spot a phishing email is by paying attention to how the email addresses you or to the email address it comes from. If the email doesn’t address you by your full name, or if the email address it comes from seems to be your own, it’s probably a con. If the email contains spelling errors, it’s also likely to be a fake.