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Scams, Magic and the Art of Deception With Alexis Conran

Bob Sullivan talks with Alexis Conran, host of the show 'The Real Hustle'

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Full Transcript


[00:00:02] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam. 

[00:00:03] Alexis Conran: What psychological principles are involved to convince someone of your story, because essentially, Bob, that's it, isn't it? A scam is a story, it's a narrative. My job as a hustler is just to get you to believe in me and believe in the story. That's all I'm trying to do. 


[00:00:23] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. We've completed another season of heart-wrenching scams, victims attacked at their absolute low point. One dying of cancer, another just looking for a roommate after a divorce, still another looking to help disabled veterans. Each story is different, but what do they all have in common? A heartless criminal or a sophisticated network of professional con artists who will stop at nothing, willing to do things most of us would never dream of doing in order to steal. So today's bonus episode is a little different. We wanted to help you understand what's going on in the minds of these criminals, so I'm going to talk with one. Alexis Conran is one of the most famous con men in the world. He's not a real con man, he just plays one on TV. 

[00:01:20] Alexis Conran: It only takes minutes for her to attach a high-tech skimming device that is used by crooks the world over. This week, the magmatic...

[00:01:28] Bob: He's the star of the BBC show called, The Real Hustle which has aired or been copied in 70 countries over the better part of a decade. A real-life trained magician, in the show Conran and his band of thieves architect hundreds of crimes on unknowing consumers, film them all with hidden cameras, then reveal the crimes to the victims all in the name of educating the public about scams to help make consumers a little bit safer, a bit like what we do here at The Perfect Scam. We are so very lucky to have him here today. Here's my conversation with a real hustler.

[00:02:10] Alexis Conran: Here it is again.  

[00:02:11] Bob: It's delightful to hear your voice. It's been 7 years maybe since we've spoken. 

[00:02:16] Alexis Conran: Yeah, it's been a, it's been quite a, a long time. What on earth has happened in the last 7 years, Bob?

[00:02:22] Bob: I, I don't really know. Um, you know, to this audience here is a little bit different, um, although not that different from the conversations we've had in the past. Um, but just so, to make sure that you can properly introduce yourself to them, uh tell them who you are and what you do. 

[00:02:38] Alexis Conran: My name is Alexis Conran. I am a TV presenter and a radio host, and I guess the thing that really sort of propelled me into the world of presenting was a show that I did ooh, a few years back now. It was called, "The Real Hustle," and it was a, a sort of a one of a kind show when it came out. It was a hidden camera show, but we used to scam members of the public who didn't know they were being filmed, and then we would hustle them. We did all sorts of hustles; we stole cars, we stole watches, wallets, we did investment scams, we did property scams, we did tech scams, we did casino scams, we did a whole series in Las Vegas where we showed some casino cheating moves. So the show was all about hustling and filmed with hidden cameras, and then everything was revealed, and of course, we gave everything back. It was entertaining to watch. There was sort of sit on the edge of your seat stuff, will they get away with it, will they get caught, but also, it was really educational. In my career since, I've come across a lot of people who said, "You know what, I saw something on The Real Hustle, and then it actually happened to me. But I knew it was a scam because I'd seen it, I'd seen it on TV." And after a while we realized that it was, it was not just entertaining, but it was also, it was like a public service, because the more we talked about those scams, and the more people saw what those scams looked like and felt like and sounded like, the more they were able to recognize those scams when they happened to themselves.  

[00:04:09] Bob: Did you set out to do a TV about scams? 

[00:04:13] Alexis Conran: I didn't, you know. It wasn't my idea, um, which was rather a shame, because I think I would have been a lot wealthier had it been my idea, 'cause the show sold literally all over the world, I think over 70 territories bought it. There was an American version that was done. There was a Russian version that was done, but that was more like robbery than hustling. But the idea was that the production company's, and I sort of fell into it because I was an actor at the time, but I was also a magician, a sleight of hand artist, so I kind of knew my way around deception which is really what it's all about. Maybe I've inherited a gene from my late father. He was actually a conman. I, I grew up in Greece. I didn't have much contact with him, but he was a, a genuine conman, a fraudster. He, he was doing cons to subsidize his income because he had a huge gambling addiction. It was never my intention to end up being an, an expert in deception or an, an onscreen hustler, but I, that's where I've ended up, and it's, it's a nice place to be. 

