11 February 2009


A BoingBoing post from a fortnight ago linked to a Wikipedia page listing a compilation of confidence tricks. It sounded interesting although a page that would take more than five minutes to read, which meant I flagged it in the pending section of Google Reader for later attention. As I was clearing out flagged messages this evening, I spotted this, as well as another post by neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak explaining some of the neuroscience of cons--it's all THOMAS's fault, it seems--as well as a personal example of how he was scammed.

These posts were very interesting but I most enjoyed watching the YouTube video Zak's post links to, made by uber-Skeptic Michael Shermer where he and a magician actually carry out a street con (the pigeon drop--I do love the names of these cons!), explaining how they are able to do it (making the mark think that the scammer trusts him) and switching to slow-mo when any sleight of hand or trickery takes place. Of course, at the end, they give the poor mark his wallet back and share a good laugh. Shermer has uploaded several other You Tube videos, including another one on cons (explaining and showing how the three-card Monte trick works); most of the others that I watched are interesting and informative as well (although there wasn't one about his new book, The Mind of the Market, which was supposed to have been published last January but which I have been finding it very hard to obtain, so much so that I was starting to doubt its existence).

I find these concepts really fascinating and rather addictive--I remember spending about four hours reading through the 419 Baiter website the first time I discovered it, not least because I find it hard to believe anyone could be so stupid as to believe the promises made in those emails. Then again, I could plausibly fall a victim of the pigeon drop (although I would like to hope that I wouldn't) where the sums involved (£300, say, rather than $3,000,000 (THREE MILLION US DOLLARS)) are more tangible and realistic and the fact that there are two supposed strangers standing before you who seem to trust each other and if you are the only one not to profit from the "cash-stuffed wallet" or "pearl necklace" you'll feel a chump. Greed, in other words, kicks in but although $3 million is a preposterous amount, £300 seems normal and so your anti-scam devices are powered down. Error. Luckily, in the street, I rarely stop for anyone or anything and am moving so quickly that people would have to be pretty convincing to persuade me even to slow down. I'm going to be even more wary now, though.

Back when it was released at the cinema, I went to see Heartbreakers, in which Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love-Hewitt play a mother-daughter con team, scamming everyone from hotel receptionists to restaurant maitre d's, although mainly potential husbands, until the daughter--oh noes!--falls in love with the mark! I quite liked the film at the time, especially as I wasn't expecting the con angle from the title. Years later, I discovered Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which is, essentially, Steve Martin and Michael Caine doing the same thing on the French Riviera and which is much funnier and much cleverer. 

In the same vein, since I saw the trailer while I was in the U.S. in October, I've been looking forward to the release of The Brothers Bloom, although it appears not be coming out until the summer. Two brothers (surname Bloom) are a "retired" swindling double-act who reunite to pull one last scam on Rachel Weisz--the trailer looked pretty funny but somehow familiar and I've now realised why: a few years ago I saw another con movie starring Rachel Weisz, Confidence, which wasn't great. I have every confidence that I will enjoy TBB a lot more.

Yes, con-related reading is definitely addictive. It must be a scam that is being carried out by people who write books and make films foiling the cons of others; I'm not clever enough to see why that scam would work though...or something.

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