by Jim Rossi
In this excerpt, author Jim Rossi meets a charismatic conman working the Las Vegas startup circuit, and he devises a plan to unmask him.
My book is 100% true and a whole lot of fun: a man-bites-dog scavenger hunt about a bunch of white-collar criminals I discovered, then hunted down, learning as I went. I hope this excerpt whets your appetite for the rest of the story! —JR
Excerpt: Cleantech Con Artists: A True Vegas Caper
I’m not a PI, although I briefly worked as one before spending a few years doing award-winning investigative journalism while hustling odd jobs in California. Then, when the Great Recession hit, I scored a debt-free ticket to graduate school in Sin City.
As a master’s student in history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I got to know a lot of interesting people while working on my thesis on the history of solar energy. One of them was a charismatic young solar energy entrepreneur who came on like a trance. I can’t even remember the first time I met him — at one of the dozen-plus clean energy conferences, summits, lectures, and events I attended as a grad student.
Xavier… “People call me X,” he said by way of introduction, in a soothing voice with an easy smile. X’s voice reminded me of smooth jazz: completely nonthreatening, no sharp notes, rhythmic… like a metronome? No, more like a pendulum.
One thing I was sure of: X was smart. He presented as a thirtysomething entrepreneur, short and slight of build, black hair, dark eyes, dark skin, probably Hispanic by the look of him. He boasted of his specialties: computer programming, solar panel engineering, television, animation — a real polymath. This guy had worked in just about every major tech field and knew lots of heavy hitters in New York, LA, and Silicon Valley. At least he said he did.
The only thing that really stuck out about X’s appearance was that nothing stuck out about him – no jewelry, nothing else that jumped out. X always took my business card but never gave me his. I never quite caught his last name. Over and over, I tried to engage him in conversation about what we saw and heard during these tours and conferences. In fact, that was what jumped out about him. At most of these events, the hard part is getting people to stop talking about their jobs. Yet when I asked X questions, he politely excused himself to the bathroom, a phone call, or another conversation. And when he returned, he kept his distance. It only happened once or twice before I detected a pattern.
“This guy’s a charlatan,” I told a colleague. But it didn’t matter at first. He was just some dude.
That soon changed. Within weeks he was charming higher-ups around UNLV and around Vegas, pushing for a major clean energy music festival fundraiser. And he offered to guest lecture at UNLV on behalf of the Silicon Valley nonprofit he was now representing – Cleantech Open. Our school, our students. My friends.
Who “Xavier” is, and what he’s really up to, suddenly become urgent questions. Using LinkedIn, I find and contact his former employers, and the mystery deepens. With help from friends, I begin using our professional networks to reach out and speak to anyone who had spoken to X.
* * * * *
“I think he might be running a scam,” I tell my ex-con biking buddy Hollywood John over coffee downtown.
“Of course he’s running a scam,” Hollywood John replies. “You just need to find out what the scam is.”
"Of course he's running a scam," Hollywood John replies. "You just need to find out what the scam is."
A minute passes, then an hour, then two. I lose track. The last dregs of coffee have grown cold. I nuke it in my microwave and drink it down; it still tastes pretty good. I flip through The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene’s classic synthesis of Machiavelli, Sun-Tzu, and more, once more. This is super-helpful. I need more of this. I flip open my laptop, head to Amazon’s webpage, then the website for Clark County Library just a block east of Vegas Towers, then finally UNLV’s Lied Library website.
The next morning, I start pursuing a third parallel line of inquiry. In addition to Xavier’s LinkedIn and other social media, and the leads I have gotten that are quickly filling an entire notebook, I make the first of many visits to Lied Library’s Special Collections. On the third floor, I sign in: name, date, time, book titles. Under lock and key here lay Sin City’s most comprehensive collection of books by and about fraudsters. I can read anything I want, but only during business hours, under the watchful eye of a librarian, with a written record that can be subpoenaed later if I get mixed up in anything.
I crack open a yellowed copy of the The Big Con, a pioneering 1940s sociological study by David Maurer. The Big Con inspired the movie The Sting starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. In The Sting, Newman and Redford stage an elaborate long con game called “the wire” to rip off a mobster who murdered their friend. A con job for a good cause; wacky hijinks ensue. The Sting won seven Oscars.
