Scamming: The Misunderstood Confidence Man
University of Arizona - James E. Rogers College of Law (deceased)
University of Arizona
August 1, 2015
27 Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, (2015, Forthcoming)
Arizona Legal Studies Discussion Paper No. 13-37
Samuel Thompson, the swindler who gave name to confidence men (“con men”) was “a man of genteel appearance,” “ladies’ man,” and gifted with “persuasive powers.” He approached his victims — “perfect strangers” — on the street, engaged them in a short conversation, and then asked them express confidence in him by lending him money or a watch. A few men placed confidence in Thompson and gave him gold watches and money. Thompson became known as the “Confidence Man” for his method and primarily for his signature question: “Have you the confidence in me to trust with me your watch until tomorrow?” His modus operandi was used to reframe swindling as exploitation of trust and define swindling as “confidence game.”
“Scamming,” also known as the “confidence game,” “diddling,” and “swindling,” is the exploitation of predictable imperfect decisions for profit facilitated by persuasion tricks. The practice is as old as the human race, yet still confuses lawmakers, courts, and scholars. We use the story of the Confidence Man to explain some of the core elements of scamming. Specifically, we explain why the abuse of trust in the pursuit of profit is conceptually confusing.
Our study consists of two parts. First, we examine the origins of the terms “confidence game” and “confidence man.” Numerous studies describe Thompson as a genius operator. We argue that this attribution of sophistication illustrates broad misunderstanding of scamming. The record shows that Thompson was a clumsy thief and unsophisticated scammer and that his limitations were useful for illustrative purposes. We identify the reporter who coined of the term and explain the historical context in which the term was introduced. Second, we utilize insights from the story of the Confidence Man and its conceptualization to explain some of the confusing elements of scamming. Specifically, we emphasize (1) the common abuse of trust for profit; (2) the folly of attributing rationality to consumers and scammers; (3) scammers’ use of time to trap people in situations where they are likely to make mistakes; (4) challenges created by institutional scammers; (5) the role of intent and knowledge in scams; and (6) the possibility of using industry standards for scams.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 43
Keywords: scams, confidence man, trust, rationality, industry standards
JEL Classification: K12, K2
Date posted: August 23, 2013 ; Last revised: August 31, 2015
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