Scams and Cons

Among other oddities, I've been researching con artists for my latest shiny. For some reason, these grab my attention, from The Sting to Matchstick Men to Ocean's Eleven. Here are a few of the more interesting cons I've come across.

In the interest of readability, the target in these cons is named Mark. The con artist is Carl, and his accomplice (if there is one) is Anna.

Dressed as a poor musician, Anna buys something cheap from Mark's restaurant. When the bill arrives, Anna tells Mark she left her wallet elsewhere. She offers to leave her old, beat-up fiddle as collateral, then leaves.

Later, Carl enters the restaurant and spies the fiddle. After asking where Mark got it, Carl says the fiddle is a classic and offers $50,000 for it. Mark can't sell it, of course (it's not his), so Carl leaves his business card and tells him to tell the owner of the fiddle of his offer. Carl leaves.

Anna finally returns with her wallet. If Mark dutifully passes on the message, the con fails (though with no repercussions for Carl or Anna). But Mark is greedy and desperate for $50,000. He offers to buy Anna's fiddle. Anna, of course, refuses, as the fiddle is her work, but she is finally convinced to sell it for a modest sum, say $500.

At that point, Anna and Carl disappear, with a profit of $500, less the cost of the piece-of-junk fiddle now in Mark's hands.

Anna mugs Mark, but Carl shows up just in time to save him. Now Carl has Mark's trust. With a bit of smooth-talking, Carl can get a reward or a favor from Mark--one that would make him more money than simply mugging Mark would have.

This one requires some charisma. Carl claims he can make it rain for Mark's crops (or that his medicine can cure Mark's disease, or that he can change the outcome of a sporting event in Mark's favor, etc). Mark pays up front, and if it actually rains, Mark believes Carl did it. If it doesn't, Carl convinces Mark he needs more time and/or money.

Like Rainmaker, but more about math than charisma. Carl sends out a free tip on some sporting event (say the first game of the NFL playoffs) to many marks. Half of them are told the Chargers will win, the other half, the 49ers. Whatever the outcome, half of Carl's tips will have been right.

The second week of the season, he sends out another tip, but only to those marks who received the winning tip from the week before. Again, half the tips say Team A, half say Team B, and in the end half of them will have been proven right.

He does this each week, until the day before the Super Bowl when he has a very small group of people who have received apparently perfect winning tips for the entire season. That's when he sells the final tip--who will win the Super Bowl--for $1,000 each.

The key to a good con is charisma and legitimacy. Maybe you imagine Carl as a sleazy, underhanded crook--easy to spot because he feels like a liar.


But for a con game to work, Mark has to trust Carl completely (con is short for confidence, after all). That means Carl is going to be the friendliest, most humble person Mark ever met.


Man I can't wait to write that character.

Anyway, what have you been researching lately?


Corinne said...

I'm with you on the fascination for conmen -- I've always wanted to write about one. Which made me really love this post. Thanks for the sneak peek!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Dude! I can't wait for you to write that character too! The con-men are fascinating pieces of psychological architecture.

Have you watched White Collar? Used to be more about the cons, than lately. But I would highly recommend reading White Cat if you haven't already, for a whole society of cons.

Excellent post!

Adam Heine said...

@Corinne: I don't know how much of a sneak peek it is yet (it's still really early in the planning process). But I'm glad you enjoyed this!

@Susan: I haven't watched White Collar, but I'll definitely look into White Cat. If I do this character, I seriously hope I can do him justice!

Iliadfan said...

Susan beat me to the White Cat recommendation. At Sirenscon, I heard Holly Black talk about the research she did into conmen for that series. Amazing stuff.

Hope you write the character - sounds awesome!

Matthew MacNish said...

The inverted pyramid is pretty much exactly how every "free" sport betting tip hotline works.

Great break down, thanks Adam!

Tatum Flynn said...

I love stuff about cons, fascinating! The Grifters and The Brothers Bloom were great darker versions. And I didn't know White Cat was about that, will have to get it.

Keriann Greaney Martin said...

Ooh, I love this idea. Did you ever watch "Lost"? It sounds like Carl is a bit like Sawyer. Maybe the audience will sort of root for him, even though he's bad?

Victoria Dixon said...

Thanks for this, Adam. It got me thinking about the world-building I'm doing and some characters I'll need. Always a good thing. ;D

Asea said...

If you like cons, I highly recommend you watch the show Leverage. It's about a group of conpeople who play Robin Hood. Very very clever cons - they did the fiddle recently, actually!