Anna Sorokin in court.

Anna Sorokin, who allegedly posed as a wealthy German heiress, appears in New York State Supreme Court facing charges of grand larceny and theft of services.

AP Photo/Richard Drew

Nation & World

Pros at the con

long read

Psychologist Maria Konnikova ’05 studies scam artists and how to avoid them

The IRS has long dubbed the weeks leading up to the mid-April tax filing deadline “scam season” because of the predictable uptick of schemes and tricks designed to part the unsuspecting from their money.

But lately, in addition to the usual political charlatans and business cheats, a clutch of cons and scams tailor-made for social media has leapt off the pages of police blotters and captivated popular culture. Everywhere you look, TV documentaries, books, magazines, and podcasts have stories about cons. Scams and cons are definitely having a moment. Some of the most talked about:

  • Anna Sorokin, known as “The Soho Grifter,” allegedly swanned around the Manhattan party circuit for two years posing as Anna Delvey, a wealthy German heiress, conning an array of hipsters, trendy hotels and boutiques, and international banks out of $275,000 before her arrest in late 2017. Sorokin’s trial on multiple grand larceny charges began in New York in late March. Star showrunner Shonda Rhimes is developing a Netflix series based on her story.
  • Theranos, the blood-testing startup founded by Elizabeth Holmes, was sold to Silicon Valley venture capitalists, star board members like Gen. James Mattis and Henry Kissinger, and top pharmaceutical firms as developing the “iPod of health care.” Despite the product’s ongoing failures, Theranos was valued at $10 billion in 2014; by June 2018, it was shuttered and Holmes was charged with running a multimillion-dollar scheme to defraud investors, doctors, and patients. An HBO documentary recently aired, and a film starring Jennifer Lawrence is reportedly in the works.
  • Two recent documentaries, on Hulu and Netflix, chronicled the immolation of the Fyre Festival, an Instagram-curated mirage that bilked ticket-holders out of millions for a luxury music festival in the Bahamas that never happened. The festival organizer was convicted of federal wire fraud and sentenced to six years in prison.

Psychologist Maria Konnikova ’05 details the psychology of con artists and the techniques at work in con games in her book “The Confidence Game” (2016). She spoke with the Gazette about what makes cons work, how social media is affecting scam artists, and why we’re so obsessed with stories about scams.


Maria Konnikova

GAZETTE: In David Maurer’s classic 1940 book, “The Big Con,” he says confidence games are effective because they prey upon weaknesses in human nature, and that what makes someone an ideal victim or “mark” is not their level of intelligence, but their integrity. How do the most successful cons work psychologically, and is it the same for everyone?

KONNIKOVA: Every single con, no matter what the con is, has the same backbone. You have to tell a story. Con artists, at the end of the day, are confident storytellers. They’re the best storytellers in the world, the good ones. They tell us the stories that we want to hear, not the stories that are true. But we believe them because it’s what we already think is true and the way that we already see the world.

“The moment con artists stop existing is the moment humanity dies.”

Not a single human being sees the world objectively. We have all sorts of self-serving biases. Con artists understand what yours are, they’re able to figure that out, and then that’s what they use in order to sell you their con. And because it’s a story,  it gets you emotionally engaged. The moment you’re emotional, you’re no longer logical, you’re no longer rational. And the moment the con artist is able to engage you emotionally, the con artist has won because you’re already roped in, you’re already part of the story and it’s going to be really hard for you, if not impossible, to disengage. So: Storytelling to engage emotion, to create a link, to create rapport. That’s the way all cons, with different variations on that theme, will operate to ultimately sell you your vision of the world that you already believe in.

The reason that cons are successful has nothing to do with intelligence, nothing to do with integrity, nothing to do with anything other than a very basic human tendency to hope and to be optimistic and to think that tomorrow is going to be better than today was. Con artists prey on hope. So it’s great that con artists exist because that means we’re still hoping and we’re still willing to believe. The moment con artists stop existing is the moment humanity dies.

GAZETTE: Do con artists share a common psychological profile or core makeup?

KONNIKOVA: Yes. Not all con artists have all of these traits, and you can have those traits and not be a con artist. But there’s something called the dark triad: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. Out of those three, psychopathy is the most rare in the population and the most rare among con artists. It’s rare to find a true psychopath. People overuse that term. In general, psychopaths are about 2 to 3 percent of the population.

Now, narcissism and Machiavellianism: I think most con artists have those two. If you had to rank them, Machiavellianism, every con artist has. You can’t be a con artist without Machiavellianism because that’s the persuasion element. That’s being able to persuade someone to do what you want them to do without their being aware of it. They think it’s their own idea. If you’re going to be a successful con artist, you have to be good at that. That’s basically a requirement.

Narcissism is incredibly common because that’s how you’re able to justify to yourself a lot of what you do. Narcissism isn’t just an over-inflated ego or sense of self; it’s also, at its core, about entitlement. You feel entitled to all of these things because you’re so wonderful. That’s how a lot of con artists justify the crap that they pull on other people. They say “I’m totally justified in doing this because I deserve it more than you.” It enables them to cut sympathy out of the equation even if they’re not a psychopath. You don’t need to be a psychopath to not feel any sympathy for your victims.

GAZETTE: Are there more instances of elaborate frauds and scams these days or does it just seem like there are because of social media?

KONNIKOVA: It just seems like it because of social media. People are drawing more attention to it. Cons have always existed; they will always exist. Social media lowers the barrier of entry. I think there are more small-time cons because it’s become easier, but overall, there’s nothing, to me, that says there’s a rise in big cons right now. We’ve become more susceptible and you don’t have to be quite as good to be a con artist. The bad ones are the ones getting caught. The truly good ones, the ones we don’t know about because they’ve never gotten caught, those people were able to operate without technology. Now, there’s just more small fish who are able to do things that they wouldn’t have been able to do before because they weren’t talented enough. Social media makes it so much easier both in terms of crafting a false persona and also in terms of finding victims because we are just so incredibly stupid about what we share online.

GAZETTE: Have the frauds and scams of today changed much from 20 or 50 years ago?

KONNIKOVA: No, just the format. Nothing has changed. Just the trappings.

GAZETTE: How much is the “fear of missing out” a factor when victims fall for these too-good-to-be-true scams, like the Fyre Festival?

KONNIKOVA: That’s always the case. Think about investment frauds: “If you don’t do this right now, someone else is going to get rich and you’re not.” Think about the Gold Rush. Think about scarcity frauds where you say, “If you don’t get in on this deal right now, we’re going to run out. We only have 10 of these.” That’s all driven by fear of missing out but it’s amplified, obviously, on social media. So yes, that’s definitely a factor.

It’s really tempting to say social media has changed everything or to say that all of a sudden there’s been this seismic shift. And that’s just not true. That’s the easy way to frame it. A better way to understand it is the toolbox has expanded with every single new technology. And it will keep expanding and it will keep shifting, but the general game will remain the same. And the fear of missing out has always remained. That’s a part of humanity.

GAZETTE: Are there any recent scams or con artists that have intrigued you? The Anna Delvey “Soho Grifter” scheme was such a fascinating story …

KONNIKOVA: It was a very well-told story, but the con happens over and over and over. It’s actually one of the most classic cons because people want to be close to aristocracy and wealth and power. And she, very cleverly, homed in on exactly what people wanted.

I think the most despicable con artist [lately] is Elizabeth Holmes because she’s screwing with people’s lives. She was selling a technology she knew did not work, but that people were relying on for blood work. That is just unconscionable to me. But she was incredibly successful. She’s the one who stands out the most because it was very clear from the very beginning that what she was doing was not going to work. She was told as much, and rather than get the scientific education that was necessary, she dropped out of Stanford and ran a big con.

GAZETTE: Why are we so fascinated by scoundrels?

KONNIKOVA: Because they’re clever and we admire cleverness. It’s cool to see the story and be like, “Ha, ha! Look at how this person tricked them.” It’s not violent. We don’t usually see it as a violent crime. There’s no blood, no one was killed. And so it’s very easy to say, “This was just one person being smarter than the other and it’s a battle of wits.” We also forget the victims. We don’t even call them victims; we blame the victims. We say, “How could you have been so stupid?” It’s almost like it’s a victimless crime even though it’s not.

GAZETTE: What’s your advice for trying to avoid being an easy mark?

KONNIKOVA: Do not accept friend requests from anyone you don’t know. Never share anything personal, do not tell us how you’re feeling, especially if you’re down. Do not tell us when you’re going through a divorce or a death. I know it’s really nice to have a lot of social media support, but that’s a con artist’s bread and butter. Be careful. And if you don’t know someone in person and know exactly who they are, do not connect with them on social media, because that’s how you get credibility. Con artists just need a few people to accept them as friends and all of a sudden, they’re in the network and then people say, “Oh, you know X and Y, you must be decent.” And they also see more information about you.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.