The perpetrator of a confidence trick (or "con-trick") is often referred to as a confidence (or "con") man, woman or artist, or a "grifter". The first known usage of the term "confidence man" in English was in 1849 by the New York City press, during the trial of William Thompson. Thompson chatted with strangers until he asked if they had the confidence to lend him their watches, whereupon he would walk off with the watch. He was captured when a victim recognized him on the street.
A confidence trick is also known as a con game, a con, a scam, a grift, a hustle, a bunko (or bunco), a swindle, a flimflam, a gaffle or a bamboozle. The intended victims are known as "marks" or "suckers", and when accomplices are employed, they are known as shills.
In David Mamet's film House of Games, the main con artist gives a slightly different description of the "confidence game". He explains that, in a typical swindle, the con man gives the mark his own confidence, encouraging the mark to in turn trust him. The con artist thus poses as a trustworthy person seeking another trustworthy person.
A short con is a fast swindle which takes just minutes. It aims to rob the victim of everything in his or her wallet. A long or big con is a scam that unfolds over several days or weeks and involves a team of swindlers, as well as props, sets, extras, costumes, and scripted lines. It aims to rob the victim of thousands of dollars, often by getting him or her to empty out banking accounts and borrow from family members.
Stages of the con
In Confessions of a Confidence Man, Edward H. Smith lists the "six definite steps or stages of growth in every finely balanced and well-conceived confidence game."
"One follows the other with absolute precision. In some games one or more of these acts, to use a theatrical comparison, may be dropped out, but where that happens the game is not a model one. The reference to the stage is apt, for the fine con game has its introduction, development, climax, dénouement and close, just like any good play. And this is not the only analogy to the drama, for the scenes are often as carefully set; the background is always a vital factor. In the colorful and mirthful language of the bunko man, all these parts of the game have their special names. I give them with their definitions:
The preparations which are made before the scheme is put in motion, including the elaboration of the plan, the employment of assistants and so forth.
The manner of getting in touch with the victim—often most elaborately and carefully prepared.
Rousing and sustaining the interest of the victim, introducing the scheme to him, rousing his greed, showing him the chance of profit and filling him so full of anticipation and cupidity that his judgment is warped and his caution thrown away.
Pay-off or Convincer
An actual or apparent paying of money by the conspirators to convince the victim and settle doubts by a cash demonstration. In the old banco game the initial small bets which the victim was allowed to win were the pay-off. In stock swindles the fake dividends sent to stockholders to encourage larger investments are the pay-off.
This is like the dénouement in a play and no con scheme is complete without it. It is a sudden crisis or unexpected development by which the sucker is pushed over the last doubt or obstacle and forced to act. Once the hurrah is sprung the victim is clay in the schemer’s hands or there is no game.
This is the point in a con game where the conspirator puts some of his money into the deal with that of the victim; first, to remove the last doubt that may tarry in the gull’s mind, and, second, to put the con man in control of the situation after the deal is completed, thus forestalling a squeal. Often the whole game is built up around this feature and just as often it does not figure at all.
In addition, some games require what is called 'corroboration', which means what it says. This is important in games where a banker or other shrewd customer is to be the victim."
Vulnerability to confidence tricks
Confidence tricks exploit typical human characteristics such as greed, dishonesty, vanity, opportunism, lust, compassion, credulity, irresponsibility, desperation, and naïvety. As such, there is no consistent profile of a confidence trick victim; the common factor is simply that the victim relies on the good faith of the con artist. Victims of investment scams tend to show an incautious level of greed and gullibility, and many con artists target the elderly, but even alert and educated people may be taken in by other forms of confidence trick.
Accomplices, also known as shills, help manipulate the mark into accepting the perpetrator's plan. In a traditional confidence trick, the mark is led to believe that he will be able to win money or some other prize by doing some task. The accomplices may pretend to be strangers who have benefited from performing the task in the past.
A greedy or dishonest victim may attempt to out-cheat the perpetrator, eventually realizing that he or she had been manipulated into losing from the beginning.