Can You Spot a Con Man? Part 1

Blast from the past


by John B


Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
1 John 4:1


Have you ever been “conned”? Has anyone ever taken advantage of you or betrayed you by using nothing but the force of his personality?

I think most of us have. At one time or another, most people have encountered a slick salesman, a fast-talking promoter, or someone with a pathetic sob story. It’s easy to be fooled if you aren’t on your toes, and the most dangerous aspect is that you are usually caught off guard.

Con men (short for “confidence” men — someone who gains your trust) come in all shapes and sizes, all ages, and both sexes. There is a stereotype for con men, but not all con men fit the stereotype. We often think of a used car salesman or a door-to-door salesman when we think of con men, but there are many kinds of cons and their practitioners come in many flavors.

From time to time we hear a warning on the local news that someone or some group is working the phones for a phony “charity” and bilking people, usually the elderly, out of large sums of money. Other stories tell of men who romance lonely widows, sometimes even marry them, then clean out their bank accounts and disappear. Others sell phony stocks, perform unnecessary home or auto repairs, or feed off the charity of a local church. Some of these are prosecutable acts, but many are not, and quite often those who perpetrate these acts are never brought to justice.

Street Corner Con Men

Have you seen those poor “homeless” individuals at the intersection, standing under the left-turn light, with their home-made cardboard signs? “Will work for food”, some of them say. “Homeless and hungry” others declare. “Disabled vet”. Or something similar to tug at your heartstrings. Some of these people, no doubt, are genuinely in need of help. They all look hungry. But are they really?

About 15 years ago, a local radio talk host in the city where I work did a two-hour special on these people, and those who called in told an amazing range of stories. Several callers said they had offered some of these men jobs, but were turned down. Another lady, who had just done her shopping, handed one of them a loaf of bread; he asked her if she didn’t have some Twinkies instead. In short, many of these beggars were revealed to be frauds, and the result of the radio show was that angry drivers began confronting them; within a few days most of them disappeared from the intersections.

For a while.

Another beggar in a nearby city worked the same intersection for over a year, until one day someone followed him at the end of the day and saw him get into a late-model car and drive away. The word spread, and soon after that he disappeared from sight. In 2002 I saw an attractive young lady at a freeway exit near a gas station holding a sign that said “Out of Gas, Need Help”. Two weeks later she was still there, still out of gas.

Con men.

Close to Home

Not all con men, of course, are strangers. Sometimes they are very close to home, and may even be living under your very roof. Sometimes your own kids are guilty of conning you. Adult children who can’t seem to hold a job, for instance, who never get “the break” they need to succeed, and are constantly hitting you up for “a loan” may be the con men that you don’t recognize. Even more subtle is the adult child who still lives at home, eating your food, dominating your living room, and paying no rent (he can’t, because he isn’t working!) Are you being taken advantage of by your own flesh and blood? It happens.

The power of the con man is that you don’t recognize him for what he is. If he’s really good at what he does, he can operate for a lifetime; if one person catches on to him, he simply moves on, burning that bridge behind him. He uses persuasion to get what he wants, and he can be very convincing. His greatest weapon is his sincerity; he takes you into his confidence, convinces you that he would never lie to you, and perhaps that you are his very best friend. He confides in you what he would never tell anyone else, and if you “help” him he will (1) be eternally grateful, (2) reward you beyond your wildest dreams, or (3) you will be doing God’s work.

Or so he says.

The best con men are very charismatic. They may be very complimentary. They make you feel warm and fuzzy. They make you feel special, as if you are the most important person in their lives. And if they’re very good, they can keep it up for years, even a lifetime…while they bleed you dry. You may never catch on to them, may never realize you have been (or are continually being) scammed. Depending on the con man and his particular personality, you may be taken for a sum of money before he vanishes from your life, or you may be taken for a great deal of money over a period of many years. The price of the con may not be money at all, but support of another kind — emotional support, business or political support, enablement of an addiction, or simply to be popular. No matter what payoff the con man is after, you are always the loser.

Do you know anyone like that? Have you ever been taken in by someone like that? Are you, even now, the victim of this kind of robbery?

How Do They Do It?

We all know they’re out there. We may not recognize them if they are close to us, but we know they exist. How do they do it? How can someone take advantage of others that way and still sleep at night?

The answer is as simple as it is frightening — such people are usually psychopathic in nature. This doesn’t always mean they are dangerous, simply that they have no emotional connection to those around them. They have no ability to empathize with others, to place themselves in your shoes and say, “Man, I wouldn’t want someone to treat me that way!” In a word, they are narcissistic, with no regard for anyone or anything that doesn’t benefit them.


A person with an antisocial personality disorder, manifested in aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behavior without empathy or remorse.

–Houghton Mifflin dictionary

The causes and manifestations of such behavior can be complex, but we don’t need to be psychologists to recognize it in our lives. Any time you see a pile of horse manure, you can be pretty sure a pony has recently been in the neighborhood. When your relationship with a “friend” leaves you feeling frustrated and empty, you can probably assume you may be the victim of a psychopathic personality. Not always, but don’t rule it out.

To be continued…