Cons. Scams. Hoaxes. Frauds. Whatever you call them, people have been falling for them for a long time. An 1876 article in Scientific American describes a scheme by “three scamps” to rob a bank using just their knowledge of telegraphs and their charms (though given the issue’s date of April 1, can we really be sure this happened?). As literary critic Kevin Young writes, “Where the eighteenth century was the hoax’s height in Britain, the nineteenth century starred the United States, so much so that someone at the time called it ‘the Age of Imposture.’” Though the means may change, scammers have always been with us, and often successful in their ploys. What makes scams so hard to resist, and so easy to perpetrate?

As cyber security soholar Monica T. Whitty explains, the answer is simple: we’re trusting. And a con artist relies on that loophole in humanity to trick us. People want to believe that the person they trust with their money, their time, their hearts, is telling the truth. And the con artist relies on that belief to do their work. As Whitty writes, many victims believe “that they are acting according to the social norms.” Those social norms can range from the urge to help a sick child, to the desire for a romantic partnership, and maybe one of the strongest of those norms is the belief that someone wouldn’t purposely lie to us. Young explains that con artists often use this last norm as their “chief defense” asking “Why would I lie about such a thing?, whether that thing is surviving Hiroshima or child abuse or AIDS.”

This is something Whitty found in her study of scam victims, as well. Rather than being just a single bold move by an even bolder con artist, cons are really “a careful set of orchestrated stages to gain trust.” That trust can be won by appealing to authority, or using names or positions that the victim might already respect, like doctors, lawyers, or law enforcement. But another approach also relies on exploiting a very human tendency— the desire to win. When scam artists dangle the prospect of a big reward, victims can often fall deeper and deeper into the scam, even with the awareness that something feels off. As Whitty explains, one study found that  “some people viewed responding to a scam as a long-odds gamble … the size of the possible prize (relative to the initial outlay) induced them to give it a try on the off-chance that they might succeed.” It doesn’t matter that the prize is forever out-of-reach; the glimmer of hope (and perhaps a little greed) keeps the scam alive.

Though Whitty’s work was mainly focused on romance scams, the same ideas apply to many types of cons, from cults to email scams to hoax memoirs. As psychologist Maria Konnikova argues in her book on con artists, “nearly anyone can be a good mark under the right circumstances,” and con artists are pros at creating and exploiting those circumstances. And so from telegraphs to emails, the cons keep coming. And as long as humans keep on dealing with that pesky humanity and its capacity for trust, con artists of all kinds won’t have to work too hard to trick us, Konnikova explains, “We’re quite good at getting over that hurdle ourselves.”

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Scientific American, Vol. 34, No. 14 (APRIL 1, 1876), p. 216
Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc.
The Kenyon Review, New Series, Vol. 39, No. 6 (Nov/Dec 2017), pp. 11-33
Kenyon College
The British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 53, No. 4 (JULY 2013), pp. 665-684
Oxford University Press
Scientific American Mind, Vol. 27, No. 3 (May/June 2016), p. 70
Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc.