Confidence tricks and scams are difficult to classify, because they keep changing and often contain elements of more than one type. This list should not be considered complete, but covers the most well-known confidence tricks. Throughout this list, the perpetrator of the confidence trick is frequently called a "con artist" or simply "artist", and the intended victim called a "mark".
Get-rich-quick schemes are extremely varied. For example, fake franchises, real estate "sure things", get-rich-quick books, wealth-building seminars, self-help gurus, sure-fire inventions, useless products, chain letters, fortune tellers, quack doctors, miracle pharmaceuticals, Nigerian money scams, charms and talismans are all used to separate the mark from their money. Variations include the pyramid scheme, Ponzi scheme and Matrix sale.
Count Victor Lustig sold the "money-printing machine" which could copy $100 bills. The client, sensing huge profits, would buy the machines for a high price (usually over $30,000). Over the next twelve hours, the machine would produce just two more $100 bills, but after that it produced only blank paper, as its supply of hidden $100 bills would have become exhausted. This type of scheme is also called the "money box" scheme.
Televised infomercial scam: Certain infomercials feature enthusiastic hosts and highlights of satisfied customers' testimony extolling the benefits of get-rich-quick methods such as internet auctioneering, real estate investment and marketing, for-profit toll phone business, classified advertisement and unique products of questionable value requiring active marketing by the paying customers. Infomercials which fall under the aforementioned descriptions are highly likely to be scams devised and engineered to "bamboozle" the unsuspecting viewers for the express purpose of enriching the scheme inventors who produced the infomercials which often grossly exaggerate their claims, in conjunction with the clips of satisfied customers' over-excited testimonies with the superimposed captions of the alleged profits made.
Don Lapre, creator of "Money Making Secrets", "The Ultimate Road to Success", "The Greatest Vitamin in the World" and other schemes, was reported by Internet customer watchdog organizations Ripoff Report, Bad Business Bureau and Quackwatch, plus alternative newspaper publications such as Phoenix New Times as one of the premier confidence artists whose characteristic traits of overly positive attitude and over-enthusiastically cheerful and charismatic personality depend on the gullibility of the infomercial viewers to purchase the essentially useless products to gain substantial sums of profit by deception.
The wire game, as depicted in the movie The Sting, trades on the promise of insider knowledge to beat a gamble, stock trade or other monetary action. In the wire game, a "mob" composed of dozens of grifters simulates a "wire store", i.e., a place where results from horse races are received by telegram and posted on a large board, while also being read aloud by an announcer. The griftee is given secret foreknowledge of the race results minutes before the race is broadcast, and is therefore able to place a sure bet at the wire store. In reality, of course, the con artists who set up the wire store are the providers of the inside information, and the mark eventually is led to place a large bet, thinking it to be a sure win. At this point, some mistake is made, which actually makes the bet a loss. The grifters in The Sting use miscommunication about the race results to simulate a big mistake, and the bet is lost.
Salting or to salt the mine are terms for a scam in which gems or gold ore are planted in a mine or on the landscape, duping the greedy mark into purchasing shares in a worthless or non-existent mining company. During the Gold Rush, scammers would load shotguns with gold dust and shoot into the sides of the mine to give the appearance of a rich ore, thus "salting the mine". For a 19th-century example, see the Diamond hoax of 1872; for a modern example, involving imaginary gold deposits in Borneo, see Bre-X. Popularized in the HBO series Deadwood, when Al Swearingen and E.B. Farnum trick Brom Garret into believing gold is to be found on the claim Swearingen intends to sell him.
The Spanish Prisoner scam – and its modern variant, the advance fee fraud or Nigerian scam – take advantage of the victim’s greed. The basic premise involves enlisting the mark to aid in retrieving some stolen money from its hiding place. The victim sometimes believes they can cheat the con artists out of their money, but anyone trying this has already fallen for the essential con by believing that the money is there to steal (see also Black money scam). Note that the classic Spanish Prisoner trick also contains an element of the romance scam (see below).
Many conmen employ extra tricks to keep the victim from going to the police. A common ploy of investment scammers is to encourage a mark to use money concealed from tax authorities. The mark cannot go to the authorities without revealing that they have committed tax fraud. Many swindles involve a minor element of crime or some other misdeed. The mark is made to think that they will gain money by helping fraudsters get huge sums out of a country (the classic Nigerian scam); hence marks cannot go to the police without revealing that they planned to commit a crime themselves.
