Golden-age short-change cons

While some of the techniques laid out in "Tricks of Short Change Artists," from the Oct, 1930 issue of Modern Mechanix may have shifted over the years, the principles remain largely unchanged. I could read about con artists all day long -- I've only been conned once (that I know about), but I still reel with the knowledge that someone managed to pull off a trick that combined conjuring, social engineering, and connivery to separate me from a small-to-mid-sized wad of cash.
Organized short-changing of filling station attendants is becoming common and it is evident that there are a great many artists engaged in this branch of the business. The tricks are many and varied. One favorite is to offer a twenty in payment of a bill. On getting the change, the stranger will count it over and discover that five or ten dollars are missing. The method is to fold over the five or ten and hold it between two fingers underneath another large bill in one hand, while asking the station attendant to count the change in the other hand. This trick has been the means of cheating a great many oil station men. The loss is # seldom discovered until check-up time at night.

Another method of making change appear "short" a bill of any denomination is the use of a clever sleeve attachment. It is merely an elastic running up the coat sleeve; at the end is a spring paper-fastener. The con man merely sends one bill from his change up his sleeve, and the dealer can, of course, see no method of accounting for the loss excepting the most obvious one. that he has made a mistake!

Tricks of Short Change Artists (Oct, 1930)


  1. If you could read about them all day long, and you haven’t read it already, don’t miss the classic “The Big Con” by David Maurer.

    It’s the book that inspired “The Sting”. Maurer spends more time than may be necessary listing the figures of the golden age of the Big Con to establish credibility, but it’s a fascinating look at this subculture. Truly a glimpse of what might be seen as honor among thieves, and at the very least some engaging stories about a mark well played.

    1. A key point in that book is the definition of a con. To a true con artist (artiste?), a con requires that the mark is looking to get something for nothing, and instead gets what he deserves. “Yellow Kid” Weil would probably consider this simple theft.

      1. Exactly, the common assumption is that the con man gains the mark’s confidence, but actually it’s the other way around. The true “Con Man” actually convinces the mark that the mark has gained HIS confidence. The con man is letting him in on a sure thing that is at least a little outside the law. The book explains that the truly successful con leaves the mark feeling like it was some awful bad luck and that if he *just* had another shot like that he wouldn’t blow it… Many long con marks were trimmed more than once.

        The simple, obvious theft nature of these is why any real Con operators looked down on them. It would seem more natural for a true a con artist to run another type of short game (like the tat or matching coins) where and actual inside and outside man are used, and a real con is played.

  2. It is interesting to hear you admit to being conned, Cory. I was conned once that I know of, while working the register at a clothing store. The thief did a good job of confusing me by making multiple requests for change during the transaction, and my manager was wonderful, advising me it was a-ok to just stop any transaction that felt funny and ask for help. I wonder how many other boingers have been conned?

  3. I used to work with a guy that whenever we went out to lunch he’d put in a $20, take out his change. “Realize” that now that he’s broken his twenty that he can pay the exact amount–put in the exact amount and take back his twenty. No matter how many times I explained to him that this didn’t work, he couldn’t understand (and always thought I was somehow duping him).

    1. Hah, it took ME awhile to write that down on a notepad & figure out why. Pretending your bill was $5 and you paid with a $20.

  4. Pretty good scene in a bar with John Cusian try to short change a bar tender with the exact trick they mention: Flashing a larger bill, paying with a smaller one.

    1. You mean John Cusack, in The Grifters?
      The bad side of the short con is that somebody might catch you and that somebody might have a baseball bat…

  5. In my younger days I worked in a convenience store in the hood. Once word got around that a young white guy was running the register I was besieged with petty conmen. It got so that I could predict fairly reliably which ones were gonna try to con me. The most common by far was the attempt to get me to make change for a bill before I had finished the previous transaction. The defense was quite simple: finish out each transaction before starting another, no matter how clear and simple the second one seemed. I never did come up short.

    To this day I’ll occasionally ask a cashier to give me three fives and a ten in place of a twenty or some such. It’s depressing how often that works. (No, I’ve never actually kept the extra five; I do it simply to inoculate them against the technique… and for the lulz.)

    1. That’s exactly how to beat the short change artists. They want to keep you moving and not thinking. I had to deal with this when I worked at a comic book store in downtown Chicago.

      Most of the time, they’d plunk down a dollar item to “purchase” in order to get the ball rolling. Once I got far enough into the con, still keeping my cool and my money, that the con man got frustrated and asked if he could just return what he’d “bought”.

      The next best defense is to just shut the cash drawer with a “sorry – we can’t make change like that”.

  6. Interesting read, but sadly the opening question says it all: “Are the con men, the shills and the short-change artists of the old time circus and carnival deserting the field for the more generous one of big business?”

    Sure, at the time of the writing of the article, and even today, there are people out there making a profession out of conning others. But at least as a society we recognize the con for what it is (even if after the fact). And yet, we continue to put up with all the quasi-legalized cons we’re subjected to in the form of big business, and especially (but certainly not limited to) the financial sector.

    “Here, you can trust me…let me hold that money for you. I promise that if I lose it, I’ll just use the government to make you pay me more so that I can pay you back with it.”

  7. I used to manage a busy liquor store. We hadn’t had any training on this scam but one guy waited around “browsing”until we were super busy and bought something trifling with a big bank roll of $50’s and then complained that I short changed him…
    My solution, which should work almost anywhere, is offer to take his details and if we came up by the amount he described at the end of the shift I would personally get the money back to him. He started wailing like a wet kitten but I managed to stand firm. Then coincidentally the cops showed up to deal with an earlier minor robbery and I watched the guy slither out the front door, leaving a trail of dark sticky mucus, no details given…
    Douchbags who aspire to be in the criminal class should get an actual real job and stop leaching off everyone else, the real “scam” is finding something productive to do with your life…

  8. Apparently when this article was written, all con men dressed like investment bankers. They must have deserted the field for the more generous one of big business, for sure!