[00:05:21] Bob: So let's be clear. Alexis has never committed a crime, but through the hundreds of scams he's filmed on unsuspecting people, he probably has more of a feel for the criminal mind that anyone who's on the right side of the law. And to get this out of the way, yes, success can be thrilling, but at the same time, it can feel awful. 

[00:05:45] Alexis Conran: I've got to say the pulling off, pulling off these scams, the, the hustles, when we were doing The Real Hustle from the, the very beginning, like from the very first scams of it, the rush that you get is unbelievable. It's not because you fooled someone, it's not because you've pulled one over, it's just because there is the feeling of getting caught and getting away with it, and I think a lot of scam artists become addicted to that, the idea that they come close, but they sort of somehow get away with it, and you develop this sort of euphoria of excitement, huge nervousness and then this huge amount of relief, because there's always a moment when it happens. A scam always leads up to a, just a particular moment, whether that's them handing you the keys to their house, their car, whether that's them clicking that pay button in order to, to pay you the money or handing you over the cash. There is, there is an, a, a crescendo and then it happens. And then there's an immediate release that all that planning that you've put in, all that work and rehearsal that you put in has sort of paid off. So I definitely think, you know, con men get addicted to that. But I also think that there is an incredible amount that is desensitizing as a human being. So, I am not a, a criminal, Bob. I hope, I hope you, you can acknowledge. Let's be, let's be clear about that. 

[00:07:18] Bob: Let's be clear about that, yeah. 

[00:07:20] Alexis Conran: I've never done it as a criminal. I've always done it as someone who's been presenting a TV show. And I have found it at the time quite hard to do that to people. It requires a different set of scruples, you know, a complete lack of ethics to look someone in the eye and, and let's be clear about this. We were making a TV show. We were very careful who we targeted, we had done our research, we knew a lot about them, we knew that they had the capacity to withstand, that's probably too harsh a word, but we they'd be okay with it. And most of the time we had another family member or a friend who was in communication with us so that we could make sure that that person was okay. But to look someone in the eyes and take their livelihood, take something that they care about, steal from them, it, it's actually a really difficult thing to do because most of us grow up knowing that that's wrong, and you know, we feel that that's wrong when we're, when we're carrying it out. So I found that quite difficult. And there were times, there were one or two occasions where myself and the other presenters, we'd stop a scam and go, this is, this doesn't feel right. This, this feels like this person is, is in too fragile a state for us to, to do something like this, and we'd come clean and explain to them. I guess I what I'm trying to say is it feels so wrong. So what con men, real con men who go out and do this and don't do it to be sure, they have no scruples. They see someone who's old, and who's vulnerable, and who's weak, and who's in a terrible point in their life, and they go, ooh, yippee, you know. But like I can, this is going to be an easy win for me. 

[00:09:09] Bob: Something else criminals have in common, arrogance.

[00:09:13] Alexis Conran: A lot of these conartists just have this iron clad confidence in themselves, hence the word "con man," that they just know that they're going to get away with it. Some have been described as sociopaths. I'm not qualified to judge one way or the other, but there is this sort of lack of humanity accompanied by this feeling of invincibility in some of the cases that I've come across. And having carried out those scams myself, those are two good attributes to have if, if you want to be a successful conman.  

[00:09:50] Bob: As a sleight of hand expert from a very early age, and then later as a professional magician, well Alexis knows a lot about how to deceive people. Now, as part of various efforts to educate the public on scams, he often talks about what he calls the elements of deception. 