In a recent twist on the Nigerian fraud scheme, the mark is told they are helping someone overseas collect debts from corporate clients. Large cheques stolen from businesses are mailed to the mark. These cheques are altered to reflect the mark's name, and the mark is then asked to cash them and transfer all but a percentage of the funds (his commission) to the con artist. The cheques are often completely genuine, except that the "pay to" information has been expertly changed. This exposes the mark not only to enormous debt when the bank reclaims the money from their account, but also to criminal charges for money laundering. A more modern variation is to use laser-printed counterfeit cheques with the proper account numbers and payer information.
Romance fraud, when fraudsters seduce people only to target their money, is an old-fashioned type of fraud. It received high attention in Sweden around 1950 when a man named Gustaf Raskenstam had relationships with more than a hundred lonely women, and had been engaged to many of them, often several at the same time. He was eventually imprisoned for fraud. His contact ads usually had the headline "Sun and spring" ("sol och vår" in Swedish). This type of behaviour has since been called "sol och vårande" in Swedish.
The traditional romance scam has now moved into internet dating sites. The con actively cultivates a romantic relationship which often involves promises of marriage. However, after some time it becomes evident that this Internet "sweetheart" is stuck in his home country, lacking the money to leave the country and thus unable to be united with the mark. The scam then becomes an advance-fee fraud or a check fraud. A wide variety of reasons can be offered for the trickster's lack of cash, but rather than just borrow the money from the victim (advance fee fraud), the con man normally declares that they have checks which the victim can cash on their behalf and remit the money via a non-reversible transfer service to help facilitate the trip (check fraud). Of course, the checks are forged or stolen and the con man never makes the trip: the hapless victim ends up with a large debt and an aching heart. This scam can be seen in the movie Nights of Cabiria.
Goldbricking- Gold brick scams involve selling a tangible item for more than it is worth; named after selling the victim an allegedly golden ingot which turns out to be gold-coated lead.
The 1883 "No Cents" Liberty Head nickel, a scam developed by con artists that electroplated Liberty Head nickels, intending to make storeowners believe that the gold-plated nickel was a $5 coin.
The coin collecting scam is a scam preying on inexperienced collectors. The conman convinces the mark by stating that a high-priced collection is for sale at a lower amount. The coin collector then buys the entire collection, believing it is valuable.
Pig-in-a-poke originated in the late Middle Ages. The con entails a sale of a (suckling) "pig" in a "poke" (bag). The bag ostensibly contains a live healthy little pig, but actually contains a cat (not particularly prized as a source of meat, and at any rate, quite unlikely to grow to be a large hog). If one buys a "pig in a poke" without looking in the bag (a colloquial expression in the English language, meaning "to be a sucker"), the person has bought something of less value than was assumed, and has learned firsthand the lesson caveat emptor. Dutch, German, Scandinavian, Russian and Polish speakers employ the expression "buying a cat-in-the-bag" when someone buys something without examining it beforehand. In Sweden, Finland and Estonia, the "cat" in the phrase is replaced by "pig", referring to the bag's supposed content, but the saying is otherwise identical. This is also said to be where the phrase "letting the cat out of the bag" comes from, although there may be other explanations.
The Thai gem scam involves layers of con men and helpers who tell a tourist in Bangkok of an opportunity to earn money by buying duty-free jewelry and having it shipped back to the tourist's home country. The mark is driven around the city in a tuk-tuk operated by one of the con men, who ensures that the mark meets one helper after another, until the mark is persuaded to buy the jewelry from a store also operated by the swindlers. The gems are real but significantly overpriced. This scam has been operating for 20 years in Bangkok, and is said to be protected by Thai police and politicians. A similar scam usually runs in parallel for custom-made suits. Many tourists are hit by conmen touting both goods.
People shopping for pirated software, illegal pornographic images, bootleg music, drugs, firearms or other forbidden or controlled goods may be legally hindered from reporting swindles to the police. An example is the "big screen TV in back of the truck": the TV is touted as "hot" (stolen), so it will be sold for a very low price. The TV is in fact defective or broken; it may, in fact, not even be a television at all, since some scammers have discovered that a suitably decorated oven door will suffice. The buyer has no legal recourse without admitting to attempted purchase of stolen goods.