A con job for a good cause… I jot that down in my notebook.
Confidence artists, Maurer explains, are a special kind of fraudster: an artist who first gains the trust, or confidence, of their victims. The fraud is their canvas. All long cons possess at least three key ingredients: a grifter – the technical term for a fraudster; a mark – the victim; and the unique element – a shill. The shill serves as an accomplice, though often an unwitting one, that the grifter uses to gain the mark’s confidence. Prominent people and institutions make the best shills, because their networks contain the juiciest marks. The grifter befriends the shill in order to gain access to their network over a period of months, usually offering help of some kind without asking for anything in return. That’s the give before the take, as Maurer writes:
“It never employs violence to separate the mark from his money. Of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat. And if a con is successful, the mark – victim – doesn’t even know they’ve been taken – cheated – at least not until the con artist is long gone. They accomplish this through patiently screening their marks, employing elaborate subterfuge, and gradually drawing the mark into a venture that’s in a legal gray area – creating both an emotional bond and leverage for manipulation.”
Screen, subterfuge, legal gray area… The give before the take, a threat in the guise of a gift: the classic Trojan Horse strategy. At the core of every long con is a shell game, the short con where the money changes hands. The mark gets left holding an empty bag, either a literal or figurative one. As Maurer writes:
“Because of their high intelligence, their solid organization, the widespread connivance of the law, and the fact that the victim must virtually admit criminal intentions himself if he wishes to prosecute, society has been neither willing nor able to avenge itself effectively.”
Another book, a very short one, grabs my attention: How to Become a Professional Con Artist, by police detective Dennis Marlock. Con artists are “universally glib, amiable charlatans,” Marlock writes. Their key tools? Bluffing and rationalization.
As long cons grow more complex, other roles come into play besides the grifter, shill, and mark. Those roles sometimes overlap. They include a roper, who “ropes in” the marks; the inside man, the outside man or fixer – often a lawyer; and the face, often a woman used to distract or encourage the mark, or act as a mirror the mark’s emotions in order to build empathy. Maybe that’s why Allisen — X’s supposed “publicist” — speaks so little?
At the heart of the shell game? The forger. To learn more about forgers, I turn to the master: Frank Abagnale, author of the memoir Catch Me if You Can, adapted into a classic film by Steven Spielberg. During the Swinging Sixties, Abagnale impersonated a pilot from Pan-Am Airlines, bankrolling his globetrotting International Man of Mystery lifestyle by forging company checks with paper, ink, and scissors. After getting busted in 1969 and serving hard time, interrupted by numerous escapes from various foreign prisons, the Feds caught him, then made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. The FBI offered to commute Abagnale’s lengthy prison sentence in 1974 — if he started working for them. Abagnale grew into the job, eventually becoming one of the world’s top security consultants.
Forgers used to be “paper and ink men,” Abagnale explains, and he was their patron saint. But the game changed after Xerox debuted the color laser copier in 1987. Starting in 1990, Adobe Photoshop took it to the next level. As computer processing increased exponentially along Moore’s Curve, Photoshop got faster, better, and cheaper — and so did document forgery.
With Photoshop, “Almost anyone can professionally forge or counterfeit a wide variety of documents, day after day, for an investment of just a few thousand dollars,” Abagnale writes in The Art of the Steal, his anti-fraud manual. “If you’re one of the victims, the chances of getting your money back are abysmal, even if the swindler is caught.”
In other words, the best defense is a good offense
* * * * *
In Las Vegas, an often-transient city, the most famous ritual that has taken hold involves blowing things up when they have outgrown their usefulness, often in spectacular fashion. After the Mob casinos passed their prime, The Dunes, Landmark, Sands, Hacienda, and Stardust all went boom in a shower of fireworks, blast of explosives, and a cloud of dust, with thousands of spectators cheering on the creative destruction.
A controlled demolition: exactly what I have in mind. X marks the spot.
You can follow and reach Jim Rossi at cleantechconartists.com and at his LinkedIn profile. Cleantech Con Artists: A True Vegas Caper is now available on Amazon.
About the author:
Jim Rossi is a LinkedIn Top Voice and historian. An Eagle Scout, he wrote for the Los Angeles Times, Bike, and many other publications before the news media cratered, then earned master’s degrees from UNLV and the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Las Vegas. This is his first book.