How to Spot a Con-artist – and avoid becoming their victim


Steven Burns

Hi! I’m Steven. I’m a professional therapist, coach, trainer & author with over 20 years experience. I teach the latest psychological tools and techniques to help you transform and make a difference.

I’ve been fascinated by con-artists for quite some time.

In my business life, I would say I’ve worked closely with two individuals who I would regard as con-artists.

One who has reached near mastery in the craft and another who has serious potential.

For me, being involved in a business relationship with them was deeply troubling while at the same time equally fascinating.

Call me weird but there’s something morbidly interesting about someone who is clearly pathological but doesn’t seem to care, or in fact even notice.

Someone who is so comfortable with dishonesty, cunning and deception that you start to ask yourself if you are the one who is abnormal.

I also found it interesting that it took me such a long time to realise that they were con-artists; I wanted to believe in their inherent goodness and, perversely, this ended up working against me.

And I wasn’t the only one.

The individuals in question have successfully pulled the wool over thousands of people’s eyes, and still continue to do so.

People want to believe in the potential of human kindness and honesty and, while this is undoubtedly a valuable trait, it can sometimes be their downfall.

In her excellent book, The Confidence Game, Anna Konnikova, actually goes as far as to say that intelligent, honest, well-meaning individuals are exactly the type of people who do fall for a con.

They are the most susceptible to it because their mind struggles, and sometimes blatantly refuses, to accept that someone could be as cunningly deceptive as a con-artist can be.

Con-artists in different shapes & forms

I’d love to believe that we are all shining rays of light that want the best for our fellow citizens, but my experience suggests otherwise.

Undoubtedly, there are con-artists among us so it’s good to know more about the tactics they use in order to safeguard ourselves.

It’s not just in business either. They can be found in relationships, in the workplace, and within our circle of friends.

They can extend from full blown, master manipulators who are out to use you as part of a dastardly plot, to the more subtle versions, like those who are just far too comfortable lying and scheming in a bid to get what they want.

Ultimately though, wherever they are to be found, their aim is the same: to fulfil their own needs irrespective of whether they have to lie, cheat, or manipulate to achieve it.

A con-artist can sometimes be very difficult to spot, but once the bubble is burst, their intentions become clear and obvious.

You start to see that their behaviour, right from the beginning, contained clear indications of what was to come; their actions were like a trail of bread crumbs that led to an inevitable conclusion.

So here are my observations with regards to con-artists & manipulators (in no particular order).

Hopefully they can help you notice whether or not you are being taken advantage of so that you can do something about it.

The biggest strength of a con-artist is their ability to remain hidden. Not visually – as some are highly visible – but to keep the “con” itself hidden.

They have a whole range of tactics they use to do this so by understanding what they are you can decrease the chances of falling fowl to their schemes.

Feel free to share your own experience too, if you believe you’ve been conned, and what you learned from it.

*btw, if you’re thinking that certain politicians exactly fit the criteria of a con-artist then you’d be 100% correct.

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Trait 1: Excessive use of Status & Perceived Value...

I don’t think we realise, or like to admit, just how much a person’s “status” can silently, but powerfully, influence us.

The higher a person’s perceived status, the greater the level of default influence they will naturally have before they even say a word.

It doesn’t mean that such a person will be able to convince anyone. Some people are naturally suspicious of authority but, in general, status persuades.

As human beings, we are hierarchical creatures. It’s in our nature to create status hierarchies based on how much value we perceive people to have.

Those at the top of our ladders are deemed to be more valuable than those at the bottom.

When we place someone high up on one of our status ladders we give them more power and influence within our world.

If that person is honest, respectful, and genuinely wants to help, then this is a good thing.

If they are of less-than-scrupulous intentions though, this can be seriously abused – as has been demonstrated time and time again throughout history by certain political and business leaders.

Con-artists intuitively know how persuasive status can be so they often go to excessive lengths to raise it in the mind’s of their targets.

Now of course, seeking out status and looking to raise your perceived value, doesn’t immediately qualify you as a con-artist.

As a business owner, I know all too well the power of “brand positioning”.

In order to convince people that you have a valuable product or service you need to position yourself as an expert, or they most likely won’t take notice.

I’ll also be the first to admit that I’d jump at the chance of a high status endorsement of one of my products, as I know it will increase their perceived value ten-fold, and make them more appealing to customers.

But where this use of influence tips over into a potential con is when the individual starts to use it excessively, and in a way that misrepresents who they are or what they are offering.

If there are constantly trying to “up” their status by getting photographed with celebrities, or grossly over-exaggerating their successes, then you might want to start scratching the surface a little bit.

Often it’s a sign that they don’t offer anywhere near the level of value they are projecting.

One blatant example of this can be found in the story of Therapist Isaac “Ike” Herschkopf – as detailed in the highly recommended Podcast, The Shrink next Door.

Ike was a psychotherapist living in New York who would befriend celebrities at parties and insist on being photographed with them.

He would then hang the photographs up in his office in the hope that people would jump to the conclusion that he had worked with them.

He didn’t directly lie about it, but he also didn’t correct people if they – understandably – jumped to that conclusion.

He then used this implied association as leverage to raise his status in the mind’s of his patients, and to then manipulate them out of their wealth.

Being perceived as valuable in the eyes of others is important, but when it’s done excessively and dishonestly through inaccurate implication, it’s a sign that you could be in the presence of a con-artist.

Paradoxically enough, you find that many people of genuine value don’t boast about their worth: they demonstrate it through their ability.

Think about it, can you imagine Hugh Jackman boasting about how great an actor he is?

He doesn’t need to: you just have to watch his films.

Trait 2: Hiding in Plain Sight

One of the key skills of a con-artist is to keep the con hidden. 

A classic method is to use something called, “Hiding in plain sight”.

This is where the con-artist deliberately positions themselves as the opposite of what they should be criticised for.

For example, if they were concerned that people may question their integrity they might talk about how important “honesty” is to them, and give you examples to back it up.

This opposing position then becomes a smoke screen – if someone is telling us that they value honesty then it makes sense to assume that they themselves are honest. 

One example of this is the Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belford.

Throughout the 90s he operated a fraudulent investment scheme – called the “Pump and Dump” – that made him hundreds of millions at the expense of investors.

After being prosecuted for fraud and serving jail time, Belford found a new career as a highly paid motivational speaker.

What was his expert subject?

Ethical influence.

Did Belford experience a revelation during his time in jail and decide to completely re-invent his approach to selling?


Or perhaps he’s just hiding in plain sight.

Another, more extreme, example would be the Pedophile Jimmy Savile, who went undetected in the U.K for several decades.

Saville was constantly in the public eye.

His T.V programme Jim’ll Fix it was a show that helped turn kid’s dreams into reality.

He also raised millions for hospitals with one specific example being St Francis Ward – a ward for children and teens with spinal cord injuries.

He regularly posed as someone who fought for vulnerable people, yet he was alleged to have abused close to 450 people.

You see more subtle – and less extreme – variations of this technique in most abusive relationships.

Often the abuser will convince the victim that they are there to protect them: that they would be nothing, or wouldn’t cope without them.

The reality though, is that they are doing the opposite: robbing the person of their independence and keeping them locked in an abusive cycle.

By reversing the frame like this, and positioning themselves as a shining example of the opposite of what they are guilty of, it becomes difficult for people to reverse it back.

The gap is so big between reality and what is being expressed that it creates a cognitive dissonance. The solution for the victim is often to just accept the smokescreen that is being offered to them.

The con artist has managed to hide the con in plain sight.

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Trait 3: Painting Fake Blue Skies...

Painting a blue sky is where we create a compelling vision for someone to move towards.

Politicians and visionary leaders do this when they re looking to inspire and motivate people into taking action.

Self-help gurus do it to provide hope for people who are feeling lost.

It’s a valid motivational tactic you can use to encourage people to move forward.

It’s important to know that we are heading towards something worthwhile, exciting and meaningful. As it says in the Bible, “Without a vision, the people perish”.

It can, though, also be used to manipulate.

One method a con-artist will use will be to paint large, compelling blue skies that hook you in only for the blue sky to not materialise – usually because of factors outwith their control.

By that time though, they’ve already got something from you.

They might give you something else but often this “Something else” is not what they initially promised, and also not as valuable as what you have given them in return.

You may have heard about this method before under a different label. It’s called “bait and switch”.

You’re offered something compelling so you take action, only for the promise to fall through due to unforeseen circumstances.

You end up getting something else though, so at least the person did their best.

Or did they?

The con-artist can also start off small and then scale up quickly.

It seems a strange thing to say but con-artists actually do often offer value. In fact, this is one of the reasons why they can be so convincing. After all, their full title is a confidence artist.

They first win your confidence by serving you – or appearing to serve you – and they then abuse it.

Perhaps they’ll do something for you, seemingly out of the good of their heart. Reciprocation kicks in and you feel obliged to return the favour.

They then seize this opportunity and offer you a once in a life-time opportunity, painting an enormous blue sky that’s almost impossible to resist.

They’ve served you well before, right, so the risk is minimal?

If you’re dealing with someone who is honest, and does want to serve you, then it may well be.

If you’re dealing with someone with dubious morals though, you’ve just walked right into their trap.

Trait 4: Weaving dishonest complexes by mixing fact with fiction...

An interesting paradox with con-artists is that they sometimes tell the truth. This, in turn, can make it more difficult to believe that they are lying when they do.

Imagine someone lies to you constantly. It gets to a point very quickly where you stop believing anything they say.

But if a lie is mixed in with a few truths and half-truths then it becomes difficult to tell.

If selected aspects of a story are verifiable, and others appear to have elements of truth to them, then it makes sense to conclude that all the aspects are true.

Disgraced former The New Republic journalist Stephen Glass – who fabricated a string of damaging newspaper articles in the early 2000s – said in an interview that he used a very deliberate strategy to hide lies within his articles, and convince readers that they were true.

His articles contained the following elements:

  • Element 1: A fact – something truthful that could be verified.
  • Element 2: Something that is based on truth but is exaggerated.
  • Element 3: Something that “could” be true but actually isn’t.
  • Element 4: A complete lie.

By mixing truths, half-truths, plausible untruths, and blatant lies, it becomes difficult to track.

Because certain elements of the article can be verified, and others appear true, the brain takes a short-cut and deduces that the whole article must be truthful. The lie often slides in uncontested.

So if you notice this tactic, to safeguard yourself against it, dig deeper into the details of the claims.

Critique each individual element on its own, and do your best to avoid assumptions.

Just because someone speaks the truth, it doesn’t mean that they don’t also lie.

Closing Comments

So that’s 4 traits of a con-artist or manipulator.

Tendencies and tactics they can use to bamboozle you into not seeing the con and buy into one of their schemes.

Hopefully it will help you think twice if you ever encounter one.

If you’ve ever been conned and would like to share your learnings please do. It might just help someone else avoid it.

All the best,


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