Calling A Con: An FBI Panel Discussion Paints a Portrait of a Scammer
Let’s roll back the clock a few years: It’s December 2008. The U.S. economy had been in an unprecedented tailspin for a few months. Major financial institutions had folded, countless jobs went to the chopping block, and holiday retail sales were looking dismal. Citizens on all income levels were in a cold sweat, entirely unsure of what lurked around the corner. Suddenly the next layer was peeled back, revealing the now-iconic face of Bernard Madoff and the distressing details of his eleven-figure ponzi scheme, four decades in the making. A severe crisis now had some alarming psychology factored in, and a whole new set of questions was on the table.
Fast-forward to this past Tuesday when Deborah hosted a WAC panel discussion, witnessed by a roomful of our members and guests at Dorsey & Whitney LLC, which probed and examined the profile of psychopaths and the warning signs of their scams. Taken For a Ride: Con Artists in the Business World and Beyond opened over 50 sets of eyes to the nature of white-collared criminals and their victims. Panelists Barbara Daly and Kathleen Diskin, special agents for the FBI who supervised the squad that arrested Madoff and investigated the depth of his scheme, gave us some surprising insight about the case, and about the new era of psychological research that followed.
Agent Daly mentioned that after the Madoff case broke, an FBI analysis unit was asked to create the profile of a typical con artist. This proved a challenge, as A). a surge in cybercrime and terrorism caused the research to be put on hold, and B). it appears there is no scientific approach to identifying the brain of a con artist. The fact is, we can only study behavior to make such a determination. And unless we educate ourselves about such behavior before we engage with a person, we could be duped financially, emotionally, and most deadly of all….physically.
Agents Daly and Diskin, in a profoundly organized discussion, narrowed down the approach to identifying a con artist through socially practical means. They took us through statistics and listed for us the red flags to keep our senses open to. For starters, it helps to realize that 4 out of 5 con artists who were convicted of their crimes are men. Studies demonstrate that their psychopathic endeavors are the result of personality disorders, which are suffered by 61% of the identified individuals. A common personality trait to be aware of in business cons is narcissism, marked by a sense of superiority, a need for admiration, strong entitlement, reluctance to be a team player, hedonism, cockiness, and a lack of empathy. Many con artists are master manipulators, and exhibit additional psychopathic traits that lend to the con artist’s “mask of sanity” including a lack of clear goals, excessive lying, poor behavioral controls, and absence of remorse. Is Madoff starting to come to mind again?
One way to identify yourself as the victim of a con, as detailed by agent Daly, is if you’ve been assessed, manipulated, and then abandoned, most notably in the workplace. For instance, have you ever been embarrassed by a colleague in front of your boss is such a manner as to have the colleague look squeaky clean, not to mention more valuable than you? That colleague may be a psychopath attempting to cheat their way into a position of leadership at your expense.
Another type of inadvertent victim, as described by agent Diskin, is someone who is carelessly trusting, or just simply ignorant to the threat, particularly in the cyber realm. Identity theft, credit card fraud, foreign sweepstakes, and online dating scams are all threats that are waiting patiently in the wings for the next unsuspecting “sucker”. What’s worse is that a high percentage of their victims are ashamed to report the incident, allowing the scammers to continue their assault. Want to avoid being a “sucker”? Protect your PIN at the checkout line, shred those credit pre-approval letters, close all dormant bank or credit accounts, and skim your credit card statements weekly for small, unauthorized “test purchases” that might soon become doozies.
Deborah and our FBI panelists couldn’t stress strongly enough that we need to trust our instincts when it comes to potentially harmful individuals. More often than not, we can avert a scam just by sensing the deviant warning signs of the scammer. However, if you find yourself already immersed in a con, there are two victim outreach websites that are on your side. www.ftc.gov will allow you to file a complaint with the Consumer Sentinel, and www.IC3.gov is your link to reporting online scams to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Keep an eye out for my follow-up article discussing awareness of the deadly dangers rampant in the self-help industry, as presented by our other Taken For A Ride panelist Ginny Brown, founder of SEEK Safely.