If the Scam FitsWhether you’re in a casino, at the local pub or just in the wrong place at the wrong time, the art of the con can strike at any time. The Real Hustle’s Paul Wilson and Alexis Conran sound the alarm on our behalf.
Alex: Con artists are experts at understanding what people will do in certain situations. Whether a scam succeeds or not depends not only on the ability of the con artists but the quality of the mark. Finding the right mark for a scam is the job of the ‘roper’. His job is as important as those who will execute the scam. He has to scout around the appropriate social environments and attract the attentions of a suitable victim.
Now, one of the most quoted lines in the hustling world is: “You can't cheat an honest man.” A truly gifted roper can spot larceny in a man after only the briefest interaction. Sometimes he can tell just by looking at someone. How are they dressed? Where are they from? What image are they projecting?
During the filming of The Real Hustle, we’ve had to rope marks plenty of times. Sometimes it has been useful to engineer a minor ‘situation’ in order to see if the mark has the ‘larceny’ gene. Here’s an example. You’re sat at a bar next to a potential mark. Before trying to start a conversation, you order a drink for yourself. Upon receiving your change you wait until the barman is out of earshot, turn to your potential victim and in a neutral tone tell him that the barman gave you change from a £20 instead of a £10. How does the mark react? If he suggests keeping the cash then you might be on to something. If he’s not willing to take part in a little ‘lie’ for a couple of quid then forget trying to squeeze him for more and move on.
Paul: Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, the early-20th-century con man from Chicago, was an expert at tailoring a scam to fit his marks. One of his most ingenious schemes involved a private boxing match where Yellow Kid hoped to win a huge bet against a group of millionaire investors. The only problem was that the Kid needed a backer to cover the bet.
The Kid roped in his mark by explaining that the match was fixed. The mark even met the other boxer who agreed to throw the fight and take a fall in the sixth. The “bet” was actually a sure thing and the mark just couldn’t say no.
Even with the mark completely convinced, Yellow Kid still had to find a way to make sure he walked away without a beef. Yellow Kid’s victim was wealthy, a gambler and unscrupulous but he still valued his reputation and the Kid used each of these qualities against him. The match was held in a private boxing club. The two fighters met each other blows and put on a good show. After three rounds, even though their fighter was looking a little tired, the “millionaires” offered to double the bet and the mark gladly agreed.
By the sixth round, the mark was over the moon and fit to burst. The match was going exactly as planned but, seconds into the round, Yellow Kid’s fighter caught a stray punch and rounded sharply, Blood poured from his mouth and he collapsed. In minutes, he was dead.
The whole thing was a set-up. The millionaires, the boxers, everyone but the mark was in on the scam. Even the doctor was just another con-man who palmed a small balloon into the boxer’s mouth. When he burst it with his teeth, pig’s blood went everywhere.
This is an ingenious scam. Had the Kid’s boxer simply been knocked out, the Mark might have put up a fight or refused to pay. Instead, he ran out the back door more concerned with being arrested than losing his money.
Alex: Most big scams have the ‘sure thing’ element built-in somewhere along the line. Remember the bigger the stakes, the more assurances the mark will require. Also when you are dealing with a mark that has ‘larceny’ and a lot of money, there is a reason they have become like that; they are the suspicious type.
In this case that is exactly what The Kid used against the mark. He offered him no reasons to suspect a thing and at the same time he took any legitimacy from what they were doing. The match was going to be an underground event, this meant that the money had to be cash and there was no going to the police if things went wrong.
There is a brazen ‘cool out’ move, however: when the hustler pacifies the mark after he’s been fleeced. Not only did the mark get hit for more money half way through the scam, but not wanting his reputation to be stained, the millionaires agreed to leave his name out of the “trial” so long as he honours his bet.
Paul: These principles are at the heart of many notorious con games but they apply to scams at every level. Next month we’ll show how Yellow Kid’s methods are being used today to target online gamblers.