Neurologist recounts the time he was conned

Paul J. Zak, a neuroeconomist and director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, explains the psychology of cons using himself as an example. When he was a teenager, he was taken by the "pigeon drop."
Here's what happened to me. One slow Sunday afternoon, a man comes out of the restroom with a pearl necklace in his hand. "Found it on the bathroom floor" he says. He followed with "Geez, looks nice-I wonder who lost it?" Just then, the gas station's phone rings and a man asked if anyone found a pearl necklace that he had purchased as a gift for his wife. He offers a $200 reward for the necklace's return. I tell him that a customer found it. "OK" he says, "I'll be there in 30 minutes." I give him the ARCO address and he gives me his phone number. The man who found the necklace hears all this but tells me he is running late for a job interview and cannot wait for the other man to arrive.

Huum, what to do? The man with the necklace said "Why don't I give you the necklace and we split the reward?" The greed-o-meter goes off in my head, suppressing all rational thought. "Yeah, you give me the necklace to hold and I'll give you $100" I suggest. He agrees. Since high school kids working at gas stations don't have $100, I take money out of the cash drawer to complete the transaction.

You can guess the rest.

He goes on to explain the psychology of cons. In short, :The key to a con is not that you trust the conman, but that he shows he trusts you."

(Here's a video of the pigeon drop.) How to Run a Con


  1. When we buy something we don’t need for our personal survival, we are momentarily insane. The flood of warning signals unleashed by our brain chemistry are misinterpreted as a “high”. This phenomena feeds addiction. A good salesman understands how to bring you to that point, and assure you that you are making a wonderful choice.

  2. Or, as Joe Mantegna described it in ‘House of Games’: “It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine. “

  3. GregLondon: Takuan is of course referring to his own ninja-style combat method, in which the enemy trusts that you are not there.

  4. I think Takuan is referring to the truism that a soldier will go into combat not because he trusts his commander, but because his commander trusts him.

  5. Neuroeconomist? A Center for them? Don’t we have a spray? Ninja-style has no enemies and no combat. Unless it is a dumb ninja.

  6. The same thing happened to me. “Gold” ring for a pearl necklace though.
    It doesn’t make me feel any better about myself that a PhD in economics got scammed the same way I did. In fact the school should reconsider its admission standards since I go there as well.
    Speaking of “Gold ring for a pearl necklace…”

  7. don’t needlessly complicate. In simplest terms: an opponent who KNOWS he is smarter than you is a treasure beyond pearls.

  8. “I give him the ARCO address … ”

    Is this a flaw in the story or the con? Why did he need directions back to a place he remembered well enough to look up and call?

  9. Patton from War As I Knew It

    Once, in Sicily, I told a General, who was somewhat reluctant to attack, that I had perfect confidence in him, and that, to show it, I was going home.

  10. splendid link Noen. I remember that time well, and my own incredulity that no one cared. At all. Nothing has changed.

  11. Nonsense. Not ‘he shows that he trusts you’. How did you get to this conclusion? The basic, necessary element of a con is that you are offered profit unhonorably, or, if you prefer, seemingly out of nothing or even based on the loss of someone else, and you go for it. It’s your own greed. I read this as a true story (I was skimming through RSS feeds and I didn’t start at the beginning) and I would have answered ‘you found it, just leave the necklace here and you can get back later and pick up the $200’. This would have foiled the con but I was not aware that it was a con, just being honest. There, a simpler explanation.

  12. Probably at the level of “I loves you all” Don’t need games to survive. When the going is hard the flim- flam artists are the first to be cooked. How do you get a Phd. in manipulation? And what good is it ?

  13. It’s like that time in HS when I fronted a guy $100 bucks for weed,but the weed never arrived!

    Then we followed through with the psychology of throwing a brick through someone’s front window.

