How Con Artists Work

Street Cons

These are cons that usually happen quickly in a public place. They generally involve the loss of small amounts of money -- a few hundred dollars is a good take for a street con. The victim is usually approached by a stranger who has an offer, makes a bet, or is reacting to something seemingly random and unrelated that has happened nearby. This "random" event is, of course, something the con artist set up well ahead of time.

Street cons include:

  • The Pedigree Dog A stranger walks into a bar with a dog trailing him on a leash. He asks if the owner can watch his dog for a few minutes while he places a bet or attends to a business deal. While the stranger is gone, a second con artist arrives and notices the dog. He claims to be an expert on dog breeding, and says that this dog is worth hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. He asks the owner if the dog is for sale because he'll pay top dollar. The entire scam hinges on the bar owner's greed. The assumption is he'll see the chance to buy the dog from the unsuspecting owner for a low price, then sell the valuable dog to this "expert breeder." He tells the dog expert to come back later, then offers to buy the dog when its owner returns. The dog's owner sells it, but the "expert" never comes back to buy it. The two con artists walk away with a few hundred dollars, and the bar owner gets stuck with a "mutt." In Neil Gaiman's novel "American Gods," two characters discuss this con using a violin instead of a dog.
  • The Pigeon Drop There are several variations of this con, but they all start with the victim and the con artist both spotting something of value lying around. It's usually an envelope or bag full of money, but it could be a diamond ring. The con artist tries to get the victim to notice the envelope first, making him less likely to suspect that the con artist planted it. A second con artist may get involved as the victim and the first con artist decide to split up the found money, demanding a fair share since he saw it too. At this point, the cons will suggest that everyone put some of their own money into the envelope as "good faith money," to show that they're financially responsible people. Once all of the money is in the envelope, it is divided into thirds and returned to the victim and the two con artists. However, through sleight of hand and a distraction, the victim gets an envelope full of paper scraps. In the ring variation, the con artist claims to have some expertise in jewelry assessment, and proclaims the ring to be worth several hundred dollars or more. However, not having time to sell or pawn the ring, the con artist offers to let the victim buy out his half. So the victim pays what he can to the con artist and keeps the "valuable" ring, which is actually a cheap fake. The victim, or "pigeon," is "dropped" and left with nothing.
  • Three-card Monte In this famous street con, a con artist has a table with three cards in front of her. One card is flipped over to reveal that it is the Ace of Spades (or any other card). The victim places a bet that he can keep an eye on that card while the con artist quickly rearranges the cards on the table. If the correct card is picked, the victim wins. Friends of the con artist play the game, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, to give the victim the impression that it is a fair game he might win if he has a sharp eye. In reality, the con artist is a master of sleight of hand, able to switch cards without the victim noticing. No matter how carefully he watches, the victim will never pick the right card unless the con artist wants him to. Variations include the use of shells (a "shell game" is sometimes used to mean any kind of deceptive scam) or cups with the victim trying to spot a quarter, a pea or a ball held within one of the shells.

In the next section, we'll look at business and Internet cons.