    1. No, they dressed like conmen. It’s investment bankers who have adopted their style because even that type needs to be honest about something.

  9. In 1930, a ten dollar bill was close to a week’s pay for a poor person (if he had a job). So this is serious business they’re discussing.

  10. I was conned with a fairly classic move by a shell game operator when I was 12. I never felt so embarrassed as when I walked away $20 lighter.

    The shell game was completely typical: The operator moved the cups around with the ball underneath. The “mark” would frequently guess the cup correctly. When this happened, the mark would reach into their wallet to lay down a bet, and, while he was looking down, the operator would quickly — although fairly openly — switch cups. The mark would lose the money.

    I was standing to the side, watching all this, and shaking my head with incredulity at the stupidity of the marks (who may not have been marks at all, of course…). Another guy stood next to me, and commented on the same thing — “how dumb are those those poor saps?” We both started being a little more vocal, and pointing out when the operator was switching cups.

    Eventually the operator came over to us and told us to get out. The guy at my side says “Hey, I would have bet 20 bucks!” The operator says “fine, I’ll give you both $40 to get out of here and let me work in peace.”

    He hands the guy $40, who walks off, and then takes out $40 to give to me. He stops and says “wait, you were going to bet $20 too?” “Sure” I say. “Lemme see you have $20”

    I take out $20. He takes it from my hand.

    “And which cup did you say it was under?”

    My blood rushed to my face as I realized I had been had.

    I think the telling thing was, as grimc said above, that I felt like I was about to get something for nothing. Here this guy was about to give me $40, just for walking away! It was right there in his hand! I didn’t even think to question when he asked to see if I really did have $10 to “bet.”

  11. I was scammed once while working the register at a convenience store a number of years ago. I forget the exact details but I found the exact same scam called a “count up scam” on the net later (I can’t find the details now). It was three guys working together though I didn’t realize until after. The first guy in the door buys a small item with a twenty and asks for change in ones. Then he wants change for a hundred and keeps changing his mind about what denomination he wants or something like that. All the while the other two guys keep asking questions from the other side of the store to distract me while the 1st guy keeps pulling my arm to the side and recounting out loud. I ended up giving two extra twenties to him before I realize something was not right and he quickly left before I was sure what had happened. After the other two left without buying anything I knew I had been had and ran out the door to try and get the license plate but it was too late. I counted the register and that’s when I really realized I had lost the two twenties.

    Tips I learned from this mistake..
    Always close the register between transactions, even with the same customer. Ignore all outside questions during a transaction. Never let the customer touch you or the register

  12. The Big Con and the recent Nabat/AK Press reissue of “Yellow Kid” Weil’s autobiography are indeed both fascinating reading. One of the key’s of Weil’s success is mentioned early on in his memoir: the criminal courts in Chicago at the time were run essentially as a for-profit business by the judges. If you knew the judge and kept him well-greased, there was no way you would ever be convicted of anything.
    The anecdote that sticks out most for me in The Big Con is the story of the first Dollar Store. IIRC, it was an expansion of the street-vendor con where bars of soap are sold for a large premium (a dollar used to buy a lot of soap), with the promise that some of them contain $50 bills. The Dollar Store expanded this to a bricks-and-mortar operation, but the proprietor soon realized that he could make a decent profit just by selling shoddy goods very cheaply, and went legitimate.
    And that my friends is the story of capitalism.

  13. The one time I realized I was conned was by a limo driver in Las Vegas. I gave the driver $20, said take $7 out of that, and she gave me back $7. She’d driven away before I realised I had paid $13 for a $5 fare.

    Now I always say how much I want back.

  14. I like the comments on the con.

    Capitalism, however is about as far from a con as a religous person is to an atheist. You want a con try socialism-I make the money and you take it cause you want it!!

    1. Even fun stories about petty grifting aren’t free from right wing jibber jabber…

      Anyway, working a register for a number of years in Chicago, you learn quick that you put any big bills on top of the spring clip for the particular denominations part of the tray. You gave me a twenty? Here’s your ten right here on top pal.

  15. Real con men don’t use money, just chutzpah. My favorite is the guy who eats lunch at the bar, then gets up and walks away. The waitress can hardly believe it’s up to her to get the money. “Sir, sir!” she chases, “did you pay?”

    The con turns on his heel, confronts her and says, “No, really, it’s ok. I’ve already bought the flowers for the funeral. You don’t have to worry about it.”

    Anyone following the conversation is now entertaining doubts about what is really going on, which is much easier than confronting and physically restraining a crook. The waitress is reduced nearly to tears, and the older woman she works with tells her to “let it go.”

    True enough. The guy’s five buck lunch is probably not worth a broken nose. Fear enters the equation as he scoots out the door.

  16. I’ve been had a couple times by the wrong change con indirectly.

    Follow with me here.

    I like carrying the smallest amount of change as possible. So if something is $5.99 and I have a ten and some ones, I’ll give $11, so that I can get a 5 back instead of a 4 ones.

    Many cashiers don’t look at the ten, just see two bills, one being a one, and give me a penny. When I say hey, I gave you eleven dollars, you owe me 5! They say “I know that scam buddy!”

    But I was telling the truth! The only consolation I have is the small amount of revenge I get when their register ends up being 5 dollars over and they have that moment of knowing…

Comments are closed.