[00:10:09] Alexis Conran: Well this is, so this is, we've worked together, Bob, and, and you've seen me sort of give this talk. It's just my observation of all the scams that I have done. They always have these common elements, they're sort of principles that, that are, are always present in a scam. Now sometimes it's just one of the principles is, is present. Sometimes it's three or four principles that's present. But I've yet to come across a scam that didn't have at least one of these principles involved. And the advantage I have, and I don't like sort of blowing my own trumpet here, but the advantage I have is I've done so many different scams. And when you look at master criminals, a lot of them focus quite rightly, they become experts on one type of scam, whether that's financial fraud, stealing cars, stealing wallets, property fraud, you know, boiler rooms, all the kind of stuff. But on The Real Hustle, we did all of those scams. We did every single scam imaginable. We went out and did it– impersonation scams, everything. So, you get a wide variety of those scams, and you start really realizing, sort of joining the dots together of what makes all these scams work. What psychological principles are involved to convince someone of your story, because essentially, Bob, that's it, isn't it? A scam is a story, it's a narrative. My job as a hustler is just to get you to believe in me and believe in the story. That's all I'm trying to do. Now, you could say, and, and I will say, but I don't want anybody to get offended, but you could say the same applies to advertising for example, or politics, it's all about narratives. Buy my narrative, buy my story. 

[00:11:52] Bob: Buy my story. That's the goal of anyone trying to deceive you, to sell you a story. So elements are often present when a criminal is selling a story? Element number 1: Misdirection. 

[00:12:08] Alexis Conran: Misdirection is something that we use in the world of magic and sleight of hands, the idea that I make you look one way whilst I'm doing something the other way. I don't want you looking at my hands, and I'm going to distract you by focusing your attentions on something else. Maybe I'll ask you a question. That means that you're going to have to give me some eye contact, which means that your eyes go to my eyes, but they're not on my hands in the moment when I might have to do something fishy. Now, misdirection is a common trait. You want your victim to be focused on something positive. You don't want to be focusing their mind too much that they're, on the fact they might be, I don't know, they might be about to buy some tickets for a concert in the middle of a street from someone they've never met before. That's not something you want them to focus on. What you want them to focus on is how wonderful that concert's going to be, and what a great deal they're getting. So that's what you're going to focus on. A lot of the email scams, again, that you see or text messages, employ an element of misdirection there as well. You might get an email, for example, or a text message that says, did you just spend $3000 at the Apple store in Paris? Now you’re sitting there in London or New York or Los Angeles, now you're going to panic. You're going to go, well that's not me. $3000 has just left my account. The text message will have a nice little link that say, "click here to report the fraud." You know, again, that's misdirection. Why? Well, because you're now focusing on the fact that you may have lost some money from your account, because that's clearly not what's happened, and you're not focusing on the fact that a text message has just come through, and you're about to click on a link which, Bob, as you and I know, clicking on links in text messages or emails, even if they are from people you know, is an absolute no-no. If that does happen, contact your bank. Do not click on any links. So, I don't know if that's clear, but misdirection's this idea that I get you to think one thing because I don't want you to focus on another thing.  

[00:14:03] Bob: Element number 2: Time pressure. 

[00:14:07] Alexis Conran: So, time pressure is a legitimate sales technique. You're just pressuring someone to make a decision quickly and there on the spot. You don't want them to focus on what they're about to do for too long. You know, boiler room scams, those people that call people out of the blue, cold calls, they are notoriously good from preventing you from hanging up. They will keep you on that phone and almost badger you into submission to give them a sale. And that, they will use techniques of once I hang up, the deal is gone, the deal's no longer. It's only going to be valid for, you know, the following days. You need to make your mind up right now. Every time I have to say, Bob, that I've come across something which has a time limit on it, I always sort of think twice. And you see it. You see how successful it is in, in sales. For example, look at Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Yeah, people spend ridiculous amounts of money on stuff that they don't need. Why? Because it's only available for that day. So we know it works psychological, and of course, criminals use it all the time. 

