April 19, 2021

The Sociology of the Con

Jonathan Wynn author photoBy Jonathan Wynn

Now that I’m chair of my department, my colleagues and graduate students occasionally get emails from email addresses that look very close to mine (e.g., “[email protected]”) that asks them to “help” me. If they aren’t careful, they’ll write back. One grad student, who is very kind, responded.

The fake Jon Wynn asked her to buy $200 of Amazon Gift cards and send the codes. Walking out of Best Buy (where she bought the cards) something didn’t sit right with her and, thankfully, she called me up. Luckily, we caught it in time. Best Buy didn’t refund the gift cards, as per their policy. So, our department bought them from the grad student, and used them as a prize for undergraduates.

There’s a software engineer using the pseudonym Jim Browning who is well known for getting inside scams. He scams call centers, “scambaiting” them, infiltrating the Fake Tech Support’s computer networks. (His fascinating videos are here.) And then there’s his compatriot, the glitter bomb revenge engineer, Mark Rober. (His YouTube page is here.) The latter is a former NASA and Apple engineer with quite the following for baiting people into stealing packages from doorsteps, only to find an elaborate camera-and-GPS-and-glitter-bomb contraption once they open it.

There’s something deeply satisfying to see scam artists get their technicolored comeuppance, especially if you’ve been scammed before. Still, mechanics of Mark Rober’s glitter bomb boxes and Browning’s tech grey-hat hacking/hacktivism aren’t as interesting to me as the cons. (Here’s a great animation video about pyramid schemes.)

On the one hand, scamming is very profitable. According to the FBI, total losses in 2019 rose to $3.5 billion dollars. At the same time, frontline scammers are likely not wealthy themselves, but sometimes impoverished low-tier workers who do these scams to survive, while someone higher on the food chain gets rich.

The gift card scam my graduate student fell for, for example, would have had her send the card code to the fake account, and then they would sell the code online.

Tech support scams are even worse. If you watch Browning’s videos, you’ll notice that for as much technological know-how that’s required, the most vulnerable part of anyone’s security isn’t your passwords, it’s the users themselves. The scam artists don’t try to hack passwords. Instead, they rely on working over the target. In the lingo of the con, they’re the mark. This Psychology Today article notes, “the con artists’ best accomplice is you.” (Another good article about con artists, here, which discusses how the marks’ vulnerabilities center on confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, motivated cognition, and anticipated regret.)

One of my favorite movies is called The Sting, a 1973 film about con men pulling a big con: creating an entire gambling stage to con someone. One of the signature bits of the movie is a signal used in the big sting: a slight brush of the nose with an index finger. There’s a lot that goes into the con, from the set up of the shop, to the interplay between compatriots. “The Set-Up,” “The Hook,” “The Tale,” “The Wire,” “The Shut-Out” and “The Sting” are all possible stages of the con—and serve as chapter titles in the movie.

The Con, however, isn’t just for a great movie plot or a great Tegan and Sara album. Cons can be thought of in a sociological way.

I’m not the only sociologist who likes the movie and thinking about cons. David Grazian, in his book, Blue Chicago doesn’t just keep the setting of the film—he uses the idea of the con to unpack the blues club as a con.

Blue Chicago flags Erving Goffman’s work as a way to understand people’s search for authenticity. Grazian’s article “The Production of Popular Music as a Confidence Game” talks about the “Cultural Ecology” of the con. He talks about the blues club the same way that reminds me of the big conclusion to The Sting:

The big store is a room or set of rooms designed to look like a place of business, gambling casino, bank or any other space required by the con. In a classic confidence game called the “wire,” operators rent out a room and redesign its interior as an exclusive off-track betting parlor where victims are brought by ropers who convince them to wager large sums on sure things that inevitably go sour at the last minute. While suckers often discover that the roper is a con artist, they rarely catch on that the parlor itself is fake, and that the con lies in the manipulation of their immediate surroundings as much as their hearts and minds.

Erving Goffman was well-known for his interest in con men, impostors, double agents and shills. He has a very interesting article, “On Cooling the Mark Out.” The process of “cooling out” can be seen in the animated video on pyramid schemes: convincing people with promises of wealth, and circumnavigating ones’ own warning signs.

One of my favorite sociology pieces is another old article from a compatriot of Goffman’s, Fred Davis. (Goffman is acknowledged for giving feedback on the article.) “The Cabdriver and His Fare: Facets of a Fleeting Relationship” isn’t about con men per se, but details how a cabbie can use a series of tricks to separate a fare from their money. Some of these tricks might even be familiar: giving a hard luck story to instill sympathy with a rider, creating fictitous charges for tolls, or slowly making change to make the rider give up and just tip the cabbie to move on to their day.

Have you ever been conned? How would you know? How else can we think of con games in a sociological way?

(FYI: Rober worked on NASA's Curiosity rover, a great book on how organizations shape scientific discoveries. Seeing Like a Rover: Images in Interaction on the Mars Exploration Rover Mission. As far as I can tell the Mars landing was real, and not a con!)


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