  14. If you haven’t already been looking at it, I recommend the “Scam School” podcast, which reflects the gentle art of conning…sort of scams, but not intended to really rip anyone off, except for maybe the price of a drink. Fun stuff. I still haven’t mastered lighting the match behind my teeth, but I’m really darned close. : )

  15. Just like the election…. Thanks for the timely post. Wonderful… You vote for me, I give you stuff.

  16. Anonymous @19: The basic, necessary element of a con is that you are offered profit unhonorably, or, if you prefer, seemingly out of nothing or even based on the loss of someone else, and you go for it. It’s your own greed.

    The desire to be helpful is very often used in social engineering as well. It’s why people bend the rules by letting strangers into secure areas, or give out privileged information: the social engineer presents him/herself as just another employee like you, trying to do his/her job. They’re having some problem: they left their access card on their desk, they forgot to look up the sales figures, they need John Smith’s home phone number, etc. and they’re late for an important meeting. And now they have these silly security hoops to jump through. They evoke your sympathy and desire to help others (as well as your own frustration at having security get in the way of productivity), and a lot of the time it works.

  17. There’s a similar scam to this in Paris at the moment. The con-artist picks up a thick gold ring near your feet and says “Excuse me sir…you dropped this”…then he looks at the “18ct” inscribed on the inside (making sure you see it too)…says “nice ring…18 carats” gives you the ring and walks away. Then he comes back and asks for a small reward for finding “your” ring – usually €20 ($28). Of course the “gold” ring is just junk worth a couple of bucks.

  18. They tried the “gold ring” scam on me in London, except I think there was more to it – the guy got visibly and uncomfortably angry when I didn’t want to take his piece-of-crap “gold” ring, and casually mentioned handing it over to one of the adjacent hotels to hold and then calling the police, if indeed it was such a valuable ring. He pulled close to me, called me “boss,” and launched into a diatribe against the rich. I shoved the ring back and walked away quickly, and braced for a fight, but he backed off. Very surreal, and on a deserted street, very threatening. Remeber that con men are cowardly criminals, but still criminals who want you money and don’t give a shit about you personally at all.

  19. I got conned about a year ago. The funny thing was, alarm bells were going off the whole time. As he was telling me his situation (something about working for a company up the street and needing to pay COD for a delivery), I was thinking “This doesn’t make sense.” I was confused. But instead of being suspicious, I gave the guy the benefit of the doubt. I thought that even though it made no sense to me, he seemed to know what he was talking about. Part of me knew even as I was doing it that it was stupid, but … well … it all happened so fast. But by the time the guy had left the room, I turned around and said, “What the hell did I just do?”

    My advice is just this: if it feels weird, take a moment and think about it. They will put you on the spot and force you to make a snap decision. An honest person asking for a favour won’t rush you. If it still doesn’t make sense after you’ve taken a reasonable pause, bail.

  20. @31

    Check again – this con requires no trust of the con man. The victim is trusting that an unidentified person on the phone will show up with the cash. The con man who is present need not be trusted at all. Of course, the victim should have spotted the problem with the guy on the phone needing the address to return there among other things. The thing with many cons is that the tables get turned psychologically so that you feel that the con man is taking a risk or loss (in this case losing half the reward) with you when really you are the one getting fleeced.

    Previously mentioned on BB, my friend Todd Robbins book The Modern Con Man does a great deal of explaining and providing practical examples for using this an other con principles.

  21. Takuan @11:

    In simplest terms: an opponent who KNOWS he is smarter than you is a treasure beyond pearls.

    Oh god, yes. There’ve been times when I’ve felt an almost overwhelming rush of tenderness for them as I was getting out the dissecting tools.

    Anonymous @19: The world is full of both implicit and explicit offers of the sort you describe, but they aren’t cons. They’re just choices. A con is about the power of precisely applied narrative. Con artists are forever saying that you can’t cheat an honest man, but that’s just their excuse. There are plenty of cons that are successfully run on honest people.

    Anonymous @30, start by forgiving yourself. You were an amateur going up against a professional.

    Whether or not the con is making your alarm bells ring, “Never enter into an unfamiliar deal that’s presented as something that has to be transacted right now, without taking time to think,” makes a good rule.

    Daemon @31: Yes. If instead of showing that they trust you, they tried to get you to trust them, it wouldn’t work nearly as well.