[00:15:15] Bob: Element number 3: Herd mentality. Behavioral scientists call this social proof we tend to do what everyone around us is doing. If we're not sure about a situation, we look around, look to others, to the herd for proof that things are okay. One way to learn how this works is to watch street hustlers play a shell game, Alexis says. 

[00:15:39] Alexis Conran: First of all when you watch that game being played, there is a gang playing that game. It's not just one guy with some cardboard boxes and a couple of cards or disks that has decided to set up. You can be absolutely 100% sure that there are at least two or three other people in the gang who are in the crowd. And they are his shills. They are his, part of the team. One of them's probably on the lookout to see if any police are coming. And the other two are playing along. They are pretending to be interested customers. This is that principle that we all like, you know, that if everyone else is doing it, you know, the herd principle, then it's okay, it's, it's all right for us to, to, to sort of play along. So if you're seeing two or three play this game and they're having a lot of fun and they're winning some money, you're much more likely to go and play it yourself.  

[00:16:27] Bob: In the internet age, it's easier than ever to build this sensation that everyone's doing it. 

[00:16:33] Alexis Conran: So you see ads on Instagram, and on Twitter and on Facebook, and if you've, if they've got, you know, 50, 60,000 likes, a 100,000 likes, all of a sudden you give them a sort of legitimacy. You say, well this, this is going to be genuine, so many people have shared it. Well, it's not necessarily the case. 

[00:16:51] Bob: Plenty of folks might think they don't do things just because everyone else is doing them, but as Perfect Scam listeners know, all of us are vulnerable. 

[00:17:01] Alexis Conran: Some people listening to this will go, well I don't do that. I, I, you know, I'm not a sheep. I make up my own mind. And but unfortunately you do, and it's a good thing that you do. The herd principle is the reason that we're still here, Bob. We haven't been eaten by bigger, stronger animals because you know it, it, it's what's kept us safe, that we've acted as a herd. You know, a couple of thousand years ago, if you saw a bunch of people running away from something, you joined them and run away. You don't have to go, oh, hang on a minute, no I need to investigate is that really a flesh-eating dinosaur that they're running away from. Oh yes, it is. Oh, now I'm dead. So, we need the herd principle, but it's a very, very powerful thing because it means that you're taking the cues as to how to behave from your environment. You're looking at what everybody is doing, and you follow suit. Now me, as a hustler, if I know that, then all I have to do is to manipulate your environment. Okay, I fill your environment with stooges, I fill your environment with people who are going to behave like I want you to behave. We want to fit in to what everybody else is doing, and that's incredibly powerful.  

[00:18:05] Bob: Yet another element of deception involves copying familiar icons, logos, badges, uniforms, and copying their credibility too. That's something else that's easier in the internet age. 

[00:18:20] Alexis Conran: All those things are really, really important to people. It's incredibly powerful to wear a uniform or a, a good suit. People assign you with responsibility when you have a high visibility jacket on. I mean, the thing costs like 10 bucks and all of a sudden people think that you're in charge. So these things are, are really kind of prevalent amongst the hustling world, and in the cyber world, the equivalent of a high vis jacket or to a really nice suit is a really well-designed website, okay. Someone you've never heard of says, check us out, you know, google us. And you land on their webpage and it's beautifully designed, it looks like someone spent money on it, but actually, what are you looking at? You're just looking at some code. You're not looking at a real company, but we can't help ourselves. We are ascribing quality and value to something like a webpage because we always need to sort of make sense of things, but those logos, those symbols, those badges, those uniforms, they're all hugely powerful in the world of scamming. 

[00:19:25] Bob: Well, and it seems to me that in the cyber world, a lot of these elements that you're suggesting are, are even easier for the criminals. I mean it's one thing to buy a, a uniform. It's another thing to just have to cut and paste a logo into an email, right?