In the white van speaker scam, low-quality loudspeakers are sold, stereotypically from a white van, as expensive units that have been greatly discounted. The salesmen explain the ultra-low price in a number of ways; they may, for instance, say that their employer is unaware of having ordered too many speakers, so they are sneakily selling the excess behind the boss's back. The scam may extend to the creation of Web sites for the bogus loudspeaker brand, which usually sounds similar to that of a respected loudspeaker company. The "speakermen" are ready to be haggled down to a seemingly gigantic discount, because the speakers they are selling, while usually technically functional, actually cost only a tiny fraction of their "list price" to manufacture.
The badger game extortion is often perpetrated on married men. The mark is deliberately coerced into a compromising position, a supposed affair for example, then threatened with public exposure of his acts unless blackmail money is paid.
A clip joint or fleshpot is an establishment, usually a strip club or entertainment bar, typically one claiming to offer adult entertainment or bottle service, in which customers are tricked into paying money and receive poor, or no, goods or services in return. Typically, clip joints suggest the possibility of sex, charge excessively high prices for watered-down drinks, then eject customers when they become unwilling or unable to spend more money. The product or service may be illicit, offering the victim no recourse through official or legal channels.
The Melon Drop is a scam in which the scammer will intentionally bump into the mark and drop a package containing (already broken) glass. He will blame the damage on the clumsiness of the mark, and demand money in compensation. This con arose when artists discovered that the Japanese paid large sums of money for watermelons. The scammer would go to a supermarket to buy a cheap watermelon, then bump into a Japanese tourist and set a high price.
Insurance fraud is a scam in which the con artist tricks the mark into damaging, for example, the con artist's car, or injuring the con artist, in a manner that the con artist can later exaggerate. The con artist then fraudulently collects a large sum of money from the mark's insurance policy, despite the con artist having intentionally caused the accident. In countries where the insurance fee is usually tied to a Bonus-Malus rating, the con artist usually offers to avoid an insurance claim, settling instead for a cash compensation. Thus, the con artist is able to evade a professional damage assessment, and get an untraceable payment in exchange for sparing the mark the expenses of a lowered merit class.
Bug in Food Trick/Foreign Object In Food Scam This scam involves a patron ordering food in a restaurant, and then placing a bug or foreign object in the food. The patron complains loudly to the restaurant managers and threatens to sue. Sometimes the patron receives a free meal or additional compensation, or tries to blackmail the restaurant. A notable attempt to perform this scam which failed was when a woman placed a severed finger in a bowl of chili and attempted to extort money from a fast food chain. The scam was also featured in the films Victor/Victoria and Minbo.
Three-card Monte, 'Find The Queen', the "Three-card Trick", or "Follow The Lady", is (except for the props) essentially the same as the centuries-older shell game or thimblerig. The trickster shows three playing cards to the audience, one of which is a queen (the "lady"), then places the cards face-down, shuffles them around and invites the audience to bet on which one is the queen. At first the audience is skeptical, so the shill places a bet and the scammer allows him to win. In one variation of the game, the shill will (apparently surreptitiously) peek at the lady, ensuring that the mark also sees the card. This is sometimes enough to entice the audience to place bets, but the trickster uses sleight of hand to ensure that they always lose, unless the conman decides to let them win, hoping to lure them into betting much more. The mark loses whenever the dealer chooses to make him lose. This con appears in the Eric Garcia novel Matchstick Men and is featured in the movie Edmond.
A variation on this scam exists in Barcelona, Spain, but with the addition of a pickpocket. The dealer and shill behave in an overtly obvious manner, attracting a larger audience. When the pickpocket succeeds in stealing from a member of the audience, he signals the dealer. The dealer then shouts the word "agua", and the three split up. The audience is left believing that "agua" is a code word indicating the police are coming, and that the performance was a failed scam.
In the Football Picks Scam the scammer sends out tip sheet stating a game will go one way to 100 potential victims and the other way to another 100. The next week, the 100 or so who received the correct answer are divided into two groups and fed another pick. This is repeated until a small population have (apparently) received a series of supernaturally perfect picks, then the final pick is offered for sale. Despite being well-known (it was even described completely on an episode of The Simpsons and used by Derren Brown in "The System"), this scam is run almost continuously in different forms by different operators. The sports picks can also be replaced with securities, or any other random process, in an alternative form. This scam has also been called the inverted pyramid scheme, because of the steadily decreasing population of victims at each stage.
