In a confidence game, the grift is usually separated into “short” and “long” cons. In Revolutionary Suicide*, Huey P. Newton talked about how he used to run a short con on merchants. He described (pp. 86-87) how he would distract them when they were making change and thus could walk away with ten bucks after starting with a fiver, or twenty if starting with a ten. It was petty stuff, but it was still a con. It relied on the charisma of the con artist and the trusting nature of the mark.
The long con is best exemplified by Bernie Madoff. He bilked people for nearly twenty years and despite many red flags flew under the enforcement radar due to his many relationships with powerful and influential people. The people he screwed over had been so taken in by his apparent financial brilliance (not to mention his well-polished reputation) that they, even up to the end, refused to believe they’d been ripped off by an amoral creep.
It helps to be handsome and fashionably dressed. Apparently this asshole created a fake company (a design and advertising agency) in London called Madbird and recruited people from all over the globe to come work for him. He was passionate, eager, articulate and quite convincing. Dozens of well-meaning people took the bait and logged hours of uncompensated work supposedly building a client base. It was all a sham. There was no company. And no money, either. All of these people had been promised salaries and bonuses at a future date. Those never materialized, of course.
The sad part, besides the folks who got hosed, is that there is a real company called Madbird in Olympia, Washington who do actual work and aren’t screwing anyone over. Imagine having to cover your ass because of some prick in another country.
One of the reasons the Ali Ayad bubble burst is that the BBC reporters used a simple internet search on the company’s address. Here’s what they found:
We all know how to use Google’s street view these days. If you do that on the address listed (182 High Street) here is what you see:
Funny how it turns out to be a law office. And so convenient to have a Subway right next door!
How is it possible for someone to bilk and bedevil all these people? For starters, the pandemic has put many into financially precarious positions. Folks are desperately looking for work and eager to seize any opportunity. Con artists understand vulnerability and exploit it. Secondly, it is easy to fake things in the digital age. Apparently much of the Redbird website consisted of stolen images and fictional bios. Finally, any of us are capable of being fooled. Con artists know that even the smartest and most skeptical of people can be victimized if the pitch is sufficiently tailored to them. In fact, intelligent people often fall victim to scams because they are convinced that they cannot be scammed!
I’ve been fascinated by con artists since the 1973 movie The Sting (a classic long con). In that movie, charming small-time rogues (Robert Redford and Paul Newman) manage to rip off a big-shot gangster (Robert Shaw). It’s all very feel-good because Shaw’s character is a baddie, and they have to overcome his naturally suspicious and conniving nature. But most cons target regular people who don’t have those traits. Everyday folks are mostly trusting of others because societies run on trust. Con artists know this and exploit it.
One of the few scholarly treatments of con artists is David W. Maurer’s 1940 book The Big Con: the classic story of the confidence man and the confidence trick. Many of the practitioners of the grift revealed elements of their craft and a truism emerged: “you can’t cheat an honest man.” The con artists relied on the greed of the mark to string him along. An honest man would recognize that the opportunity he was presented with was “too good to be true” and thus could not be taken advantage of.
But that’s not entirely true. Lots of honest, well-intentioned people get conned, mostly because criminals are not only slick but also don’t give a shit about who they hurt. Most ordinary citizens aren’t like that and thus don’t “think like a crook.”
The internet age has given the con artist a new platform and new tools. It’s bad enough we have to worry about identity theft, we shouldn’t have to deal with jerks like Ali Ayad, too. I suppose the old maxim of caveat emptor (buyer beware) is more important than ever these days. In America’s Wild West it was “keep an eye on your gold and a hand on your gun.” For those of us at home and behind our computers, it’s more like “keep your wallet in your pocket and your finger off the ENTER key!”
Be sure to check out BBC reporter Catrin Nye attempting to confront Ayad about his bullshit. His passive-aggressive and dissimulating responses are the obvious products of a morally corrupt person. His 90,000 Instagram followers ought to take a second look.
*Newton’s book is really quite remarkable and worthy of a read.