Confidence trick

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"Con man" and "Scam" redirect here. For other uses, see Con Man, Confidence man, and Scam (disambiguation).
Political Cartoon by JM Staniforth: Herbert Kitchener attempts to raise £100,000 for a College in Sudan by calling on the name of Charles George Gordon

A confidence trick (synonyms include confidence game, confidence scheme, scam and stratagem) is an attempt to defraud a person or group after first gaining their confidence, used in the classical sense of trust. Confidence tricks exploit characteristics of the human psyche such as dishonesty, honesty, vanity, compassion, credulity, irresponsibility, naïveté and greed.


The perpetrator of a confidence trick (or "con trick") is often referred to as a confidence (or "con") man, con-artist, or a "grifter". The first known usage of the term "confidence man" in English was in 1849 by the New York City press, during the trial of William Thompson. Thompson chatted with strangers until he asked if they had the confidence to lend him their watches, whereupon he would walk off with the watch. He was captured when a victim recognized him on the street.[1]

A confidence trick is also known as a con game, a con, a scam, a grift, a hustle, a bunko (or bunco), a swindle, a flimflam, a gaffle or a bamboozle. The intended victims are known as "marks", "suckers", or "gulls" (i.e. gullible). When accomplices are employed, they are known as shills.

Short and long cons[edit]

A short con or small con is a fast swindle which takes just minutes. It typically aims to rob the victim of everything in his or her wallet.[2]

A long con or big con (also, chiefly British English: long game)[3] is a scam that unfolds over several days or weeks and involves a team of swindlers, as well as props, sets, extras, costumes, and scripted lines. It aims to rob the victim of huge sums of money or valuable things, often by getting him or her to empty out banking accounts and borrow from family members.[4]

Stages of the con[edit]

In Confessions of a Confidence Man, Edward H. Smith lists the "six definite steps or stages of growth" of a confidence game.[5] He notes that some steps may be omitted.

Foundation Work
Preparations are made in advance of the game, including the hiring of any assistants required.
The victim is contacted.
The victim is given an opportunity to profit from a scheme. The victim's greed is encouraged, such that their rational judgment of the situation might be impaired.
Pay-off or Convincer
The victim receives a small payout as a demonstration of the scheme's effectiveness. This may be a real amount of money, or faked in some way. In a gambling con, the victim is allowed to win several small bets. In a stock market con, the victim is given fake dividends.
The Hurrah
A sudden crisis or change of events forces the victim to act immediately. This is the point at which the con succeeds or fails.
The In-and-In
A conspirator puts an amount of money into the same scheme as the victim. This can reassure the victim, and give the con man greater control once the deal has been completed.[clarification needed]

In addition, some games require a "corroboration" step.[clarification needed][5]

Vulnerability to confidence tricks[edit]

Confidence tricks exploit typical human characteristics such as greed, dishonesty, vanity, opportunism, lust, compassion, credulity, irresponsibility, desperation, and naïvety. As such, there is no consistent profile of a confidence trick victim; the common factor is simply that the victim relies on the good faith of the con artist. Victims of investment scams tend to show an incautious level of greed and gullibility, and many con artists target the elderly, but even alert and educated people may be taken in by other forms of a confidence trick.[6]

Accomplices, also known as shills, help manipulate the mark into accepting the perpetrator's plan. In a traditional confidence trick, the mark is led to believe that he will be able to win money or some other prize by doing some task. The accomplices may pretend to be strangers who have benefited from performing the task in the past.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women, p 6 ISBN 0-300-02835-0
  2. ^ David Maurer, The Big Con, Chapter Eight: Short-Con Games
  3. ^ Yagoda, Ben (June 5, 2012). "'The long game'". Not One-off Britishisms.  This language blog, while not a reliable etymological source, provides statistically gathered usage data that demonstrates neutral and well as critical usage, and that it is of British origin, only recently making notable inroads into American English.
  4. ^ Amy Reading, The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con, Chapter One: Confidence ISBN 978-0-307-47359-2
  5. ^ a b Edward H. Smith, Confessions of a Confidence Man: A Handbook for Suckers, p. 35-37.
  6. ^ Fraud Victim Advice / Assistance for Consumer Scams and Investment Frauds

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]