Why Anyone Can be Conned

We usually think of con artists in one of a few different categorical ways.  The first and most iconic is the charismatic slickster who talks you into a bad deal, or uses sleight of hand to take you -- something like the practiced cons in the movie "The Grifters".

Another is the anonymous con, the sort that runs Nigerian email scams and the like.  A more sophisticated version of this con artist is the sort that tricks you into providing personal information, usually through a phishing scam, some of which are quite elaborate (I've received two this week, both much more impressive than earlier versions).

And then there are the more difficult to categorize cons -- and it's these that I'd like to discuss, because they speak to a handicap all of our brains have whether we realize it or not.

Twice within the last couple of years I've been hit by a con that involved a college-age girl approaching me in the parking lot of a grocery store at night, claiming that her car had run out of gas and she didn't have enough money to put a few dollars worth in the tank to get home.  I've been approached with similar stories before in other cities, but never this convincingly.

In the first instance, the girl started crying as she spoke and appeared visibly shaken that she was alone at night and didn't know how to get home. She claimed that she had asked a few people at a gas station for help, but the attendants told her that it was against company policy to allow anyone to solicit their customers for money.  After asking her a few questions that I thought might uncover a possible con, I became convinced that she was telling the truth and gave her five bucks for gas.  She thanked me as if I'd just handed her a million dollar check and walked off in the direction of  the  gas station where she said someone had helped push her car off the road.

After I loaded my groceries, I decided to drive over to that gas station.  As you might now predict, there was no girl, no car, and after I walked in and quizzed the attendants about her story, it became embarrassingly clear that there never had been.

A few months ago I was approached with the exact same con in the parking lot of a different store in a different part of the city. Again, a college-age girl approached me at night with a story about her car running out of gas and "she just needed enough cash to get home." I let the entire con play out because I wanted to see just how similar it was to the first one; remarkably, it was almost as if these girls had attended the same con-class because blow for blow, she nailed every point.   This time, however, I smiled when she finished and went back to loading my car. She immediately dropped character and walked off into the dark.

The reason why anyone can be conned, even people who are usually discerning, is that our brains quite easily fall into what's known as the "Trust Trap."  The big hurdle for the con artist is not to make you trust them -- it's to convince you that they trust you.  Once they succeed, your trust will organically develop, and that's when the con is set.

Neuroscientist Paul Zak, author of The Moral Molecule, has studied the trust trap extensively at the Claremont Graduate University Center for Neuoroeconomic Studies, and says that we all suffer a hard-wired disadvantage when it comes to identifying well-structured cons.  The problem is that our brain wants to extend trust once it has been extended to us.

Each of our brains are guided by a hormone called oxytocin in matters of trust.  The hormone works something like an on-off switch, in that we're usually able to determine whether or not trust is warranted in a given situation. Generally that system works well, but when someone games the system by outwardly mimicking trust, thus inducing an oxytocin response on our side of the cerebral fence, we could be on our way to getting taken.

The problem is, how do we know when someone is mimicking trust?  If he or she is skilled at doing so, much of the time we don't, so we're faced with the choice of taking a consistently hard line or taking a risk when we think the person might be genuine.

There isn't a right or wrong answer about that (everyone must make their own choices), but being aware of how effective cons work could give you enough of an edge to make the best decision.

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Posted on July 24, 2012 .