  22. Iceberg Slim:

    The mark is always a thief in denial.
    That’s why wall street fools are so easy to con.

    Greed is a vulnerability for con-men to exploit.

    Any normal person would have just handed back the necklace without awaiting a “reward”.

  23. Agreed with Aldasin: if anyone asks you for money, it’s probably a con.

    Also, I’m not sure I get how this story shows that you don’t need to trust the con man, but rather that he only needs to show trust in you. In this story, the kid gives the one con $100 because he trusts the two cons’ stories. There is no point where they prove their trust in the kid.

    I’m not saying that such a theory couldn’t play a role in a con, I’m just saying that this story does not bear that out. I still think trusting the con is a much more important factor.

  24. There’s a con man who for the past ten years has been approaching me on the street claiming he is the drummer for a band called ‘Fastlane’ , that his band van has run out of petrol and that he needs a couple of bucks to get to a really important gig. Now when I see him I say “OMG aren’t you the drummer from Fastlane?” get an autograph and ask him about his musical influences, just to watch him squirm and make up ridiculous answers.

  25. The caller is not trusted or distrusted, or even questioned. The caller slips through the marks defenses because he is bringing the money. The caller is accepted as unquestioned fact.

    The cons are the first to exhibit trust. The point where the cons prove their trust in the mark, is when they offer to let the mark hold the necklace and collect the reward, which they will later split. This trust engenders the reciprocal trust of the mark. If this person is going to trust me to collect the reward for them, then I can trust them in return. Hey, why don’t I save you a trip, just take your half now.

    This con might work without this initial show of trust by the cons, but by being the first to exhibit trust the cons greatly increase the odds of success.

  26. I was conned several times when I was a teenager, working in a gas station. I did eventually learn.

    Not all scams are based upon the greed or inner larceny in the mark’s heart, some are based on what might be called ‘common decency’ or ‘sympathy for another’s predicament.’

    I was approached by a 3-card Monte crew when I was on leave in the gaslight district of San Diego back in the early 1980’s. I refused, loudly described the game and how it worked, and got pulled into the alley and worked over pretty good. The man beating me kept calling me ‘some kind of Walter Winchell’, I’ll never forget it. Learned a second lesson at that time – walk on by, don’t try to save other marks. They don’t appreciate it, and the scam artist probably has paid protection.

    I haven’t seen such a scam in decades now, but my wife was recently approached at our home by a ‘Sears’ employee who was ‘in the neighborhood’ doing some ‘home repairs’ and noticed that our driveway needed resurfacing, which he’d be happy to do with the leftover materials from the job he was working on – no charge for materials, just pay him directly for the labor! What a deal. She threatened to set the dogs loose on him, which were going absolutely bee-zerk in the living room behind her. He left, she called the police. Turns out he has been working the neighborhoods for weeks, but most people call after they’ve been scammed.

    “It’s morally wrong to allow a sucker to keep his money.” – W.C. Fields (allegedly)

  27. About six months ago, shortly after I moved into a new house (in a pretty good neighbourhood) a guy knocked on the door and claimed to be a neighbour from three or four doors down.

    He said he’d had to leave his car at a petrol station down the road because he discovered he’d forgotten his wallet after putting in petrol, and could he borrow £15 to cover it.

    I didn’t have any cash in the house (fortunately), so I offered to drive him back to the station and pay on a credit card. He declined, saying he’d ask someone else, and it was only after I’d shut the door and he left that I realised that, of course, it was a con. I reported it the next day.

    I went down to the local police station last week to pick him out of a line-up, and met a couple of other people from the area who’d been stung by the same guy.

    The weird thing is that in retrospect his story didn’t make all that much sense. I think it was the unexpectedness of going from a standing start to having a self-described neighbour bare-faced lie at me on my doorstop; I didn’t really think any of it through properly until after he’d gone.

  28. @37

    “The caller is not trusted or distrusted, or even questioned. The caller slips through the marks defenses because he is bringing the money. The caller is accepted as unquestioned fact”

    ‘accepted as unquestioned fact’ sounds a lot like ‘trusted’ to me

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