The 10 Basic Cons

Note: This post first appeared on Fiction Freak’s blog in August of 2014 as part of the Get Your Debut On series. It’s valuable information, though, so Julep thought a repost was in order. 

My name is Julep Dupree and I’m a grifter. I’m not exactly proud of it, but I don’t really regret it either. It’s what I do. I fix things for people, and I charge a respectable sum for my services.

I’m not in the habit of handholding newbies, but I suppose I need some kind of training guide for the people who owe me favors. If you’re reading this, that means you. So let’s get started.

I base every job I pull on one of the 10 basic cons. I twist each con to fit the parameters and goals of the job, but the core concept of the con remains the same. Here’s what you need to know:

FIDDLE GAME
Cons work on the basic principle that people are inherently greedy. If you can use that greed against them, you can get whatever you want from them without even technically breaking the law. The Fiddle Game works on this principle. In the original version of this con, one of a pair of conmen would leave a cheap violin as collateral for a meal he ate while going to get his “forgotten” wallet. The other conman of the pair would approach the mark, saying that the violin he was holding was extremely rare and worth a fortune.

When the first conman returns with his wallet, the mark can’t help but offer to purchase the violin. The conman says no at first, driving the mark’s offer up up up. If each conman does his job right, the mark pays the first conman a small fortune on the assumption he’ll be able to sell the worthless violin later for a larger sum. By the time the mark discovers the violin he’s bought is bogus, the conmen are long gone with his money.
This game is all about selling the mark on a fake product. I use this scam a lot. Things aren’t always what I make them appear to be.

PIG-IN-A-POKE
This game is another fake product con. It dates back to the Middle Ages when quality meat was scarce. The conman sells a burlap sack containing a small, squirming animal, claiming it’s a “baby pig.” If the conman does a decent job of distraction and misdirection, the mark buys the bag without looking inside. Then when the mark gets home and discovers a cat in the bag instead of a baby pig, the mark already has the money and a good head start.

My version of this con involves building fancy packaging–like brochures, websites, and official letters–around something that doesn’t exist. The smoke and mirrors helps me sell the illusion.

THREE-CARD MONTE
Keep your eye on the lady. The Three-Card Monte is an unwinnable card game put on by a group of grifters. The card dealer shuffles three facedown cards on a table—two black jacks and a red queen. The object of the game is for the mark to correctly identify the queen from the set of three. After the mark places his bet, the dealer shows the queen to the mark before turning it facedown with the other two cards. Then the dealer moves the cards around lightning quick for a few seconds before asking the mark to guess where the queen has landed.

The unwinnable part comes in when the mark picks a card and the dealer flips it over to reveal a black jack. It doesn’t matter what card the mark chooses, right or wrong, because the dealer uses sleight-of-hand to make sure the card he shows is always the losing card.

The real trick to the Three-Card Monte is not the sleight-of-hand, though. It’s getting the mark to bet at all. This is where the roper, or shill, comes in. Another conman posing as a player places a bet and loses, making a show of picking the wrong card. The mark thinks, “I knew that wasn’t the right card. I could take this dealer for all he’s worth.” And then he places his first bet.

I use the concept behind this fake game as a distractor. I keep the mark busy playing a game that isn’t real, and then fleece him when his back is turned.

SPANISH PRISONER
The Spanish Prisoner con dates back to the early 1900s but has morphed over time into the infamous Nigerian Prince email scam. This email scam asks you to pay a small sum of money to help a struggling Nigerian Prince, who, once he can access his bank account, will pay you back with an additional sizable amount in interest for your trouble. Naturally, the conman disappears as soon as he gets the money the mark has wired to him.

This con uses the plight of a fake victim to fool a mark into giving into the temptation of an easy return. I’ve seen it used to play on a mark’s empathy. But whether empathy or greed, the conman always gets what he wants in the end.

PYRAMID/PONZI SCHEME
The Pyramid scheme is an oldie as well. It’s a little more complicated to run, because you’re keeping multiple marks in a constant state of being conned. In more recent versions of the scam, a conman elicits funds from several marks, claiming to invest their hard-earned money in the stock market. Instead, the money goes straight into the conman’s own bank account.

The only time the marks see any return on their fake investment is when the conman is pressured to pay them a small amount to keep them bamboozled. Eventually, the conman’s scheme is discovered, but not until he’s living the high life in the Caymans.

I’ve never used a fake investment con, but Bernie Madoff made a $65-billion-dollar mint. And then ended up with a 150-year prison sentence instead. I prefer the smaller, more manageable cons myself.

BADGER GAME
The Badger game is based on a fake offense. A conman lures the mark into a compromising position and records the act, then blackmails the mark into paying him hush money. A variation of this is to fabricate evidence of a nonexistent crime against a person in a position where credibility is imperative—such as a politician, a doctor, a teacher, etc.—and blackmail the person to keep the possibility of reputation-damaging scandal at bay.

I’ve used this con a time or two, usually to get someone to help me rather than for money. In my experience, favors can be even more powerful than cash. That’s why I always include the promise of a future favor as part of my fee.

EMBARRASSING CHECK SCAM
The Embarrassing Check scam is similar to the Badger in that it holds the threat of scandal over the head of the mark. In classic versions of this game, the conman puts the mark in a compromising position by enticing him to pay for a service he would be ashamed to have come to light. For example, the mark pays for Internet porn the conman never delivers. When the mark complains to the “company,” the conman sends a refund check to the mark with the lascivious name of the company emblazoned in the from line, counting on the mark to be too embarrassed to cash the check.

I don’t use this scam. If I need leverage over someone, I usually go with the more malleable Badger game.

WIRE GAME
The Wire game is not really worth explaining. I tried it exactly once and it blew up spectacularly in my face. But I’ll tell you why it blew up spectacularly in my face—I had to depend on too many rookies when pulling it off.

The Wire requires a complicated set-up, a fake front for a fake bet. The conman convinces the mark that he knows which horse is going to win a race ahead of time. (Back in the days of the telegraph, this was actually possible.) But instead of helping the mark win a lot of money on a sure thing, the conman convinces the mark to place his (rather large) bet on a horse the conman knows is going to lose.

This is where the fake front comes in. The conman needs to create the illusion that the mark is in an actual legit betting parlor. This requires lots of con artists playing various roles—tellers, other patrons, waiters, etc. That way, when the mark places his bet, the conmen get the cash. Then when the mark realizes he’s been tricked, he can’t go to the police and complain, because he was placing an illegal bet in the first place.

In my unfortunate case, it wasn’t horses and money. It was fast cars and a dare involving public nudity on the part of the losers. The JV Lacrosse team is still pissed at me for that one.

FALSE GOOD SAMARITAN
The False Good Samaritan is a particularly handy game. I’ve used it a bunch of times to fake rescue people I need something from. In the classic version of this, one conman mugs the mark, and the second one helps the victim by heroically getting the money back from the thief. The mark then rewards the “good Samaritan” with a portion of the returned money.

I generally use this con to break into computer systems. For example, I once “accidentally” spilled a Coke on someone’s laptop keyboard. Then Sam, my hacker sidekick extraordinaire, posed as an IT technician to fix the problem and hack into the mark’s computer in the process.

TROJAN HORSE
The Trojan Horse is perhaps the most well known con of all time. This fake gift scam became popular during the Trojan War, when the Greeks beat the Trojans by offering them a giant horse statue as a peace offering. When the Trojans brought the horse inside the city walls, a contingent of Greek soldiers jumped out and defeated the unsuspecting Trojans from the inside.

I’ve used this con a couple of times, once on behalf of the Chess Club. I’ll just say this about that: Beware of geeks bearing goats.

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