You Just Gotta Tell It Right

I’ve been binge-listening to fraud-focused true crime podcasts like Swindled, Drilled, and The Dropout. Bad Blood is the current book on my nightstand. True Crime books about notorious cons and scams abound. The Strategist, from New York magazine, offers a list of some of the best (Reading Lists, “The Best Books on Con Artists, According to True-Crime Experts,” July 5, 2018, Karen Iorio Adelson).

Some of the real-life fraudsters are so outrageous, if you pitched them as characters in a novel, your idea would be rejected as too fantastic. But con artists do often appear in crime fiction, in movies (Catch Me if You Can, American Hustle, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, House of Games, The Hustler, The Color of Money, Trading Places, White Men Can’t Jump, The Ladykillers, Focus, Ocean’s Eleven) and novels (The Grifters, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, Nightmare Alley).

If I wrote a novel starring a con artist, I’d choose a chameleon-like character who put on and shed new identities like a snake skin. My con artist (protagonist? antagonist?) would use those identities to insert herself into others’ lives, motivated more by a desire to reinvent herself , to erase herself and become someone new, than to defraud. Because, on occasion, wouldn’t we all like a do-over?

I asked my fellow Missdemeanors: If you were going to write a novel about a con artist, who would your protagonist be and what game would they play? Would you create another talented Mr. Ripley? A more sympathetic fraud like Jay Gatsby? Someone more noir like Jim Thompson’s grifters? Or someone modern, like a fictional Elizabeth Holmes or Anna Delvey or Bernie Madoff? Or would you break some YA hearts with a catfisher?

Cate: I would create a black widow, but I wouldn’t make her the typical hot young thing-a la Sandra Bridewell (what a name for a black widow, right? God has a sense of humor). I would make her a nurse at an assisted living facility who is only a decade younger than her elderly patients. Her motivation would be creating a retirement nest egg, so her ungrateful kids don’t stick her in a similar facility. I would also make her struggle with early onset Alzheimer’s, since that would complicate her schemes and love triangles.

Alexia: That’s cool, Cate. I like the dementia angle. Forgetting what you were doing would be dangerous for a con artist.

Michele: I encountered a fair amount of scam artists when practicing family law. They had typically ingratiated themselves into the lives of my clients and injected fear, chaos, and often financial ruin into their families. Some had secret second families, others pretended to have professional credentials or jobs. Dealing with this kind of scoundrel (my grandmother would say “rogue”) was frustrating and fascinating. I mean, who are these people and how to they get away with it? I saw rule breaker after rule breaker arrogantly defy court orders and never be fully reprimanded. They always managed to skirt and skate around the laws the rest of us dutifully obey.

I’d suggest the scariest con artist to write about is the one who appears the most normal and may be in a position of authority.  He is able to manipulate people by managing events in a way that seems proper, if not sanctimonious. These are the rogues who do the greatest damage and often get away with it. Think proper politician who is discovered to be behaving privately not so properly. Teacher, coach, priest, financial advisor.

I did write about a husband who was a con artist and a psychiatrist. May his story see the light of day and be on a bookshelf someday.

Alexia: Financial adviser as con artist reminds me of the premise behind the series, Moonlighting. Maddie Hayes had to start over after her lawyer stole all of her money and left her with only the detective agency she’d bought as a tax write-off.

Cate: Family Law is such a friendly term for dealing with Machiavellian people and scenarios. Totally agree about the scariest con artists being politicians.

Robin: I was curious to see how Michele answered since we both dealt with more than our fair share of scammers in our respective careers. So much cybercrime is based on cons – Nigerian Princes, tech support scams, friend/family in trouble, and so on. I’ve gotten to do some “scam the scammers” work in real life, which was immensely gratifying. In the cyber world we call it “social engineering” but it’s synonymous with “con game.” The protagonist in my first cyber thriller is a social engineer/con artist, as are two other prominent characters (I’ve always loved the “con the con artist” trope). I’m with Michele, I hope both of our books see the light of day in the future. Actually, the villain in my recently-completed second novel is also a con artist. Like I said, so much of cybercrime is predicated on victims not understanding who and what they’re truly dealing with.

The protagonist in my short story hitting the bookstores next month (shameless plug) is basically a con man who relies on misdirection. I had such fun writing the character that I’m tinkering with expanding the story into a full-length novel.

Michele: By the way, family law A/K/A domestic relations (another good one) was first known as matrimonial law until a lot of people skipped the matrimony part.

Tracee: Does anyone remember Agatha Christie’s Curtain, Poirot’s last case? The antagonist was a man who used the power of suggestion to make people commit murder they sort-of but not-really wanted to commit. He was a serial killer without blood on his hands, hence Poirot tracking him down and making sure there was justice. There are so many issues of vengeance and justification here that it would be a fun thread to pursue in a character. The ultimate con, making people think they had a choice in committing the murder. But did they?

Alison: Hmmm. Intriguing question. I have two very different settings for the con man/woman. The first is the con artist who relies on a community being trained not to question authority figures and the second is the con artist who relies on a community of people who are vain about their own intelligence.

