How to Con People in Four Easy Steps

A con man with contract

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1. The Bait

Provide the mark (the victim of the con – but we don’t like to think of them as ‘victims’) a promise of some great benefit. Stress how easy it is to get that benefit, or how many people have received it before. It doesn’t matter if you could ever provide the bait, or even if it is totally imaginary, you won’t ever have to deliver.

Make a point of saying that the way to achieve the benefit won’t be hard work. No. The benefit is theirs for the taking easily. The only thing they are lacking is knowledge of how to get it, or the right skills, or the right contacts. In each case, you can supply those easily, and once the deal is done, everything is in place for them to receive their reward. Emphasize how little they’ll have to do.

2. The Sweetener

Anyone will be sceptical of the bait. So time to play the sweetener. Get a small commitment from the mark. It must be a real commitment, but can be pretty trivial. Get them to meet you somewhere, or go to some event, or pay a small up-front fee, or to register their details, or spend some time finding out more. This commitment has two benefits: it generates a sunk cost, and it provides a reason to give them a sweetener.

When the commitment is made, give them the sweetener: a disproportionate benefit up front. Whatever it is you are offering, give them a good chunk right now. This will leave you down on the deal – you’ll have given away more than you gained from the commitment. But they will now be ‘in the funnel’.

3. The Ratchet

With your mark in the funnel, it is time to ratchet them. This involves one or more cycles that are similar to the sweetener. You ask for a commitment, and you provide a return.

If the mark is still suspicious of the con, you may need to run more sweet cycles: providing them with benefits beyond their commitment. But very quickly you need to go sour: drop the return and increase the commitment so you are deriving real benefit from their involvement.

You continue to stress both the promise of the final reward and how easy it was to get the sweetener. For just a little more commitment, you say, they can catch hold of that ultimate prize.

4. The Play-On

Your mark will still be telling themselves the story of the big reward, and of how easy it was to get the sweetener. They will be keen to commit whatever it takes to complete that deal. At this point many cons play a dumb hand. They ratchet the mark as hard as they possibly can, extracting as much as possible and returning little or nothing. This burns the mark and ends the con. This is fine, as long as you’re good at filling your funnel, or if you are the only one who can fill the funnel.

A better move here is to play-on. The aim is to provide the mark with the resources to draw people into the funnel. Make this part of their required commitment, or a way to receive even more benefit.

Have your marks find other marks, and run the first two stages of the con for them. Have the marks themselves provide the sweetener for further marks, so you don’t have to invest in stage 2 any more. Your marks, still with the reward big in their eyes and the story of the sweetener on their lips, will be the best convincers for other marks, and your con will become self-sustaining.

Spanish Prisoners, 419 Scams, Ponzi schemes, Salting, Wire Scams. All follow these rules. As do most network and affiliate marketing schemes (a la Amway).

But how about Religion?, Alternative Medicine?, Employers?, Elected Officials?, Lovers?, You?

Is it actually a fundamental narrative of social interaction?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “How to Con People in Four Easy Steps

  1. Ian

    Im curious, are you one who can be conned?

  2. Ian

    @t4t

    Yes.

    I wonder if everyone is. Certainly I have been. I’ve not fallen for a 419 scam or any get-rich-quick scheme, but I’ve certainly ended up in business deals that have followed this broad pattern. And I can imagine that I’ve run the same pattern for clients in some deals I’ve made.

    I suspect there’s probably a pattern here that is somehow fundamental to how we work as people. I used the examples of Religion and AltMed* for that reason. I don’t think they are ‘abusive’ in the same way as a Ponzi scheme would be. But they can follow a similar script.

    I wonder if it is a tendency of us all to over-promise, or to allow people to over-expect. So then the initial results are good, but as time goes on the ‘ratchet’ is a by-product of never quite being able to fulfil the initial hopes or aspirations of the ‘mark’ and so the payback falls off. That’s definitely a feature of being a consultant in my industry, I think.

    * AltMed: You know that I don’t consider alt-med and regular medicine to be equivalent, by a long shot. But I wasn’t intending to have a dig at you here :). I could imagine that, in the US, conventional practitioners can fit this model too. Here in the UK, where our medical treatment is free at the point of use, I think it is very difficult to set up this patten, because the more I go for treatment the less benefit it is to the people providing me that treatment.

  3. I would imagine how you were raised or early life experiences would have some affect on how easily you are duped. Someone who learned early on that the world isnt always to be trusted may have some build in protection from shysters. Im in Canada, so I know what you mean about Health Care.

  4. Ian

    Yes, although I think you can also learn these things throughout life. In my early twenties I was sold an expensive piece of junk. I’m pretty thankful that I had that experience for a couple of hundred bucks. Because it really pissed me off and I’m hyper-aware now when someone tries to start putting the moves on me. I think I’m much less likely to be taken for a ride on a few thousand bucks or more.

    But then again, I could be kidding myself!

  5. Clay

    I got conned by an insurance company. It had all the gimmicks of connery stated in this blog. Bait—money, self independence, early retirement. Sweetener—seminars with hot women, free pizza, drinks afterwards. Ratchet– Commit to a 50/50 split on commissions, “Don’t worry, you’ll be closing so many deals you’ll be rich!” Play-on—“You just need to put more effort into it. You’ll get there…..eventually.” In the end they ran me off and confiscated my accounts for themselves. Now that’s a perfect example of a con-game.

  6. Ian

    So sorry to hear that Clay. I think the more people know how it works, the more people will see it when someone tries to target them.

    The scientific research shows that smarter people are more often victims. As long as we keep talking about ‘gullible’, people are more likely to be victims (nobody thinks they are gullible) and victims are more likely to blame themselves (“how could I have been so stupid”). In reality gullibility has nothing to do with it. The best way to stop people being victims is to help people understand how it works, so they can spot it.

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