In 1920, Charles Ponzi ran a short-lived but spectacular scam that linked his name to the most classic of all cons. At first, a Ponzi scheme seems too good to be true. Then people start making money. Thrilled by the easy cash, investors keep their money where it can grow or talk up the incredible returns. The scam depends on new recruits – after all, it’s their money the con artist gives to earlier investors.
Other con artists sell or trade things that don’t actually exist. To secure a loan or make a profitable deal, they present phony collateral with an air of unflinching honesty. Relying on their superhuman skills at bluffing, and on the gullibility or laziness of their victims, the con artist earns millions out of thin air.
Fraudsters and white-collar crooks run another sort of con. Cooking the books, pocketing huge bonuses and making inside deals require less artistry than a con but these crimes are also rooted in calculated deception. The fraudster plays a role – of trustworthy and sure-footed CEO, for instance – and lies without hesitation to shareholders and auditors.
The success of a con artist, broadly defined here to include those who loot and bribe for profit, blooms out of a complex alchemy of character, skills and circumstance.
Whether he draws on his innate character, or earned and practiced authority, a con artist uses every angle to convince people of his integrity and his financial prowess.
The con artist sees and exploits individuals’ vulnerabilities. Likewise, he taps into points of weakness in his environment.
The life span of a con depends on a number of factors; if a con artist can attain a limited notoriety – in which his scheme is being talked about but hasn’t created a loud enough buzz to attract real scrutiny – he can enjoy a profitable run. If he can maintain tight control over his company books and board, he can fix numbers to his heart’s content.
Of course, a con is bound to collapse. Built on a foundation of lies, it grows shakier and more difficult to maintain with each passing year. It requires ever more complicated maneuvers to hide the hollow base and keep the money flowing.
Hundreds, even thousands, of investors are left with empty retirement and savings accounts. Hard-working people lose their jobs as companies fold under the strain of a crooked CEO. Banks and investment firms are drained of millions. The impact of a con is felt even beyond those at the center of the scheme. New legislation may be introduced to fill a regulatory gap, but con artists will continue to find ways to profit on a lie.
"You’re dangerous because you have this gift of gab, this ability to communicate. You don’t have a conscience."
– Judge who sentenced Barry Minkow to 25 years for his $100 million con (1987)