An ex-professional con man lets us in on who the biggest targets are and how to avoid being one.
Barroom scams, crooked card games, chain letters, work-at-home schemes, "free" vacations, dice cheats. Take it from ex-professional con man Simon Lovell, there are thousands of ways to get cheated out of your hard-earned cash. In his book, How to Cheat at Everything, Lovell reveals the tricks of his former trade. Lovell pulls back the curtain on dozens of scams and hustles, everything from simple scams for getting free drinks to the criminal frauds considered the most common and dangerous by the New York Police Department.
"Some people write about cons with a preachy tone," Lovell says, "but my book is more a fun romp through the world of the con man. I shouldn't say this, but some cons can be brilliant. After all, there's a beautiful elegance about Victor Lustig selling the Eiffel Tower twice."
On the other hand, there's nothing elegant about getting cheated at cards, or having your girlfriend fall prey to a psychic scam. "Unless you're sitting in a big game, in a sleazy place, with $25,000, the chances of you running into a big con man, at that level, are negligible," Lovell says. "The chances of you running into a guy who's going to take a couple hundred bucks off you—that's gonna happen once or twice in your life, easy."
With this in mind, Lovell briefs us on some cheats to look out for and general advice on avoiding con men, so you'll always be playing to win. "If you look like you're what we call in the trade 'fast company'—somebody with knowledge," Lovell says, "then you're less likely to be conned."
Diabolic Duo Just like in a fight, a poker game isn't fair if it's two against one. And a common poker scam involves two players working in collusion. They don't even have to win every pot. By signaling each other what cards they have, the pair can get an advantage over everyone at the table. "Whichever of the team has the worst pair folds, every time. The team gets to play the best of two hands, and everyone else only gets to play one." Collusion is rife at underground poker clubs. Sometimes, colluding partners will be overly antagonistic to each other, but there's no universal tip-off that people are colluding. "Good poker players have a sixth sense that tells them that something isn't right in a game. If you get that feeling, trust it, get up and walk away."
Getting Your Checks Cashed You just won a big hand at a poker game. As you lean back in your chair to celebrate, another player says, "Nice job," and pushes the huge pile of chips your way. With a little subtly applied stick'em, like what bankers use to separate bills, he also palms a couple of your chips (or "checks," as they are known in the business). "Never let anyone other than a dealer touch your chips," Lovell says.
Three's Bad Company You see a big crowd around a man quickly tossing cards in a game of Three Card Monte. There's a guy at the table trying to pick out the red queen, and he's done it several times in a row. You watch him try to follow the queen, and he picks the same card you would have—several times in a row. You get confident you can do it, too. Next thing you know, you're out a lot of money. "If anyone tells you they won money at Three Card Monte," Lovell says, "they're either a shill or a liar." A shill is a man who is working with the Monte man, "winning" hands to lure in a mark. And the shill isn't the only person in the crowd watching the game who is in on the action. There might be a "hook"—a cute girl who encourages you to get in the game. There's likely a "dip," or pickpocket, who will go for your wallet if you're just watching. And there's definitely a "Freddy," short for "Fourteen Week Freddy," the muscle behind the game, who will step in when victims get angry. "They call him Fourteen Week Freddy because you'll spend 14 weeks in the hospital when he's done with you," Lovell says. Often, the only person in the crowd not in on the scam is you. "They call that the 'hot seat'." Avoid it.
The Curse of Psychics Most guys aren't going to go to psychics. Their girlfriends or wives, on the other hand, go in for tarot readings and love lines, often done by "shut-eyes," as they are known in the con business—people who actually believe they can tell the future. If it's just a $25 "therapy" session, Lovell has no problem. But some psychics—the "open-eyes"—know it's a fraud and are simply in it to make as much money as possible. These people can take the psychic scam to much more expensive levels. They will say that you are suffering from a curse, and that you must pay them thousands of dollars to remove it. "They'll break open an egg and a spider will crawl out, and they'll say the curse is removed, now you owe me $12,000," Lovell says. "The only curse you have is meeting them. Just tell them, 'Thank you, gotta go, I'm happy with the curses I got.'"
Dart in Your Wallet Who doesn't like a friendly game of darts at a bar? And what if a stranger threw this proposition your way: He'll put a hundred-dollar bill in the center of the board, by sliding the corners under the metal rings. For 10 dollars, you can take three tosses. If all three hit the bill, you win the hundred. Ten-to-one odds in your favor. You throw the first dart from the line, the second from one step in front of the line, and the third, after taking two steps back. "This bet is almost impossible to win," Lovell says, "and the better you are at darts, the harder it is." Why? Because if you are good at darts, you know how to throw from the line. When you move a step forward, your throw will almost always go higher than you think. And when you step two steps back from that spot, you will be completely off your mark. "I've seen professional darts players completely miss the board on that third throw," Lovell says.
Greedy Grandpa "One thing people say to me all the time is, 'You don't look like a con man.' I say, 'What would you expect one to look like?' Every stranger you meet might be a cheat." Lovell offers an example. There's the old guy sitting down, crying, in the street. He's going to see his daughter, who just had a baby, and he says he's been mugged. "He might even be a bleeder," Lovell says, "like they have in professional wrestling, a guy who gets a scrape on his head and bleeds everywhere." He's disoriented, and he's just trying to see his grandkid. He asks you to give him money to get there, and he promises to pay you back. He has a business card, and it says that he's a doctor, or a lawyer. So you give him the money, and you feel good about helping a guy when he's been mugged. "He's not the one who's been mugged," Lovell says. "You have."
Broadway Burglary Common and dangerous frauds in Lovell's book generally target the elderly or vulnerable. However, some scams can work on anyone. You get a letter saying that you've won a night out at a Broadway show of your choice and dinner. You're skeptical, so you check it out. The restaurant owner says that dinner and tip are all taken care of. You have great seats at the show. "You've had the night of your life," Lovell says, "until you get home, and your stuff is gone." Be wary of anyone who comes by your home to do a survey or for any other reason that requires going inside your house. While you fill out the survey, Lovell says, the guy has "peeked the poke" -- he's looked around your apartment and worked out how much it is worth. "They can work it out to the dollar amount what they'll get for your stuff," Lovell says. "Then you get your Broadway ticket prize in the mail a few days later, and they know exactly when they've got five hours to clean you out." For the price of dinner and a show, they've bought the time to rob you blind.
Identity Crisis Never give your credit card to a site unless you're absolutely sure. "It's the same as Houdini; if a pair of cuffs has a keyhole, there's a pick to open it. If there's an encryption system, there's a way in. And if there's somebody good enough to create that encryption system, there's somebody good enough to break into it." And you should shred everything. "If I get a credit card application that you just tossed in the trash, I could apply for that card, use it to get your social security number and a driver's license, and then I own you."
Nice Guys Finish Last "There's a saying, 'You can't cheat an honest man.' I disagree. An honest man is trusting, so he's easier to cheat. If I'm going to pull a short con on you, and you look like 'fast company,' I'm gonna lose interest in you very quickly. I want an easy target. Give me the money, bye-bye."