[00:19:37] Alexis Conran: Yeah, exactly. And I mean the, the level of skill required now, I mean is a question I, I always ask audiences. I always ask people to put their hand up if they think it's easier to scam people now in 2022 than it was let's say in 1982. And it's, it's so funny, because people kind of think, oh, well, you know, back then, they didn't have, you know the encryption that we have, you know face ID, you know, all that kind of stuff, and people kind of tend, tend to think that it's harder for criminals today, but it's, it's definitely not the case. In the old days, I mean I'm old, but I'm not that old, and I definitely haven't been scamming for such a long time, but in the old days people really had to develop a skill. You had to have proper knowledge. And that knowledge, you couldn't get it from Google. You couldn't get it from Encyclopedia Britannica. You had to get it from getting involved in the criminal world. You had to get to know other criminals who were going to tell you how to commit crime, and were going to help you along. You know, and some people went off and invented crime themselves and they, but they had to have some basic knowledge of how to do stuff. If you want to hack wi-fi, you can watch a video on YouTube that's going to teach you how to do it in 10 minutes. If you want to get hold of um, you know credit card numbers and fake IDs and all that, it's all available out there. It requires no skill, and it's very inexpensive. The tools with which you can spoof text messages, email addresses, all that kind of stuff is just, it's out there, and most of the time it's free, and people with very little technical skill are able to go out and use them and, and put them out into the real world. And the other problem you have is that the chances of these people getting caught are still quite low. Now, again, I think the authorities are doing an incredible job all around the world. It's very, very difficult what they have to do, but there are enough criminals getting away with it where the risk/reward ratio makes sense from a business point of view. We can make X amount of money sending out, you know, 2 million spoof text messages with a bad link on it. The chances that we have getting caught and being put away are so small that it's worth taking the risk, and I think that's what goes through the minds of many criminals worldwide.  

[00:22:09] Bob: Alexis told me he has a particular distaste for romance scammers. We see a lot of them on The Perfect Scam, too. 

[00:22:18] Alexis Conran: It's funny that I did a program not too long ago where I actually got to speak to a scammer who told me what they were looking for. He was um, he was someone who was scamming people on those dating websites. I don't know why he agreed to speak to me, but he did. Uh, he was very candid. He asked, he answered all the questions I asked him. They put a lot of work into the sweetheart scams. They will often have 10, 15, maybe even 20 people on the go. Because what they've realized with online sweetheart scams is if you go straight in and ask for the money, that's, that's going to blow up. Sometimes they will work a mark, work a victim, you know, months, 6, 12 months sometimes before they will ask for that money. They're building that narrative; they're building that relationship. Now what was fascinating is I said to him, how do you target the people that you go for? So you go onto a profile? He sets up his fake profile, he'll use a, a fake photo, he'll create a fictional character. I mean it's amazing that sometimes they'll, they'll take inspiration from real life people and sort of manipulate that a little bit. But I said, how do you, how do you troll through all the people on there? Why would you pick one person over another? And there was a few little things that I thought, that's kind of quite fascinating. So he told me that he will go after people, this was just him, I'm not saying that they all do this, but I think it's useful information. You go after people who he could identify as being religious because of, well obvious reasons, they're going to be a kind person, they're going to be someone who will have, will give them, will give him time to express himself, have compassion, someone he can form a good bond with. So that was one thing that he was looking at, but also, through the photos, he was looking at signs of disposable income. So he would look at the photos and look at interior design, and he would look at cars, whether there are cars. He would target, another big thing is he would target, as you mentioned, people who have been widowed or divorced or separated. And people from a certain age and above, so over 40. But he would look for signs of disposable income, and those were houses with gardens, those were people that had cars, but also people that had pets, which surprised me. But I said, "Pets? Why would you..." He said, "I, I always go for people who have cats and dogs." I said, "Why?" He said, "Because it shows me there's disposable income." They could afford to have a cat and dog and therefore, they have some money. 

[00:24:59] Bob: I've talked about this a lot as host of The Perfect Scam that, that digital age has made things much easier for criminals. It's easier for them to find a pool of victims, even from across the world, and it's easier for them to move money across the world. For every security tool invented by techies, criminals figure out a way around it. But Alexis reminded me the cat and mouse game isn't really new. 

