Scamming: The Misunderstood Confidence Man
44 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2013 Last revised: 17 Dec 2015
Date Written: August 1, 2015
“Scamming,” also known as the “confidence game” and “swindling,” is the abuse of trust for profit. This type of exploitation is possible because of the willingness of people to place confidence in others, even in strangers. We study the counterintuitive willingness to trust others and its abuse through the story of the original confidence man (“con man”), whose publicity influenced law and literature.
Our study consists of two parts. First, we examine the origins of the terms “confidence game” and “confidence man.” Numerous studies describe the original confidence man as a genius operator. The record, however, shows that he was a clumsy thief and unsophisticated scammer. We argue that the glorification of the original confidence man and his modus operandi largely demonstrates broad misunderstanding of scamming.
Second, we utilize insights from the story of the original confidence man to explain the basic mechanisms of scamming and to explore several techniques that the legal system can use to reduce the social costs of scamming. Finally, we identify the common misunderstanding of the mechanisms of scamming as a persistent deficiency of the legal system that empowers sophisticated and institutional scammers.
Keywords: scamming, confidence man
JEL Classification: K12, K2
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation