It's an important business and life skill to be able to spot people with hidden agendas. But it's an important survival skill to be able to spot outright scam artists--devious people out to separate you from your money.

Those with hidden agendas are one thing, those that are con artists are another, so it takes another level of expertise to help protect you. I've enlisted the help of Harvard psychologist Maria Konnikova to do just that. Konnikova, the author of 2016's The Confidence Game, recently spoke to The Harvard Gazette and revealed the three core traits of a con artist and how to avoid being conned.

Konnikova says all con artists share some mixture of three traits: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. Only two to three percent of the population are truly psychopaths by the psychologist's estimation, which still seems insanely (no pun intended) high to me. I would have thought maybe a half-percent, but maybe I'm crazy (pun intended).

Narcissism is far more common because it's how shysters are able to justify the crappy things they do. They feel entitled to what they can scam away from others because they feel they deserve it more than the victims. This warped thinking allows them to take sympathy out of the equation.

But it also helps you to spot the con artist. Be aware when you're talking to someone who has an inflated sense of importance about themselves or their topic and who is showing little empathy and poor listening skills. Another tell is if they're too aggressive in expecting compliance to their wishes.

Machiavellianism is 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. This is a key skill for the con artist. You can increase your chances of spotting this by being aware of anytime you're in a one-to-one situation with a stranger and you find yourself all too easily being influenced. Especially when you're buying into a story built on hope, as that's what con artists prey upon most.

So now we know the job requirements for a scammer and can spot them a bit easier. But remember, these are deviants who are good at being devious so it takes more to keep them from plying their trade. Harvard psychology comes to the rescue once again:

1. Don't get emotionally engaged in stories from strangers.

Con artists are professional storytellers. Whether it's Anna Sorokin, known as "the Soho Grifter," who, posing as a German heiress, duped hipsters out of $275,000, or Elizabeth Holmes, who spun diabolical yarns about an entire company's premise (Theranos), this is what con artists do. The best tell an emotional story that transmits elements of what the listener already believes or wants to believe.

To avoid falling under the spell of an unscrupulous emotional story, employ a reality check when you feel yourself getting drawn in. Ask "Is what I'm hearing really true, does the storyteller have evidence, or do I just want it to be true?" 

2. Don't fall for FOMO.

Fear of missing out is how the debacle known as the Fyre Festival came into being. Scammers know this is a natural fear and will play on it in many ways. As Konnikova says: "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 hear, 'If you don't get it on this deal right now, we're going to run out--we only have 10 of these.'"

To overcome a fear of missing out, relationship experts Linda and Charlie Bloom say, focus on the experience, not what the experience symbolizes. For example, the Fyre Festival got some interested because it seemed like an amazing experience--the music, the food, the debauchery. But more were drawn to what the experience symbolized--that only the richest, hippest movers and shakers would be there--attendance was a status symbol. FOMO creates victims who are desperate for the symbol over the experience.

3. Don't accept friend requests from anyone you don't know.

Social media unquestionably amplifies the ability of even low-skill con artists to thrive and multiply. Scammers play on our emotions, and there's no better way to get a peek at our emotions than to become someone's "friend"--and then spy on them.

And because you've accepted these miscreants as a friend, others see that and assume "Oh this must be a good person" and bam--the scam multiplies. Which brings us to the next point.

4. Never share anything overly personal on social.

As Konnikova says: "Don't tell us how you're feeling, especially if you're down. Don't tell us when you're going through a divorce or a death. I know it's nice to have a lot of social-media support, but that's a con artist's bread and butter."

Unfortunately, there are people who'd rather use their time and talents for evil rather than good. Don't be another notch in their belt--tighten up your awareness of all the signs and no-nos.

Published on: Apr 19, 2019
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