The Methods of Low-Level Con Artists: How They Approach You, Ensnare You, and Infect Your Human Network
by David Hartzell
A version of this article first appeared on the Momentum Detective Agency blog.
Fraud is a broad category of crime, ranging from quick street con to sophisticated international theft. At both ends of the spectrum and anywhere in between, con artists can make identification, capture, and punishment a lengthy and difficult endeavor for investigators.
Today I’ll offer some insights into what I’ve learned about low-level fraud and suggest some working theories on how the crime unfolds. These are essentially my working notes on the subject, which have been gleaned from countless real-world cases and helped put some very bad people in prison.¹
I offer them to educate consumers on making better business decisions—and to help you insulate yourself against cons that may be targeting you as we speak.
The Confidence Cycle
Con artists approach their marks using a variety of strategies. In a general sense, there’s the short con and the long con. But of course, that’s highly simplified: Often, a short con is a buildup to larger thefts, creating a hybrid of the two.
I’ve organized this brief overview of fraud into 4 phases: Intro, Target, Virus, and Escape. Note that these are cyclical, fluid, and often repeat as needed to prolong the con/victim relationship.
Gifts and Perks
In the intro phase of a confidence cycle, you’ll most likely bump into this person during your daily routine, or through a referral. They may give you a small gift or perk, like a gift card to iTunes or Best Buy, for example. This is not by chance and is often paired with an interesting story to quickly establish trust.
Rapport and Credibility
This person will listen very intently to you and may even take notes or record your chat before making an approach. They are easy to talk to and will chat with you about anything they believe will be of interest to you. They may read books on potential conversation topics and will study any available digital info on you (social media, news articles, etc.).
As the relationship progresses, they will learn more details of your personal life, interests, and network—to determine where your vulnerabilities lie. (In more sophisticated, “white-collar” scams, the con may also offer forged proof-of funds documents.)
The contact will often occur somewhere public, and may be a venue that with at least one of these basic characteristics:
- Free Wi-Fi
- Showers/hygiene facilities
- Busy/crowded space (i.e. a restaurant with high turnover)
- Higher income area
- Retail space that logically allows them access for several hours (i.e. Starbucks)
- Free food
Why the free wi-fi, etc.? In my experience (and in cases I’ve studied), scammers of all levels typically use a laptop—it’s an essential part of their toolbox. They move around frequently (In one case, I saw a guy move 41 times in 10 years.) and are opportunistic nomads, for whom a free wi-fi public area is a small but integral part of their quasi-gypsy lifestyle.
The free Wi-Fi serves several purposes from a criminal perspective as well: It’s one less utility in their name, hard to track, offers quick research tools for targeting victims accurately, and can be used to forge documents, set up fake companies and addresses, store victim data, and have it all readily accessible for future scams.
After the con artist has put in time developing the relationship, they will quickly make their “ask.” This is not the goal, but a way to test your limits (interest in the scheme, income, and/or capacity for greed). In short, this is their chance to observe your impulsive behavior patterns, in order to plan how to exploit them later.
The initial ask varies by con. It may be a small sum of money to meet an existing need, or a short-term place to stay, backed by an attention-grabbing story (“I need $100 to help save my dying sister”). It may also be more streamlined—a business deal or strategy that seems too good to pass down. You’re in sports? They know pro athletes. You’re a Hollywood wannabe? They know producers. You’ve been to Nepal? They’ve summited the North Face of Everest.²
The variety of ask and specific details are only limited by the imagination of the con artist.
Each con/victim relationship has unique principles of duality. Although con artists essentially view each relationship as a unique snowflake (and you in isolation from other marks), they may seek to insinuate themselves into your relationships. Given the chance, they may expand the victim network rapidly into your personal and business networks, running similar scams while driving a wedge between you and everyone you know. This isolation is an essential component of the scam.
Venues can be “infected” as well. Coffee shops become linked to fast food restaurants, which now link to fitness centers, which link to sushi bars. The grifter’s access and reach now can affect an entire strip mall, neighborhood, and potentially, an entire town.
This portion of a scam’s life cycle may allow the grifter to convert a small theft opportunity into a virtual hydra of criminal activity.
While scams can develop in innumerable ways, the exit options are significantly more predictable.
The Payment Plan
You may receive small repayments on your stolen money, or in some extremely rare instances, get it all back. The former is more common than the latter, and is typically indicative of other concurrent scams. You may get a personal check that ends up bouncing, and may not even have the criminal’s real name. You may receive an envelope of cash tucked under your mailbox, with a note or text message offering a vague explanation of why they couldn’t deliver it in person. You may get a rejected PayPal payment from a strange email address.
Make no mistake about it, these types of criminals have very few real friends or colleagues. Everyone they keep close, even family members, serve as viable options when crafting new aliases, associates, or employee names. You might experience a gap in contact with the con, but now a new person (if real, known as a shill), has contacted you in their place. (I have personally seen texts from a male con to a victim, from the same number, pretending to be a female secretary.)
Threats, Leverage, Blackmail
Con artists of this caliber possess exceptionally high emotional intelligence, and at this point know exactly what buttons to push to keep you under their thumb. Perhaps they send you a lewd photo or text message. Maybe they make a thinly veiled threat, or vaguely allude to an unfavorable scenario that ultimately ensures you stay quiet.
Although the most legitimate recourse would be to offer them their day in court, this isn’t always velvet-lined with poetic justice. Low-value con artists typically make handshake deals and slip away with impunity—no contract, no evidence. High-value con artists aim for the opposite, steering the case into civil court and buying their way out.
In either case, your best strategy is to stay vocal about the con. Swallow your pride and call your local sheriff, news team, and lawyer. Get moving before the con artist vanishes and sets up shop in a new city.
Successful, low-grade con artists can destroy lives in the snap of a finger. While typically nonviolent, they leave ruined families and businesses in their wake, and they feel absolutely no compunction for their deeds. A victim I once interviewed explained the con artist’s pathology like this:
“It’s like a diver. They dive too deep, they start forgetting which way is up.”
That’s why I’ve spent so much of my time, energy, and resources learning their methods. Southern California is rife with fraud, and I’ve declared open season on con artists.
If you feel you have been the victim of a scam, please feel free to contact us.
About the Author:
David Hartzell is the principal investigator at Momentum, LLC, a southern-California based detective agency. He spent 8 years as a Navy SEAL before entering the private sector, namely security and investigations. In the past 3 years, he has worked as a process server, private investigator, real estate agent and stuntman. He has served papers to rappers and athletes, bodyguarded for Calvin Harris, starred in Transformers 5, and has contributed to local and federal law enforcement in the pursuit, capture, and judgment of several major fraud-based criminals.
¹ Article mentioning Xavier “X” Mitchell, a career criminal who spent nearly 15-20 years conducting high-value wire fraud scams in Hollywood, on household names like Jon Favreau and Penny Marshall. He was arrested twice in January 2016, on at least 5 different felony counts, in both a pre-dawn raid on his home and again in broad daylight at a Starbucks in Burbank, CA.
² An actual LinkedIn contact request I received 12 hours before writing this article. The “rich Nigerian princes” have morphed into slightly less comical avatars, such as this one, a female British banker claiming to have climbed Mount Everest in an attempt to breach my network and eventually hustle my dad. She targeted my family, so allow me to publicly return the favor.