Confidence trick

Confidence trick

A confidence trick or confidence game (also known as a bunko, con, flim flam, gaffle, grift, scam, scheme, or swindle) is an attempt to defraud a person or group by gaining their confidence.


The first known usage of the term "confidence man" was in 1849; it was used by the press during the trial of William Thompson. Thompson chatted with strangers until he asked if they had the confidence to lend him their watches, whereupon he would walk off with the watch; he was captured when a victim recognized him on the street.

Vulnerability to confidence tricks

Persons of any level of intelligence are vulnerable to deception by experienced con artists. Confidence tricks exploit human weaknesses like greed, dishonesty, vanity, but also virtues like honesty, compassion, or a naïve expectation of good faith on the part of the con artist.
Just as there is no typical profile for swindlers, neither is there one for their victims. Virtually anyone can fall prey to fraudulent crimes. … Certainly victims of high-yield investment frauds may possess a level of greed which exceeds their caution as well as a willingness to believe what they want to believe. However, not all fraud victims are greedy, risk-taking, self-deceptive individuals looking to make a quick dollar. Nor are all fraud victims naive, uneducated, or elderly.

Confidence tricksters often rely on the greed and dishonesty of the mark, who may attempt to out-cheat the con artist, only to discover that he or she has been manipulated into losing from the very beginning. This is such a general principle in confidence tricks that there is a saying among con men that "you can't cheat an honest man.

Nevertheless, some tricks depend on the honesty of the victim. In a common scam, as part of an apparently legitimate transaction, the victim is sent a worthless check, which the victim then deposits. The victim is then urged to forward the apparent value of the check to the trickster as cash, possibly keeping a small portion of the money as a commission, which they may do before discovering the check bounces. Another fashionable scenario (as of 2006) has the victim recruited as a "financial agent" to collect "business debts". Paper checks are not always involved: funds may be transferred electronically from another victim.

Sometimes con men rely on naive individuals who put their confidence in get-rich-quick schemes, such as "too good to be true" investments. It may take years for the wider community to discover that such investment schemes are bogus. By the time they are discovered, many people may have lost their life savings to something in which they have been persuaded to invest.

The confidence trickster often works with one or more accomplices called shills, who help manipulate the mark into accepting the con man's plan. In a traditional confidence trick, the mark is led to believe that he will be able to win money or some other prize by doing some task. The accomplices may pretend to be random strangers who have benefited from successfully performing the task.

Notable con artists

Born in the 18th century

  • Gregor MacGregor (1786–1845) – Scottish conman who tried to attract investment and settlers for a non-existent country of Poyais

Born or active in the 19th century

Born or active in the 20th century

Living people

  • Clifford Irving (1930) – US writer, best known for an "authorized autobiography" of Howard Hughes that turned out to be a hoax
  • Kevin Trudeau (1963) – US writer and billiards promoter, convicted of fraud and larceny in 1991, known for a series of late-night infomercials and his series of books about "Secrets 'they' don't want you to know about".
  • Frank Abagnale (1948) – former US con artist, check forger and impostor; his autobiography, Catch Me If You Can, was made into a movie
  • Gert Postel (1958) – German medical con, a simple postman who for decades pretended to be a medical doctor, worked from 1995 for almost 2 years as a psychiatrist in a small province hospital in Saxony
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