Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Grift, Where is Thy Sting?

Listening to news reports of the recent Wall Street scandal involving Bernard Madoff, I kept hearing the same descriptions about the man who scammed and scammed big. He was charming, likable, distinguished. He treated his employees like family. He also happened to manage a $50 billion dollar Ponzi scheme that has wreaked havoc with investors, many of whom were non-profits that are suffering from investments made on their behalf. Over and over people wondered how this well-respected Wall Street investor could have charmed and snowed so many people.

The simple answer is he was a con man trying to pass in the real world.

Con is short for confidence, and the con man runs games that snare unsuspecting marks in a web of trust that eventually ends with the individual being separated from their money. In most cases, though there is a great deal of deception involved, the con man is not considered a thief because the victim hands their money to the con and his outfit. Where Madoff differs from traditional cons is that usually the con involves a greedy victim who knowingly involves themselves in shady activities, so that when the deal goes south they are too embarrassed to report it to the police. Madoff was simply using his existing experience and connections to manipulate people for no known reason and broke many finance laws doing so. He may simply have been playing a high stakes game for the fun of it.

To understand how elaborate these confidence games can be, and how seemingly innocent people can get snared into these webs of deception, I found myself returning to David W. Maurer's classic The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. Originally published in 1940, Maurer's examination of the inside world of classic confidence games is a fascinating look at the real world machinations that inspired movies like The Sting and The Lady Eve, and fiction like Jim Thompson's The Grifters. For a book that is 60 years old, with con games that stretch back even further, it's surprising how relevant this book still is today.

Maurer's look at this non-violent criminal underworld is built from a collection of oral histories by those who knew the creators of the original con games, or participated in them. Tracing the history of "big store" games - con games that originated in fake storefronts at the end of the 19th century - we get the full run-down of the three big cons: the rag, the wire, and the payoff. These games - and they really play out like games when you read them - took places in fake betting rooms and fake stock brokerages, with a full accompaniment of fake banks and fake telegraph offices to match. There could be dozens of players involved, organizations pulled together to create a very convincing world of high stakes gambling and finance, that would lure in marks to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars (in 1930's dollars, mind you) in one lump-sum payout. And once that payout was made those storefronts were gutted and shuttered within the hour, the players scattered to different cities where they would pick up parts in new games.

Toward the end Maurer also drops the dime on some short-con games, games where a few con men can make a quick buck on whatever a mark has on him. Things like three card monte, crooked card and dice games, and the occasional hot-seat - a con that involves the mark putting up money as a bond against splitting the profits toward a larger amount like a found suitcase full of cash. The modern version of this is the advance-fee scam, often called the Nigerian Bank letter scam that takes place in people's email boxes all over the world. Big and small, cons fleece them all.

As Maurer was professor of linguistics it shouldn't be surprising that the book is packed with the lingo of the con's world, with full explanations provided when known. Familiar terms like mark (victim) and roper (a scout) and the fix (paying off police) bump alongside colorful terms like cackle-bladder (a fake a murder used to scare off marks), plinger (a street beggar), and a fitted mitt (a bribed official). The joy in reading Maurer's book is that he lets the cons play out on the pages, allows the players to tell the composite stories he's constructed, butting-in to explain details only as necessary. The chapters read like classic short crime fiction full of characters who, with a change of venue and only slightly different methods, are still among us and plying their trade on Wall Street and through our junk email.

Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man

by David W. Maurer
with and introduction by Luc Sante
Anchor Books edition 1999


Donna (Bites) said...

The Count says you have one award waiting for you at Bites. Ha ha ha!

Anonymous said...

Wow! What a great book this is! I'd forgotten about it (I read it when it was re-released over a decade ago), but for someone like me who cut his teeth on the Great Brain series as a kid, and loved loved loved The Sting, this book is a treasure.