We are all potential victims of the con artist
Denise Milani was a 32-year-old Czech swimwear model. Paul Frampton was a divorced particle physicist more than twice her age. What happened next was a tale as old as time: they met online; she sent messages by turns steamy and adoring; they arranged to meet in Bolivia, where she was doing a photo-shoot.
Alas, when Prof Frampton arrived in La Paz to meet her face-to-face for the first time, she’d had to dash to another shoot in Europe. Could she meet him in Brussels instead? And would he mind, terribly, collecting an empty suitcase of hers and bringing it with him?
Of course, the real Ms Milani had no idea that her photographs were being used by a Bolivian drug gang. Prof Frampton seems to have had no idea either, although a friend warned him — correctly — that drugs were surely concealed in the suitcase linings. Prof Frampton duly spent several years in a Buenos Aires jail for smuggling 2kg of cocaine.
Why do we fall for the con? The obvious explanation: some people are idiots, or in Prof Frampton’s case, idiot-savants. But he isn’t the only academic to fall for a fake persona online.
In 2007, psychologist Robert Epstein struck up an online conversation with Ivana, a pretty and affectionate woman from Nizhny Novgorod. He was sufficiently charmed that it took him four months to realise that she was a chatbot. What makes that incident notable is that Prof Epstein was no head-in-the-electron-cloud particle physicist: he is one of the world’s foremost experts on how computers imitate humans.
He concluded that he had been fooled by his own wishful thinking as much as by a clever programmer. This isn’t unusual. Maria Konnikova, in her elegant book The Confidence Game, puts it well: “Cons work so widely because, in a sense, we want them to.” Profs Epstein and Frampton wanted to believe that attractive young women found them desirable. Wishful thinking can lead us far astray.
So, too, can fear and greed. Visceral emotions are easy to exploit. The “Nigerian prince” scam hooks our greed. We are promised vast riches, unlocked by a small advance payment. Other scams prey on fear: one cold-caller claims to be from your bank, warning that your account has been compromised; another is from the Revenue, demanding prompt payment of unpaid taxes. Anxious and panicked, we find ourselves bounced into making decisions we would mock in others.
There is no single unified theory of the con. Certain con artists really are artists — astonishingly charismatic, bold and versatile. But Ms Konnikova points out that many cons, like many magic tricks, are uncomplicated exploitations of common human traits, often traits that in other contexts would be strengths rather than weaknesses.
Self-deception, for example, is surprisingly useful in everyday life. One psychological study of competitive swimmers found that those with a clear-eyed assessment of themselves were more likely to fail. Another study, of married couples, found that the happier marriages were also the ones in which the spouses had a fuzzy read on each other’s opinions. Life seems smoother if we can’t see the wrinkles.
We like to think of ourselves as exceptional. Indeed, we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t loom large in our own thoughts. Our self-absorption leads us not to ask hard questions when we are promised exceptional treatment. It seems reasonable that a voluptuous model finds us irresistible, that an African oil billionaire trusts us with his cash, and that Brexit will be a doddle because, if we are polite yet firm, Germany will give the UK everything we want.
While exceptionalism makes us susceptible, so too does emotional vulnerability. Bereaved people, or those on the rebound, are tempting marks. People who have fallen for anti-vaccine pseudoscience do so because they are anxious about their children — as well as feeling smart enough to see through Big Government, Big Pharma propaganda. Many con victims fall for a second, follow-up fraud as they lick their wounds from the first.
Extended confidence tricks, where victims are fleeced over many months by someone they trust, often begin with the con artist offering friendship, sympathy or easy answers to someone who is feeling wounded. The US and UK electorates may both wish to take note.
One of the final cruelties is that many victims of fraud continue to trust the fraudster long after the con should have been apparent. A pre-Ponzi Ponzi scheme — William Franklin Miller’s 1899 Franklin Syndicate — was striking not only for its scale, but for the way Miller’s investors continued to dote on him even after the New York Times exposed the scam. What was the Times anyway, but a purveyor of fake news?
What unnerves me about Prof Frampton is that my own father knows him well. They were students together decades ago and still keep in touch. When I think of Prof Frampton, I instinctively worry that the victim of the next con could be my father. Perhaps I should be more alert to the fact that the victim of the next con could be me.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 19 July 2019.