Lottery fraud by proxy is a particularly vicious scam, in which the scammer buys a lottery ticket with old winning numbers. He or she then alters the date on the ticket so that it appears to be from the day before, and therefore a winning ticket. He or she then sells the ticket to the mark, claiming it is a winning ticket, but for some reason, he or she is unable to collect the prize (not eligible, etc.). The particular cruelty in this scam is that if the mark attempts to collect the prize, the fraudulently altered ticket will be discovered and the mark held criminally liable. This con was featured in the movie Matchstick Men, where Nicolas Cage teaches it to his daughter. A twist on the con was shown in Great Teacher Onizuka, where the more than gullible Onizuka was tricked into getting a "winning ticket". The ticket wasn't altered, instead the daily newspaper reporting the day's winning numbers was rewritten with a black pen.
Visitors to Las Vegas or other gambling towns often encounter the Barred Winner scam, a form of advance fee fraud performed in person. The artist will approach his mark outside a casino with a stack or bag of high-value casino chips and say that he just won big, but the casino accused him of cheating and threw him out without letting him redeem the chips. The artist asks the mark to go in and cash the chips for him. The artist will often offer a percentage of the winnings to the mark for his trouble. But, when the mark agrees, the artist feigns suspicion and asks the mark to put up something of value "for insurance". The mark agrees, hands over jewelry, a credit card or their wallet, then goes in to cash the chips. When the mark arrives at the cashier, they are informed the chips are fake. The artist, by this time, is long gone with the mark's valuables.
The glim-dropper requires several accomplices, one of whom must be a one-eyed man. One grifter goes into a store and pretends he has lost his glass eye. Everyone looks around, but the eye cannot be found. He declares that he will pay a thousand-dollar reward for the return of his eye, leaving contact information. The next day, an accomplice enters the store and pretends to find the eye. The storekeeper (the intended griftee), thinking of the reward, offers to take it and return it to its owner. The finder insists he will return it himself, and demands the owner’s address. Thinking he will lose all chance of the reward, the storekeeper offers a hundred dollars for the eye. The finder bargains him up to $250, and departs. The one-eyed man, of course, can not be found and does not return. (Described in A Cool Million, or, The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin (1934) by Nathanael West). Variants of this con have been used in movies such as The Traveller (1997), Shade (2003), and Zombieland (2009).
The fiddle game uses the pigeon drop technique. A pair of con men work together, one going into an expensive restaurant in shabby clothes, eating, and claiming to have left his wallet at home, which is nearby. As collateral, the con man leaves his only worldly possession, the violin that provides his livelihood. After he leaves, the second con man swoops in, offers an outrageously large amount (for example $50,000) for such a rare instrument, then looks at his watch and runs off to an appointment, leaving his card for the mark to call him when the fiddle-owner returns. The mark's greed comes into play when the "poor man" comes back, having gotten the money to pay for his meal and redeem his violin. The mark, thinking he has an offer on the table, then buys the violin from the fiddle player (who "reluctantly" sells it eventually for, say, $5,000). The result is the two conmen are $5,000 richer (less the cost of the violin), and the mark is left with a cheap instrument. (This trick is also detailed in the Neil Gaiman novel American Gods and is the basis for The Streets' song "Can't Con an Honest John".) It was also shown in an episode of Steptoe and Son in which Harold has a comode which he has purchased on his rounds (from a house wife). A passing antiques dealer sees the item and offers a large amount of money, but will return the next day. Mean time the husband of the wife from whom Harold bought the comode demands that Harold sells it back to him, instead Harold offers the man an amont of money to keep the comode believing that he can sell it to the dealer later that day.
The fake reward involves getting the mark to believe he has won some prizes after being randomly chosen. He is then required to get to a specific location to 'collect his prizes'. Once there, he is told that he only has to sign some papers to receive the rewards. These papers can range from agreeing to financial fraud or signing up of memberships.
Phishing is a modern scam in which the artist communicates with the mark, masquerading as a representative of an official organization which the mark is doing business with, in order to extract personal information which can then be used, for example, to steal money. In a typical instance of phishing, the artist sends the mark an email pretending to be from a company (such as eBay). This email is formatted exactly like email from that business, and will ask the mark to "verify" some personal information at their website, to which a link is provided. The website itself is also fake but designed to look exactly like the business' website. The site will contain an HTML form asking for personal information such as credit card numbers. The mark will feel compelled to give this information because of words in the email or the site stating that they require the information again, for example to "reactivate your account". When the mark submits the form (not checking the URL), the information is sent to the swindler.
The target is sold a pirated version of a commercial software package. For example, Microsoft Windows 7. When the user installs the altered software on his computer the software also installs a Trojan program that send confidential information like credit card numbers to a remote site.