First, I remember when the Mormon Church added a question about being honest in business dealings for the temple recommend interview. The con, general fraud, and Ponzi schemes had become endemic in Utah. Goodness, gracious. Every week at church you see your clean-cut neighbor in a suit and tie, with five kids and a smiling wife at home, and he tells you about a great investment opportunity. Just imagine the possibilities!

Second, when I practiced law in NYC, I found it surprising how easily intelligent, highly functioning people would accept vague answers about a deal in order not to appear like they didn’t understand what was going on. Think: “It’s a complex financial transaction” as a response to the question “Where’s the money coming from?”  This was sort of an emperor-has-no-clothes scam. Smart people want to seem smart. If they ask a question about something that sounds complicated, they’re afraid they won’t be seen as quite so smart. Again, the possibilities are almost endless for a clever con artist.

Robin: Alison, I refer to that second mindset as the “smartest person in the room syndrome.” They speak the most, say the least, and are easy to knock off balance because they will never, ever, say the words “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.” They also rarely-to-never ask for help and resist it when offered. They make interesting targets/characters because they fight investigators, viewing the good guys as bad guys who are out to prove that they fell for a con.

Alison: Too funny, Robin! You’d love my son who said, “well, you can participate without contributing” when he was told during a parent-teacher conference that his teachers loved him, but he needed to participate more. He’s an introvert. We all laughed, including the teachers who said this, because we all know those people who participate all the time and contribute nothing. I want to write that line into something sometime because I think it’s so good.

Alexia: Alison, Your first scenario reminds me of Abducted in Plain Sight–the parents were so anti-questioning, anti-challenge authority, anti-publicity they basically sat back and let their neighbor kidnap/rape one of their daughters repeatedly over several years.

Your second question reminds me of the Theranos debacle. People threw billions at Elizabeth Holmes for a non-existent/non-functioning device. I’m listening to interviews with these people (and reading about them). They all focused on her family connections and blue eyes instead of science. The few people who asked hard questions–and got no good answers–kept their money.

Tracee: Alexia, Elizabeth Holmes is a perfect example!

Susan: I’m intrigued by people who run scams that require them to build a relationship with the victim. Like those calls where people romance women and then, after a period of months, call them and say that their son/brother/mother has got stuck in Africa somewhere and would you send $20,000? It’s such a toxic dance, and so cruel, but working on the assumption that people always have justification for what they do, I wonder about the people who get involved with this. I actually wrote a story about a scammer who helps someone solve a murder and am gearing up courage to send it out.

Michele: Susan, that’s a story I would love to read

Cate: Me, too.

Tracee: Me too!

Robin: Ditto

Alexia: Me five.

Alison: Count me in for six, Susan!

Tracee: Sadly, I’ve known smart people (okay, 1 person) who paid the money. A lot more than $20K when she wasn’t wealthy… shows how vulnerable we all are at the right moment and with the right touch.

Alexia: I recently saw an ad for a book about a man who steals a ransom then has to decide if he’s going to help the kidnap victim and, years ago, saw a TV movie about a hit man who decides to help his intended victim. And one of my favorite movies is The Replacement Killers. I’m fascinated by people who end up in a moral dilemma because they set out to do something “bad” then have to decide if they’re going to do something “worse” through inaction or risk prison or worse by doing the “right” thing. I’d totally read your story.

I watched an interview with a chiropractor who fell for a romance scam. Obviously, an educated woman. But the scammer zeroed in on her vulnerability and took her for thousands.

I’ve heard of several scams where someone pretends to be a deployed solider, going so far as to steal real soldiers’ social media photos to make themselves seem legit, hook someone into an online “relationship”, then hit them up for a few hundred to pay for their (fictious) daughter’s prom dress or some other sob story. If the person falls for the initial plea, future efforts are for larger amounts, like a few thousand to pay for their (phony) son’s tonsillectomy or something.

Robin: Interesting note (to me, anyway) on romance scams – yes, some are intended to bilk the victim but, more often, they’re lures into a “relationship” to help the new love of their life move money around. In other words, they become unwitting money mules to launder and cash out ill-gotten gains. Some victims are so convinced that their online relationship is real, they’re willing to go to jail rather than betray a person they’ve never met in real life until they see clear evidence that the persona is cobbled together from random or stock photographs and scrapes of social network posts.

I’m writing a 2-part series for the newsletter of my local chapter of MWA on cybercrime heroes and villains to explain why “cybercrime” is really about people. On the bad guy side, getting their hands on the money is the hardest part.

Tracee: Robin, the scenario you outline is close to what happened to a family friend, an educated woman who paid tens of thousands of dollars to what (in the end) sounded like a scam.

Also, recently while visiting my parents I answered the phone to one of the “grandma I’ve been arrested please wire money” scams. Unbelievable. The people who perpetrate these are truly beyond salvation.

Cate: After these conversations a man showed up at my front door asking me to sign my name to show NJ’s support for the clean air act. And I said I’d sign up online and shut the door. #extrasuspicious #nottodaysatan

Michele: Cate, proud of your response! It covers everything.

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