[00:25:26] Bob: I feel like we, we try to suggest that there are simple answers for people, you know, just don't click on links like you're saying, but the, but the world we've constructed is actually rather perilous, I think, for a lot of people.  

[00:25:37] Alexis Conran: It is. It is perilous, and it's, it's going to continue to be so. And with the advent of things like deep fakes and deep voice fakes, I think uh we've got another thing coming, this idea that you can synthesize someone's voice by just using a recording of the real person, feed it into an AI machine and that's going to be able to synthesize their voice, their style of speaking, their intonation, the, the, their pace, everything is going to be copied. But then again, I think we've been here before, Bob. I think that every step of the way since, you know, the dawn of time, where someone's made something secure and then someone's come along and broken it, and then someone makes something else secure, and then someone else has gone and broken it. You know, imagine the first coin that was minted, and then someone's gone, well I can copy that. With all those things you kind of get to a point where you think, oh my God, how are we going to solve this? 

[00:26:38] Bob: And that's why Alexis is so passionate about consumer education. 

[00:26:43] Alexis Conran: Where I always come back to is that what you want is you want a public that's educated. You want someone, I would rather explain to someone what will happen if they click on a bad link, what is it going to look like, what is likely to happen, than tell them here's a piece of software. Always ask yourself, is this likely? I had an email from my mum saying, "Ah, I saw this on YouTube. I thought you'd find it funny." My mum's never sent me anything from YouTube, ever. Right, but it was her email address. But I knew it was a scam because that's not how she behaves. And they're very good at that. I'm way better at spotting that than a, than a machine will be at spotting something like that. So actually, you know, asking yourself constantly, is this likely? And keeping in mind that, you know, at any point where you're getting a message that is urging you to take any sort of action, don't. And take that action knowing that what you are clicking on, the phone number you're dialing is genuine. So you get a text message from your bank saying we've spotted some, you know, suspicious activity, give us a call on this number. Don't. Give them a call on the number you know and trust. If they say, click on this link, don't. Pick up the phone. Speak to your bank, I've just received this message. So it's actually sort of basic stuff, but you're right, it's, people are being saturated and inundated with so much that they live online with links and emails and text messages and social media and everything. But actually, all we need to do is take a step back, show people what's possible, and I think people are capable of doing the right thing themselves.

[00:28:22] Bob: I think you are capable of doing the right things, too. Alexis offers a great rule of thumb. For almost any encounter offline or online, ask yourself, is this likely? But I also think any of us are capable of being attacked at the wrong time in the wrong place at our most vulnerable, and we can become the victim of a crime. And that's why your best bet in every one of these situations is to get out of them as soon as possible. Hang up the phone if you don't recognize the speaker. Better yet, don't answer the calls. Let them go to voicemail. Don't respond to emails or private messages you don't expect. Never share passwords, never send money without talking through things with trusted family members or friends. And remember Alexis, he knows the criminal mind, and he'll tell you, criminals are capable of doing things to people you would never do. They lie, they cheat, they steal from people on their deathbed. They'll do anything, so you can't let your guard down. We'll keep trying to help.  


[00:29:40] Bob: Thanks for listening this season. A special thank you to Producers, Julie Getz and Annalea Embree, and Researcher, Haley Nelson who you don't hear often, but they make the show happen. And of course, to our Audio Engineer and Magic Maker, Julio Gonzalez. We'll be back soon with more original episodes of The Perfect Scam. For AARP, I'm Bob Sullivan. 




In this bonus episode, host Bob Sullivan welcomes special guest Alexis Conran. Conran’s insight into the mind of a con man comes from acting as one on the popular BBC show The Real Hustle. On the series, Conran, an actual trained magician, and his team perpetrate scams on unsuspecting consumers and then reveal the crimes to the victims (now in the hundreds), all in the name of educating the public. Conran discusses what he’s learned about the criminal mindset and what he has identified as the elements of deception.

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