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Confessions of a Con Artist

A veteran scammer reveals how he made millions ripping off unsuspecting investors

Developing the Persona

This was lesson number one: Assume a false personality or social mask that makes it easier to pull off the deception. Swindling is really acting, and you play a character who will help you appear legitimate, confident and successful … even when you are not.

I've trained hundreds of salesmen who worked in scam boiler rooms. And I always told them to picture themselves with the big sprawling office, sitting behind the mahogany desk, with the family portrait on the credenza. Your autographed football and jerseys are hanging on the wall, along with awards and several pictures of you posing with famous actors. The pool table is across the room on the left-hand side. You are this bigwig whom everybody wants to talk to. The idea is to build up confidence, so that when you ask for the money you won't show one lick of fear or hesitation or doubt that this isn't, hands down, absolutely the greatest decision this client is making for his or her family and future.

The persona explains how a barrel of dented-can drug addicts can persuade successful businesspeople to write big checks without reading the paperwork. On the outside you will see nothing but charm, an engaging personality and swagger. On the inside lies a predator. There is no conscience in this business. It's every man for himself, and the goal is to acquire as much money as possible.

The business needs to have a persona, too, to look legitimate and trustworthy. So we'd run television commercials and hire famous actors to appear in them. In that Internet-kiosk scam we hired Adam West of the 1960s TV show Batman. The first day we ran that ad, it generated more than 10,000 phone calls.

I saw this tactic used again and again in my scam career — getting celebrities to legitimize the operation. I guess people see an Adam West or an Ernest Borgnine (we also hired him) on TV and assume the product he's selling is the real deal or he wouldn't be selling it. But the celebrity's contract frequently states that he or she cannot be held responsible for the accuracy of the claims in the script. The celebrity probably doesn't know that people are getting ripped off; he may know nothing at all about the business. He just comes in, reads his part and leaves.

It's About Emotion, Not Logic

Think about the first time you fell in love or a time when someone cut you off on the freeway and you were seething for hours. Were you thinking clearly? Probably not. Those who believe they'd never fall for a scam don't realize it's not about how smart you are; it's about how well you control your emotions. Fraud victims are people with emotional needs, just like the rest of us. But they can't separate out those needs when they make financial decisions. That's what makes them vulnerable.

Next: Choosing the perfect victim. »

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